Romain Rolland - Clerambault
In the foreword to Clerambault, the author, Romain Rolland, says that 'This book is not a novel, but rather the confession of a free spirit telling of its mistakes, its sufferings and its struggles from the midst of the tempest'. He is correct - the story of Clerambault and his family throughout the Great War is hardly a novel at all. The plot is weak and the characters, with the exception of Clerambault, are poorly drawn. But where this piece does succeed is in the questions it raises about a topic that is sadly familiar to us all: War.
If not a novel, then what? The plot we have to work with is flimsy. Ag�nor Clerambault is a minor poet, one of the many ambitious men living in Paris, who wish to make a living of their work. Happily for Clerambault, he manages to support his family with the strength of his poetry, but it is clear to all (except, perhaps, Clerambault himself), that his talents are minor. 'If we cannot amount to much, a good appearance is a consolation, and we love to be reflected in eyes which lend beauty to our mediocrity.' This is Clerambault. He is a weak man, but sincere within himself. He writes poetry because he loves it, and what else would there be for a man of few mechanical or physical talents to occupy his time with?
The far-away hum of the approaching Great War increases in volume until it is a roar. Paris is the intellectual capital of the world, the belle epoque or 'beautiful era' is in full swing, though to the perceptive, its last grand celebrations are the thrashings of a dying animal and not that of a healthy creature luxuriating in its endless potential. What better time then, to be a poet? To be an intellectual, living off the fat of the working class? To be Clerambault? As Rolland makes so clear, 'Safe in their West, it never occurred to them that their civilisation could lose the advantages gained; the march of progress seemed as inevitable as the rotation of the earth.'
And then the war comes. The Great War, the war to end all wars, it shatters the heady lifestyle of Paris, of France, of Europe. But how fares our hero? He becomes suddenly enamoured of his great country, much more than before. He buys newspapers and reads avidly of the war. In the mornings, with his family seated around the breakfast table, he reads out loud not only his own hastily composed poetry, but also news of the Front, of the encroaching war, of death and disaster and grand patriotism in all its glory.
Thus far, Rolland has steadily built up a rather fascinating character living in a defining time for the world. Thirty or so pages in, we have a compelling narrative, exhilarating prose, and an acute awareness of the outcome of the war. Rolland is easing us into his novel, his writing ensures that we slide along with the gentle current of easy patriotism, delicate fancy and clear metaphor. There are no intellectual snags, thus far.
But the novel changes. Clerambault begins to muse on the nature of war, not so much the violence or the death, but the way in which it rouses an extreme form of patriotism. He wonders at the manner in which politicians portray the events of the war, so that the young men of 1914 are swept up in the grandeur of it all. How is that an eighteen year old man can be convinced to throw his future away in a country he has barely given a thought to in his entire life? Clerambault believes it is patriotism, that subtle exercise of the State that has come into its own since the solidification of national identity.
Rolland writes with a firm, engaging hand. Yet it is the hand of an essayist at work, not that of a novelist. Characters are introduced as having an opinion that either compliments or disagrees with Clerambault, which allows the poet - which really means, Rolland - a chance to wax lyrical his own thoughts on this new information. Characters are not real life people so much as templates for ideas. When Clerambault's son, Maxime, returns home from the trenches, and is dismayed at the attitude of his family and friends, there is a chance that the novel will return to a narrative. But Maxime leaves, and is killed, which allows Clerambault to spend most of the remainder of the novel outraged at the sheer waste of war and violence. The plot stalls and dies; we are left to read essays.
The depth and breadth of Clerambault's convictions are staggering. At first, Clerambault seems fickle, able to alter his thoughts as the winds - or other characters - shift him about. But soon, his ideas solidify. As the novel progresses, he explores, with deeper and more insightful thoughts, the necessity for peace, not war. Understanding, not hatred. Clerambault's message is certainly not new, but it is told with such freshness and intelligence that it is difficult to disagree.
The plot of the novel continues, if only so that the predictable ending can occur. The French intelligentsia is outraged at Clarembault's pamphleteering of his desire for peace. How dare an upstart, middling poet write such inflammatory words? He is attacked, by foes and by friends who become foes, in a relentless example of the very problem which he is writing against.
Rolland wrote Clerambault in 1920, two years after the Great War came to its exhausted end. It is amazing to consider that, eighty-six years later, his words have as much resonance and accuracy as they did then. The unquestioning (and unquestionable) patriotism of certain countries in 2006 is dissected and criticised with remarkable fluency, and the question of war versus peace is one that will never grow old. This novel should perhaps not be read as a piece of fiction, but it should certainly be studied as a plea for thought, for rational decision, for peace and for understanding. As Rolland says in the introduction, 'God lends us the world to enjoy in common on one condition only, that we act uprightly.' Can we say that the events of the last five years have reflected this idea? Or the last twenty-five? Fifty? Ever, in the history of our species? I would argue not, as would Clerambault. Peace is something that is perhaps out of our grasp, but it is a end to which we should always struggle. Silence is our enemy and their weapon, speaking out is our duty.
Also by Rolland:
Title by Romain Rolland also under review:
------Jean-Christophe Volume I: Dawn
------Jean-Christophe Volume II: Morning
------Jean-Christophe Volume III: Youth
---Pierre and Luce
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
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