Roger Martin du Gard (mahr-tan dew gahr) achieved his reputation as a novelist with the publication of Jean Barois in 1913. After World War I, during which he served in the motor transport division, he undertook his magnum opus, The Thibaults, the first volumes of which came out in the early 1920’s and the eighth and last, called simply Épilogue, in 1940. In recognition of his performance in this cyclical work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937.
Martin du Gard was born in 1881 into an established, well-to-do Catholic family of lawyers and magistrates. He made this same bourgeois class the subject of his novels, and even though his theme is revolt and disintegration, he seems to have inherited from his background the qualities for which he is most often praised: integrity, solidity, and sense. He was educated at the best schools in Paris, and in 1906 he received from the École de Chartres the advanced degree of archivist-paleographer.
His scholarly temperament is evident in his fiction; his friend André Gide remarked that Martin du Gard was interested in general laws of behavior rather than in exceptional cases and that he envied him his obstinate patience in pursuing his goal. In his Nobel Prize speech Martin du Gard referred to himself as an “investigator as objective as is humanly possible.” In his fiction he strives for and achieves an almost photographic fidelity, especially notable in his dialogue, and the virtual elimination of a personal style.
His work in many ways invites comparison with the scientific naturalistic novel of the late nineteenth century, except that Martin du Gard is less committed to a thesis than Émile Zola, for example, and more interested in family situations and the ideological and psychological conflicts in the minds of his characters than in the broad economic organization of society. His work would perhaps be more comparable to the Edwardian family saga except for its rigidly analytic and unsentimental tone. Jean Barois describes a young man torn between the religious view of life which was implanted in him and the scientific view to which he is drawn.
The problem is carried further in The World of the Thibaults, which presents a full portrait of a French family (and a large segment of French society besides) between the years 1903 and 1914: the father, successful, autocratic, moralistic, insensitive, and his two sons who try but ultimately fail to come to terms with their powerful bourgeois indoctrination. Antoine, the elder, compromises; he tries to save what he can of the old values and becomes a doctor. The younger, Jacques, sets himself in complete revolt as a writer and a socialist. Gide commented that Martin du Gard put most of himself into Antoine and implied that his interest in Jacques was part of the author’s “extraordinary and anxious desire to acquire certain qualities that are quite opposed to his nature, mystery, shadow and strangeness.” It is Antoine who debates his position with an old abbé because he cannot rationalize the contradictions in his nature to his satisfaction. The author withholds judgment in this struggle.
Martin du Gard was also a successful playwright. Two farces, Le Testament du père Leleu and La Gonfle, which are excellent descriptions of peasant mentality and language, were produced for Jacques Copeau at the Vieux Colombier. A third play, Un Taciturne, deals impartially (as do The Postman and several other lesser works) with sexual fetishes.
During World War I, as he had done during most of his life, Martin du Gard lived quietly, for the most part in the country, indifferent to interviews, public appearances, or polemics. In 1951 he published some brief recollections of Gide.
Roger Martin du Gard was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a town near Paris, on March 23, 1881. Both of his parents were of the upper middle class. Although he benefited from that circumstance and lived all of his life in material comfort without having to work for it, he did realize the weakness of the ethical foundation of his class and sought to bring about social and economic change.
Because of his discreet way of life and because most of his private papers remain unpublished and unavailable to scholars, much is left unknown about Martin du Gard. He grew up in Paris, where he attended the École Fénelon, a private Catholic school, and later Condorcet, one of the better Parisian lycées. While still a child, he was fascinated with literature and felt the urge to write. At Fénelon, his adviser, the Abbé Hébert, gave him Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869) to read. Martin du Gard always acknowledged the great impact Tolstoy’s masterpiece had on his concept of the novel and his understanding of the place of history in fiction. Hébert, a Modernist priest, also had a considerable influence on Martin du Gard’s spiritual evolution.
After taking his baccalauréat degrees, Martin du Gard enrolled at the École des Chartes at the Sorbonne. There, he studied historiography and paleography. This experience taught him the importance of history and documentation as well as a sense of discipline in writing, which was to serve him in good stead throughout his career.
In 1906, Martin du Gard married Hélène Foucault, the daughter of a wealthy Parisian lawyer. In spite of the similarity of their backgrounds, his agnosticism, which began in adolescence, and her continued adherence to her Catholic faith caused a deepening rift between them. Shortly after his marriage, he traveled with Foucault in North Africa and began his writing career. He abandoned his first work, “Une Vie de Saint” (a saint’s life), after having written two volumes of it. In 1908, he wrote rapidly and published his first novel, Devenir! It received some favorable critical attention, although even the author later recognized its weaknesses. Martin du Gard next worked on a novel titled Marise, which was to encompass the entire life of a woman. This project was also abandoned. He wrote his first major work, Jean Barois, between 1910 and 1913. Martin du Gard had also the good fortune of publishing it in La Nouvelle Revue française, which introduced him to André Gide’s circle. This group was to include most of the major writers of the rising generation.
Jacques Copeau, a member of this group, soon drew Martin du Gard into his theatrical venture, the foundation of the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. Martin du Gard, who from the beginning of his career had shown a predilection for dialogue, became fascinated by the theater and wrote his first play, Le Testament du père Leleu, in 1914. During the war, which he spent in the service, and a year after, he remained keenly interested in theater, imagining a new kind of theater: “la Comédie des Tréteaux.” In 1920, he left Copeau’s group and began his masterpiece, The World of the Thibaults, which occupied him for almost two decades. During this period, he attended the Décades de Pontigny, yearly gatherings of artists and intellectuals. After the death of his parents, he moved to a new property, Le Tertre, in Normandy. In 1931, he had a serious automobile accident that caused him to modify the plan of The World of the Thibaults. It began to appear in 1922, and the last volume, Épilogue, was published in 1940. Martin du Gard also wrote two more plays, La Gonfle and Un Taciturne; a short story, Confidence africaine; and Vieille France, a volume of sketches of country life thinly connected by the activities of a character. In 1937, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Shortly after receiving that honor, he took a cruise with his wife to the Caribbean, at the end of which he spent three weeks in the United States.
During the Occupation of France, Martin du Gard lived in Nice. After the war, he continued to spend winters on the French Riviera and summers in Normandy. His wife died in 1949. Between 1940 and his death in 1958, his only new work to be published was a selection from his journal, titled Recollections of André Gide. His last work, “Souvenirs du Colonel de Maumort,” begun in 1941 and left unfinished at his death, was donated along with his personal papers to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where they were earlier kept under seal. Some of them were made available to scholars by 1983. The work was published in French as Le Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort and in English as Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort.