Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Jean-Christophe, Volume 1: Dawn, Morning, Youth, Revolt by Romain Rolland

The first four stages of a musician’s life
French novelist, playwright, and essayist Romain Rolland won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. This was due in no small part to his recently completed magnum opus Jean-Christophe, a series of ten novels published from 1904 to 1912. In the Jean-Christophe cycle, Rolland charts the cradle-to-grave trajectory of one character, a German-born musical prodigy named Jean-Christophe Krafft. When translated into English, these ten novels were published as a three-volume edition by Henry Holt and Company. The English-language Volume 1, published in 1911, contains the first four of Rolland’s Jean-Christophe novels: Dawn, Morning, Youth, and Revolt.

Christophe is born in a small unnamed German town on the Rhine. He comes from a long line of musicians. His grandfather and father are both professional players in the local symphony, though the elder is semi-retired and the father is an alcoholic has-been. When it is discovered at a young age that Christophe is a prodigy at the piano, he is groomed to follow the family profession, often through abusive methods. Despite his terrible childhood, Christophe does love music, and he achieves a level of virtuosity that exceeds his forbearers. As a child prodigy, Christophe enjoys the patronage of the Grand Duke and is often called to the castle to play his compositions.

Why would a French author choose to set his epic work in Germany? Rolland uses the setting to pontificate upon the “German soul,” to contrast the German and French natures, and to level a fair amount of criticism at Germany and its culture. Despite Rolland’s erudition, his broad generalizations on such topics often come across as nationalistic stereotypes, not only of Germany but also of France. In the process of Christophe’s musical development, Rolland manages to talk trash about the entire history of German classical music, accusing everyone from Beethoven to Brahms to Wagner of composing childish lies built upon false idealism.

Rolland could be considered the last of the great romanticists. Though he wrote at a time when European literature was well on its way into modernism, Rolland was still a holdout for the literary ideals of 19th century romanticism. That is evident in the plot of Jean-Christophe, which features an individualist protagonist who suffers repeated persecution and intense emotional angst in his struggle for self-fulfillment. Like his good friend Hermann Hesse, however, Rolland’s depictions of human nature are informed by modern psychological science, which results in characters more grounded in realism than those of traditional romanticists like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Victor Hugo. The vivid precision with which Rolland describes the natural environment, social conditions, and human psychology in Jean-Christophe often borders on naturalism.

Nevertheless, Rolland does occasionally lapse into maudlin territory. In Morning, for example, Christophe forms his first male friendship. The day after meeting this new pal, Christophe is writing letters to the guy saying “My soul . . . I love you.” Such effusive expressions of bromance are an unrealistic throwback to the 18th century days of Goethe. Christophe’s relationships with women, however, are much more grounded in 20th century realism. At times, Rolland concentrates so much on his hero’s love life that Christophe’s musical career is almost entirely forgotten. There are also large portions of the book in which Christophe comes across as a conceited jerk, making him difficult to root for, but he does grow as a human being and shows promise of redemption. Despite a few imperfections, Jean-Christophe is a monumental work of literature, and Rolland’s writing is exceptional. He crafts Christophe’s life with such fullness and intricacy that the reader can’t help but follow this narrative through to its end.
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