Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Pierre and Luce by Romain Rolland

Love in the face of war
Pierre and Luce is the story of two young lovers in Paris during World War I. Published in 1920, it was written by French author Romain Rolland, who won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel begins in January of 1918. Pierre, an 18-year-old Parisian, is scheduled to enter military service in six months, but despite the atmosphere of fervent patriotism that runs rampant during wartime, he is by no means enthusiastic about his impending entry into the French Army. He spots pretty young Luce on a train, and the two are brought together at the next station when they hold hands during a German bombing raid. Over the course of the book, the two get to know each other and fall in love, while ever the threat of war and Pierre’s future departure looms over them.

There is no combat depicted in novel, and only the briefest mention of air raids. Rather than focus on physical destruction or wartime hardships, Rolland concentrates primarily on the psychological effects of the war. Pierre and Luce are depicted as members of a lost generation who are disillusioned with the governing powers of the world and the false promises of nationalism. Their lives are out of their control, they no longer feel the freedom to dream, and they don’t plan for the future because they (at least Pierre) feel that they will have none. Nevertheless, Pierre and Luce manage to build a strong love in the face of this adversity. Throughout the book, Rolland expertly crafts a narrative that walks a delicate line between hope and hopelessness.

Further stacking the cards against them, Pierre and Luce are of two different social classes. The son of a judge, Pierre is firmly situated within the bourgeoisie while Luce is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She makes her living by painting decorative copies of masterpieces, while her widowed mother labors in a munitions factory. Pierre has lived a sheltered life in which he has had no experience with the lower classes, and through getting to know Luce his eyes are opened to a whole new awareness of the lives of others. Though neither puts any stock in the restrictive system of social stratification, they both realize that Pierre’s family and social station would prohibit their marriage. What difference does it make, however, when Pierre will likely be marching off to his death in a few months? In that sense, war is the great leveler of class and serves as a unifying force between the two. Rolland does a great job of examining all the subtle implications of this class disparity, as well as supplying supporting characters who briefly demonstrate a shallowness and conformity in French society that contrasts with the genuineness of the lovers’ bond.

While Rolland’s depictions of war, class, and their effects on society and the human psyche are admirably realistic, the two young lovers are a bit too innocent to be believed. Pierre and Luce share a very idealized and idyllic love in the midst of the woes of the modern world. It’s almost as if Rolland is making a leap from romanticism to modernism while skipping over realism entirely. The over-romantic passages might prove annoying if it weren’t for the book’s brevity. To its credit, Pierre and Luce does not overstay its welcome. Compared to depictions of the World War I experience in other classic novels, Pierre and Luce is neither as bogged down in navel-gazing sensitivity as John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, nor as stoically deadpan as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The tone of Rolland’s novel falls somewhere squarely between the two, and ends up being a more satisfying read than both.

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