Heartwood 2:6 – Referential Reading: Romain Rolland

Books lead to other books, as any avid reader knows. Some more so than others. In  EPL’s first “Everett Reads” program, back in 2004, we read Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Given that the title alludes to another writer, it might not surprise you to learn that a suitcase filled with Western classics plays a key part in this novel set in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution. I didn’t care for the book all that much, but I took note of one referenced author in particular who I was unfamiliar with at the time: Romain Rolland. I remember checking the library catalog and being pleased to see we had a few of his books, including the Jean-Christophe series, and I had always meant to take a look inside them, but eventually I kind of forgot about Romain Rolland.

So, recently, eight years later, I was reading another book by an author who’d been brought to my attention via a different novel (this referential path is described here). I have to say, I’m glad to have followed through this time because Roger Martin du Gard’s Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort is one of the most deeply satisfying novels I’ve read in the past few years. This book too is filled with literary references and the publisher’s blurb is not exaggerating when it draws a comparison between three of those mentioned: Tolstoy, Proust and Montaigne. I could rave on, but for the purpose of this blog post I want to limit my focus to a section of letters that appear near the back of the book.

These letters that Maumort is writing are inspired by his rereading of – you guessed it – Romain Rolland, whose words propel Maumort into an impassioned, eloquent description of France at the end of the Nazi occupation (and it strikes me as an accurate description of modern-day America as well). Maumort asks his friend:

…is it possible today to accept without protest the world that these last ten years have made for us? The general disarray, the disorder of minds are blatant; all judgments are skewed: those of men in the street and men of state alike… In every domain, spiritual virtues are in decline, weakened, unappreciated: and yet never have they been more indispensable for holding in check those evil forces – violence, money – which triumph openly and divert mankind not only from a considered effort to recover its balance, but also from a valid concept of the future.

Maumort – an unbeliever, it should be noted – goes on:

Just look at what is happening here. In our France, still smarting from its wounds, impoverished to the point of destitution, starving, looted, reeling with humiliations that are not washed away in a day, do you make out, anywhere, signs of that moral greatness, that strength of soul, that patient and courageous wish for salvation which we must have if we want to rise out of our present chaos? And how many countries in the world, how many ruined, terrorized, enslaved populations lie even lower than us?

In a time of madness and fanaticism, he sees a desperate need for guides, “prophets,” “great mediators;” figures such as Emerson, Erasmus – or Rolland. But Rolland has just recently died, and Maumort asks:

Who will arise in his place to defend and save the fundamental – and seriously endangered – values of that spiritual civilization for which, during half a century, he so steadfastly fought?

Alas, Maumort does not sees any forceful figure rising to defend human conscience and independent thought, and he is afraid that, for many people, these fragile values are “considered outdated and harmful.”

Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort explores in great detail, and with terrific dexterity, the multidimensional life of the protagonist, his surroundings and society. The passages quoted above are not meant to represent the novel as a whole, in which politics is treated as only one of the many factors in the narrator’s life. I focus on them here because Rolland’s words so profoundly trigger Maumort’s considerations of the political situation, of civilization in crisis.

These passages also caused me, in the midst of writing this post, to go to the stacks and pull Dai Sijie’s book in order to refresh my hazy memory of its references to Romain Rolland. Here is the narrator, having just discovered Jean-Christophe:

I had intended only a brief flirtation, a skim read, but once I had opened the book I couldn’t put it down… Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual. Up until this stolen encounter with Romain Rolland’s hero, my poor educated and re-educated brain had been incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world. The flirtation turned into a grand passion. Even the excessively emphatic style occasionally indulged in by the author did not detract from the beauty of this astonishing work of art. I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.

Extremely high praise – I see again why, after reading Balzac, I’d always meant to read Jean-Christophe. So these 1,500 pages are back on my radar.

But for now, being so recently wowed by Martin du Gard’s complex character, I am reading the book Maumort refers to in his letters: Rolland’s 1915 nonfiction collection, Above the Battle, written in the midst of the first World War. These are brave and discerning pieces that take on imperialism and despotism while calling for reason, moral truth, justice and fraternity. I will end this post with words from its Introduction which Maumort quotes in a letter:

A great nation beset by war has not only its frontiers to defend, but also its reason. It must be saved from the hallucinations, the injustices, the stupidities unleashed by the scourge. To each his duty: to the armies that of  guarding the soil of the homeland; to the intellectuals, that of defending thought… Someday, history will make a reckoning of each of the countries at war; it will weigh up the sum of their errors, lies, and hate-filled madness. Let us strive to make sure that in its eyes, ours will be slight.


It is perhaps unsurprising to find Martin du Gard emphasizing the writer Romain Rolland. Both were French authors who wrote epic, multi-volume, Nobel prize-winning roman fleuves. Rolland won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1915, and Martin du Gard in 1937.

Heartwood 2:4 – on Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort is here

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Heartwood 2:4 – Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort

Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort
by Roger Martin du Gard  (1881-1958)
777 pgs. Alfred Knopf, 2000.
Originally published, 1983.  Trans. by Luc Brébion and Timothy Crouse, 2000.

A month or two after I’d read Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which I wrote up last year, I was browsing in the fiction collection and came upon this book by Roger Martin du Gard, and I remembered that Cortázar had dropped his name (though Hopscotch was published twenty years before this particular novel came out). I am often skeptical of book jacket praise, but I was pretty well floored by what this one had to say, and I quickly added the title to my TBR list. Though I still haven’t got to it yet, I thought I’d pull the book forward on the shelf, so to speak, by sharing some of the jacket copy for any interested readers who also may have overlooked Martin du Gard:

            Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort is Roger Martin du Gard’s magnum opus, the crowning achievement of a career that included the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937.
Written over the final eighteen years of his life and intended to be read only posthumously, this tremendous creation sprang from the writer’s unflinching examination of the conundrum of our moral ambivalence: why, knowing what is right, do people do wrong? Martin du Gard’s complex response constitutes one of the most devastating critiques of human behavior ever produced.
The author casts his reflections in the form of a memoir written by Bertrand de Maumort, an aristocrat, a soldier, an intellectual – ostensibly the very flower of European culture at its zenith. Born in 1870, Maumort grows up in a château where a series of enlightened tutors tend to his education. Later, while preparing to enter the French military academy, he lives with his Uncle Éric, a powerful academic whose Sunday at-homes attract such luminaries as Renan, Turgenev, Daudet, and Pasteur. Keenly aware of his advantages, Maumort aspires to self-knowledge and a transcendent objectivity in his relations with the world. But as he describes his progress through life … he unwittingly betrays an underside: his prejudices, self-deceptions, and moral lapses. Through his portrayal of Maumort and a fascinating array of secondary characters, Martin du Gard dissects mankind in general, and calls into question whether true civilization, much less human progress, exists at all. The result is a work of extraordinary honesty, combining the sweep of his acknowledged master Tolstoy, the penetrating analysis of Proust, and the speculative profundity of Montaigne.

In preparing this post, I also applied the page 99 test to the book and found the narrator’s detailed description of his Uncle Éric did indeed strike me as Proustian, with its keen, apparently first-impression remembrance of his uncle’s appearance and character.  OK, this one just got kicked a little closer to the top of the list.

[Update: May 23, 2012 – for more on this book, see Heartwood 2:6]