Romain Rolland Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Romain Edmé Paul-Émile Rolland (raw-lahn), Nobel Prize-winning novelist, biographer, and playwright, is known primarily as the author of Jean-Christophe, the ten-volume story of a German musician living in France—symbolic of a union of European culture. Rolland was born on January 29, 1866, in Clamecy, France, the son of a notary. His mother was religious and a lover of music. As a boy, Rolland experienced poor health, but he amused himself with music and reading, becoming an admirer of William Shakespeare.

He attended the college in Clamecy until he was fourteen and then continued his education at the schools St. Louis and Louis-le-grand in Paris. In 1886 he entered the École Normale Supérieure, at that time distinguished by its faculty and its scientists in residence, among them Louis Pasteur. Rolland specialized in history with Gabriel Monod. During that period he began to make the acquaintance of distinguished writers and critics, including Ernest Renan, one of the most eminent of French historians, and Leo Tolstoy. Rolland wrote to Tolstoy because he was depressed by the materialistic life around him and wanted to discuss the matter. He was also interested in Tolstoy’s aesthetic theories.

In 1889 Rolland received his bachelor’s degree and went on to the École Française d’Archeologie et d’Histoire in Rome, where he studied history and archaeology. During the next two years he studied, traveled in Italy and Sicily, and formed a close friendship with the aging author Malvida von Meysenburg.

Rolland then returned to Paris and married Marie Bréal, daughter of Michel Bréal, the philologist. Rolland’s doctorate was granted in 1895; his thesis was on the origins of European opera. His first published drama, succeeding a considerable number of unpublished dramas on the Italian Renaissance period, was Saint Louis. While teaching at the École Normale Supérieure he became a friend of Richard Strauss, Gabriele d’Annunzio, and Eleonora Duse. In 1898 he wrote an important play, The Wolves, which had as its subject the Dreyfus affair. Soon afterward his friend Charles Péguy founded a fortnightly publication titled Cahiers de la Quinzaine, in which, from 1900 on, Rolland published most of his important work, including Jean-Christophe.

Jean-Christophe established Rolland’s reputation in the literary world; in it he used his hero as a device for the criticism of the materialistic emphasis in France, and the dramatic values of the work made poignant the telling analysis of contemporary culture. Upon completion of the novel, Rolland was awarded the Grand Prize in Literature by the French Academy (1913), and two years later he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, after a recommendation by Anatole France for the French Academy.

In the meantime he suffered extreme criticism from France for the pacifist articles he wrote from Switzerland during World War I. While in Switzerland, he worked for the Red Cross and argued for peace by writing a series of careful apologetic articles. These were published as Above the Battle in 1915. His courageous and reasoned defense of his position against war later won for him praise from many of France’s outstanding intellectuals. After the war he spent two years in Paris. He then returned to Switzerland with his father and sister to live at Villeneuve, where he resided until 1938. While there he commenced an intensive study of India and made the friendship of Mahatma Gandhi, subject of a biography he published in 1924 (though Rolland never entirely accepted Gandhi’s philosophy).

His next important novel was the seven-volume The Soul Enchanted. Although this novel enhanced Rolland’s reputation, it did not eclipse the standing of Jean-Christophe as the novelist’s masterpiece. Over a period of years Rolland advocated a people’s theater, and in defense of his humanitarian philosophy he wrote a series of plays on themes of revolutionary heroism. From 1900 to 1939 he wrote eight of a projected cycle...

(The entire section is 1,948 words.)