Romain Rolland - Jean-Christophe Volume I: Dawn
Dawn is the first of ten volumes chronicling the life of German musician Jean-Christophe. Written by French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland, Dawn opens with Jean-Christophe's birth, and closes with his first public performance, at age seven and a half. It is the beginning of a masterpiece and is itself a masterpiece, a sustained reflection on the life of a genius in its most primitive state, when the mark of greatness has brushed as yet only lightly. Rolland, himself quite well known in the field of music criticism, has taken with Dawn the first few steps on what promises to be a wonderful journey.
The newborn Jean-Christophe opens his eyes, and is troubled, “the hallucinations of a mind as yet hardly detached from chaos, the stifling, roaring night in which it is enveloped, the illimitable gloom from which, like blinding shafts of light, there emerge acute sensations, sorrows, phantoms – those enormous faces leaning over him, those eyes that pierce through him, penetrating, are beyond his comprehension!” The sensitivity of an artistic mind is awakening but slowly, reluctantly, as though to live were something beyond the capability of any single man.
As a child much of the world is delightful because it is new. A horse is an amazing beast of massive size and stature – that is, at least, until it becomes commonplace, and then it is just a horse. Stories of wizards and warriors are told so vividly not because the storyteller possesses any great talent but because the words are fresh upon the ears of youth. They have not yet grown old and stale. Branches become swords as easily as gloomy trees become the entry to a magical forest. Romain Rolland captures the unadorned newness of the sights and sounds of life without irony or contempt for his protagonist but with a clear eye for the beauty of newness and a sympathetic ear to the splendour of previously unheard sounds. Jean-Christophe is in love with everything he experiences because it is, even when bad, of such originality that he can do nothing more than wonder at how it all came to be.
Jean-Christophe's relationship with his grandfather stems from this happiness. A father must indubitably chastise, punish, scold and direct their child in an effort, perhaps misguided, to make of them what a man or woman 'should' be. A grandfather has no such burden, and is subsequently loved all the more greatly. Jean-Christophe, after an outing with his grandfather, hugs his mother with joy. “He hugs her close. He loves her! How he loves everything! Everybody, everything! All is good, all is beautiful....” He falls asleep, exhausted. And his father disapproves, because he wishes his son to be more serious. Such is the fate of the father-son relationship, the son loving all that brings him joy without concern for matters of prudence, the father knowing he must stamp the burning brands of strength, courage, honour and discipline upon this unwilling calf.
The second part of the novel introduces us to the primary members of Jean-Christophe's family. He has come from a line inclined to music. His grandfather Jean Michel played in a band, gave lessons and repaired musical instruments. He fancied himself something of a composer, and wrote a Missa Solemnis, but “he knew perfectly well with what emptiness of thought it had been written.” Jean Michel was the sort of man who would run trembling to his writing desk when inspiration took hold, but “hardly had he taken pen in hand than he found himself alone in silence”. He is a failed musician, and becomes delighted in his son, Melchior, when he shows himself something of a genius on the violin. But just as in Jean Michel there was a fatal flaw, so too did Melchior possess the seeds of destruction that would waste his talent. Melchior “was not a bad man, but a half-good man, which is perhaps worse – weak, without spring, without moral strength”, but he was overall a good father and husband, Rolland hastens to tell us. This second part lays the groundwork for the theme of flawed genius, hinting at Jean-Christophe's potential future, but hopefully not his downfall.
Music grips Jean-Christophe early. His father beats him into playing the piano, and though he hates the beatings, Jean-Christophe acquiesces. Talent runs strong through him, but more importantly than that is the passion that courses through his heart. Jean-Christophe deeply feels music, his heart understands it in a way that his mind, at present, does not. Upon attending his first opera, a rudimentary little performance of cardboard trees and ill-performed pieces, Jean-Christophe becomes “in the condition of a lover, whose passion blinds him to the actual aspect of the beloved object. The marvelous power of illusion, natural to children, stopped all unpleasant sensations on the way, and transformed them.”
There is a scene midway through the novel where the young Jean-Christophe visits his mother at a rich lady's house, where she works as a cook on special occasions. This is Jean-Christophe's first indication that there are different strata of society, and that perhaps his own family is not of the highest rung. He is tormented by the wealthy children – spoiled brats, both – and, in a further act of humiliation, is beaten by the lady, scolded by his mother, and beaten again by his father. Jean-Christophe becomes swamped with the anger that plagued his grandfather, but unlike Jean Michel he does not succumb to it. Instead he internalises what happens, stuffing himself with strong feelings and emotions. Rolland uses this scene to properly introduce us to the burgeoning personality of Jean-Christophe. We see his weaknesses, but also how he turns them into a strength. We see the slow and steady development of the person he will become. The scene is masterful in that we fully sympathise with and understand Jean-Christophe, while also appreciating the difficult social situation his mother placed him in. Rolland allows us deeply inside his protagonist while still managing to keep us far enough away from the emotion of the scene that we can intellectually understand the nuance.
Jean-Christophe's early childhood is miserable, yes, but it is the misery of the artist struggling to disengage himself from a less artistic family. There is little that is Dickensian about Jean-Christophe's childhood, though the constant beatings and food deprivation skirt dangerously close at times. When his first performance finally appears, though it is accompanied by misery and humiliation, there is a sense of the genius awakened. Rolland is most concerned with the opening landscape of Jean-Christophe's talent, and less with sheer drudgery. Torment, when it comes, serves to further deepen Jean-Christophe's understanding of emotion.
The slim first volume of Jean-Christophe manages to show in miniature the primary themes that will run through the rest of the series. Joy, death, and the love of music – these are the primary colours of Jean-Christophe's life. Literature owes much to Rolland, though his works are difficult to find nowadays and, one would assume, rarely read. His work marks something of a bridge between the clear naturalism and realism of the nineteenth century, and the more metaphorical and symbolic works of the twentieth. Echoes of Tolstoy mingle with anticipations of Mann and Proust. As Gilbert Cannan writes in his preface, “By its truth and its absolute integrity – since Tolstoy I know of no writing so crystal clear - “Jean-Christophe” is the first great book of the twentieth century. In a sense it begins the twentieth century. It bridges transition, and shows us where we stand. It reveals the past and the present, and leaves the future open to us...”
Note: It is difficult to find Dawn as a stand-alone novel. Generally it is gathered together with Volumes II, III and IV, if it can be found at all. To aid the reader in discovering Rolland's genius, I have taken the time to put together an easy to read pdf based on Project Gutenberg's text. It may be downloaded here.
Title by Romain Rolland also under review:
------Jean-Christophe Volume II: Morning
------Jean-Christophe Volume III: Youth
---Pierre and Luce
Project Gutenberg - text of the first four volumes
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