by Romain Rolland
“Les rythmes et les accords, dans l’univers des âmes, voilà le plan sur lequel meut ma pensée” [Rhythms and chords in the universe of souls, that’s the plane on which my thoughts move] (Cahiers Romain Rolland 15, 1964, p. 211)
This is a massive multi-volume novel that, with music and humanity at its heart, is one of my favorites joining the pantheon beside Musil, Proust, and Shakespeare. The central character of the novel is Jean-Christophe Krafft, a German musician whose life is traced from his birth until his death. Using a wide canvas, Rolland broadened his scope to explore many aspects relating to different stages of life. The story starts when the hero is born in a small German village on the banks of the Rhine to an alcoholic musician father and loving, care-worn mother. Christophe discovers the world of fears, suffering and social injustice whilst at the same time his musical genius takes form. He also experiences childhood love, adolescent romances and the need to support the household as a musician following the death of, first, his grandfather, and then his father.
Romain Rolland did not see his novel as belonging to the accepted literary genres of the day. He was the first to designate it as a “roman-fleuve”. His “created” character took form as Rolland himself observed and experienced life and many of the comments in the novel reflect Rolland’s personal thoughts on social, political and cultural matters at the time of writing. Rolland’s musical background also played a determining role in how he structured Jean-Christophe.
Consistent with his overall philosophy Rolland's underlying message conveyed in the novel is that peoples of different countries and backgrounds could and should come together in harmony. The power of the novel derives from his thirst for truth, his need for morality and his love of humanity. The aesthetic life for him is not just to create beauty, but above all it is a means to create an act of humanity. The power and the beauty of his prose made this long novel one I will always remember.
Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland. Carroll & Graf, 1996 (1912).