Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Jean-Christophe, Volume 2: The Marketplace, Antoinette, The House by Romain Rolland

Heavy on cultural criticism, light on plot
Jean-Christophe is the title of a series of ten novels written by French author Romain Rolland, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. Originally published from 1904 to 1912, the ten books chronicle the life of fictional musician and composer Jean-Christophe Krafft. Upon translation into English, these ten novels were consolidated into three volumes published from 1911 to 1913. The second volume includes the fifth, sixth, and seventh novels in the series, respectively titled The Marketplace, Antoinette, and The House. This second volume is also known by the title of Jean-Christophe in Paris because the German-born character has emigrated to France and spends most of these three novels in that nation’s capital city.

At the end of the fourth novel, Revolt, Christophe (as he is most frequently called) fled Germany to avoid legal troubles. At the beginning of The Marketplace, he finds himself in Paris with hardly a penny to his name and only a couple acquaintances in town that he can call on for assistance. He tries to pursue a career in music but is thwarted in his efforts by shallow, self-serving critics who fail to understand his art. Every hero must undergo arduous trials before achieving success, and The Marketplace is the novel in which Christophe undergoes maximum martyrdom. In the four novels of Volume 1, it was evident that Rolland chose a German protagonist as a means to criticize German arts, politics, and culture. When Christophe comes to Paris in Volume 2, however, Rolland points his finger inwards and criticizes France, scrutinizing and censuring every aspect of his homeland’s way of life. In The Marketplace, much of Rolland’s critical analysis is leveled at music, to the degree that anyone without a master’s degree in classical music is likely to understand the totality of his argument.

The sixth novel, Antoinette, is a horse of a surprisingly different color and really a refreshing intermission in the series. Christophe is barely mentioned in this book. Instead, Rolland focuses on the saga of the Jeannins, a family that will play an important part in Christophe’s life. Rolland’s writing here is more naturalistic in tone, calling to mind the novels of Zola or Flaubert. Antoinette, the novel, is far more engaging and moving than the other two books included in Volume 2, perhaps because Antoinette Jeannin, the character, is a more sympathetic protagonist than Christophe himself.

With The House, Rolland returns to cultural criticism. Christophe moves into an apartment building where the tenants represent different classes and ideologies within French society. As he gets to know his neighbors, he learns more about the French mindset and values. Again, most of the criticism is negative, but here the subject matter is less about music and more about politics, war, and just the general French character. The most important development in Christophe’s life is that he now has a roommate and best friend, Olivier Jeannin. Rolland uses the pairing to contrast the two individuals as representations of the German and French national spirits. The two share a bond that for all intents and purposes appears to be a gay partnership, except Rolland shies away from that by occasionally having one of them pursue a woman. If the relationship is merely friendship, the intensity with which it is portrayed is unrealistic, at least for twentieth-century adults.

Having read seven-tenths of Jean-Christophe, I’m assuming the arc of the novel is about the title character’s maturation and self-discovery. The problem is, so far Christophe still comes across as kind of a childish jerk—a self-centered, arrogant man who blusteringly stumbles through social interactions like a bull in a china shop. I’m hoping in Volume 3 he finally grows up.

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