The novel with which Romain Rolland established his fame, a work translated into numerous languages, was Jean-Christophe. Its inception dates at least to 1890—to the years in Rome and the friendship with Malvida von Meysenbug. She had, he insisted, “created” him, and he honored her memory in two of the novel’s characters. With her, he also shared a veneration of Beethoven, on whom, according to Rolland, the protagonist is modeled. The hero, a great German musician, is forced by circumstance to live outside Germany in Paris, Italy, and Switzerland, and his experiences and perspectives are recounted and analyzed.
While Romain Rolland admits that the protagonist is not the historical Beethoven but a Beethoven of Rolland’s own times, he also refers to the novel as the “history of my soul transposed into one greater than I.” It is true that the parallels between Beethoven and Jean-Christophe are quickly exhausted and that many of Jean-Christophe’s experiences and characteristics have their foundation in those of Rolland himself. Just as the novel’s hero crosses the Rhine River, transcending in a symbolic gesture the boundaries between Germany and France, so Rolland attempted to overcome geographical and political barriers by uniting the intellectual elite of Europe’s nations. The fifth book of Jean-Christophe, La Foire sur la place, not only shows Rolland’s talents of critical evaluation but also is strongly reminiscent of his initial impression of Paris. Jean-Christophe finds the cultural life, particularly the world of theater and music, superficial and governed by the principles of economics; its representatives are without idealism, talent, or proficiency and merely court fame and money. Above the noise and the luxury, there is an all-pervasive smell of death and decay.
This, however, is only one side of France. Jean-Christophe finds the “real” France in his encounter with the “real” artist Olivier and his sister, Antoinette. The distinction between what is the apparent and what is the true face of a nation is evident in his communication with European intellectuals from his early correspondence into the times of war: Germans per se are not the enemies of France; rather, the enemies are the nationalistic and corrupt elements in the German political hierarchy. The title of the fourth book, La Révolte, could accurately describe the action of the first nine. Jean-Christophe’s mystical experience in book 9, Le Buisson ardent, where he claims defeat but is strengthened and encouraged by an indefinable but possibly divine being, is the upbeat prelude to the prophetic tenth book, La Nouvelle Journée. Conflict is eternal; thus, the river’s mysterious voices echo Jean-Christophe’s hope of resurrection in the death scene and praise the “divine union” of love and hate, life and death.
Sigmund Freud, whom Rolland visited in Vienna in 1924, was intrigued by the water symbolism Rolland used in many of his works. In Rolland’s personal symbolism, the river and the ocean are not merely conventional figures for the passage of life or the venture into eternity and death; they express the origin of religious energy. Others of the four elements of ancient philosophy (earth, air, fire, water) are also used frequently for dramatic value and symbolic interest. The storm or thunderstorm reveals to Jean-Christophe the nature of God in the third book, L’Adolescent, but it is an equally important and powerful motif in Beethoven, The Life of Michelangelo, and Tolstoy. Fire in the forest becomes a symbol in the tenth book of Jean-Christophe for the political chaos and destruction threatening Europe from all sides. Mystical experiences and visions clarify the path the protagonist is to take, as Rolland himself was guided by such phenomena. Finally, the motif of conflict and strife—central to Jean-Christophe—is apparent in almost every other work by Rolland. Rolland’s protagonists are characteristically vanquished victors, suffering martyrs with a mission. Whether they preach the gospel of religious conviction or belief in that primal creative power many associate with God (Saint Louis, Jean-Christophe), the power of art (Beethoven, The Life of Michelangelo), or the doctrines of freedom, justice, and peace (The Soul Enchanted, Clerambault, Pierre and Luce), Rolland’s heroes are aggressive spirits whose intellectual stamina overcomes their physical frailty. They single-handedly lead the fight against the world’s iniquity and broadcast their message with the example of their death. To that extent, much of Rolland’s fiction is didactic....
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