Romain Rolland - Jean-Christophe Volume II: Morning
“Years have passed. Jean-Christophe is nearly eleven. His musical education is proceeding.” And so opens the second volume of the ten volume novel, Jean-Christophe. The novel follows Jean-Christophe from his eleventh to his fifteen birthday, a time filled with emotional heartache, musical difficulties, and the overall advancement of his genius. By the end of the novel Jean-Christophe has resolved to follow the direction of his music, and has cast aside the immaturities of childhood.
The first part, The Death of Jean Michel, opens with Jean-Christophe tormented and alone. His day is long and arduous, and increasingly he finds himself the primary bread-winner of the family. His father Melchior is succumbing daily to the dissipating effects of relentless alcoholism, and his grandfather is slipping further into an amiable dotage. This leaves Jean-Christophe as the only male old enough and capable enough of providing money to the family, though Jean Michel helps where he can by selling sentimental keepsakes. Jean-Christophe has become something of a regular guest at the Duke's household, entertaining the noble and his guests with ditties on the piano that he hates very much to play. In between that and practice, Jean-Christophe gives lessons and nurtures his growing hate toward his situation. His burden grows until “for days together he would not speak, fulfilling his tiresome and wearing task with a sort of silent rage”.
The death of Jean Michel, when it comes, shakes the family greatly. Melchior sees his father's death as a release, allowing him to fully lose himself in alcohol and revelry, where before he always held something back. Jean-Christophe feels that he has lost the only person who truly understood his music, and indeed Jean Michel was the man who set the young child Jean-Christophe on his path. For the family as a whole, a cavernous hole of leadership needs filling, and neither Melchior or Jean-Christophe is quite up to the task. Jean-Christophe has an excuse – he is eleven – but Melchior does not, and the tension in the family, which was always high, mounts.
Jean-Christophe needs an outlet, and that is where the second part, Otto, begins. There is a year or two before the rush of puberty when children feel friendship as strong as they will, later, feel for the opposite sex. Jean-Christophe meets and falls in love – the words fall from his lips and pen with the groaning sigh of a frustrated lover – with Otto, an intellectually gifted young boy with a very rich father. Otto returns the love, and their letters are filled with the sort of unruly exclamations that could be found in any teenage girl's diary. Both boys, horribly alone in their personal lives, and in their own manner little geniuses, display extravagant jealousy and terrifying troughs and peaks of affection. Their love, Rolland none-too-slyly suggests, is a farce, and the sheer melodrama of it all is both tender and amusing. For Jean-Christophe, this is his first real friend and first true happiness since the passing of his grandfather. His heart yearns but his intellect shies away from truly committing physically and emotionally to Otto, with the two boys increasingly uncomfortable with their exclamations and escalating their words to even greater heights because of it. Their relationship has the awkward tinge of first sexuality, but what neither boy realises is that the direction of their sexuality is in fact aligned toward females. Because of this, there is no end for the friendship other than in hate, and that is in fact how it comes about. Both boys are made aware – through the intolerance of their families – that such affection for a member of their own sex is 'wrong' and 'evil'. Both boys, caught up in their affection but never interested in the acts they are now accused of performing, become so ashamed of their feelings that they end things through a series of horrible and petty acts. Thus a small patch of sunlight is darkened, and poor Jean-Christophe is forced, yet again, into the hardening shell of his firmly introverted self.
The third and final part of the novel, Minna, tells of Jean-Christophe's first heterosexual love. He falls again for the wrong person, this time a wealthy young woman from a much higher social standing that he has been hired to teach piano. Again, both fall in love with the too-strong passion of teenage years, and again, Jean-Christophe allows himself nothing but emotion and feeling. There is much that he keeps inside himself, but when he perceives an outlet the outpouring is as strong as a waterfall. Minna is, rightly, somewhat concerned about the sheer depth of his feeling, but she returns it as best she can. It is finally up to her mother, Frau von Kerich, to gently explain to Jean-Christophe why the two young people cannot be together. Her reason is not one we would expect today – she leans very heavily on class differences – but even without that it is becoming clear that Jean-Christophe is a man who almost needs to be alone. He feels too strongly, he swamps both himself and his paramour with limitless affection. This is not necessarily a problem when everything runs perfectly, but has the machinery of love ever been anything but a faulty, cranking device that works ill if at all? For a lover, a glance too soon or too late can be a hurt. A word said thoughtlessly can cut for hours. A touch on the shoulder when you wished your hair to be mussed can seem an outrageous offense. At least, this is how Jean-Christophe perceives a relationship. And, when his love is not returned with the sheer perfection and exuberance of his own, he becomes violently reactive, first against himself for 'obviously' committing some offense, and then against his love, or their family. His reaction at the conclusion of his relationship with Minna is, to say the least, exaggerated: “He nearly died of it. He thought of killing himself. He thought of murder. At least, he imaged that he thought of it. He was possessed by incendiary and murderous desires.” Jean-Christophe's emotional self is – and remember, for the second volume we are following his early teenage years – irrational and caught up in the idea of love rather than its actuality. But, rightly or not, the battering given to his heart first by Otto and then by Minna, wounds him deeply. A person who feels so much is not bad or wrong, though others may perceive them as so. Rolland is careful to keep Jean-Christophe a sympathetic figure. Though the childhood romances may slip into farce at times, it is a shared farce – both Otto and Minna participate with near-equal explosions of love and delight. They are children, really, teenagers in body perhaps but children in mind. Jean-Christophe's inner self is admirably portrayed in such a way that we never lose sight of his immense vocabulary for understanding himself, and his musical talents remain in the fore. While he may be a teenager he is still a genius.
There is a paragraph on the very last page which, I think, echoes the thoughts of great men and women in a profound and moving way. Jean-Christophe, his heart broken, still reeling from the death of his grandfather, is forced to deal with the sudden and unexpected death of his father, too. He turns inward once more, and vows to make of himself the best he can. “He saw that life was a battle without armistice, without mercy, in which he who wishes to be a man worthy of the name of a man must forever fight against whole armies of invisible enemies; against the murderous forces of Nature, uneasy desires, dark thoughts, treacherously leading him to degradation and destruction. He saw that he had been on the point of falling into the trap. He saw that happiness and love were only the friends of a moment to lead the heart to disarm and abdicate. And the little puritan of fifteen heard the voice of his God: 'Go, go and never rest.'”
It becomes clear in the second volume of Jean-Christophe that there will not be anything resembling a plot. Gilbert Cannan, in the first volume's preface, made reference to Romain Rolland's quote that Jean-Christophe's life was – like all our lives – a river, and a river has no plot or point. Rather, Rolland saw his duty as that of the observer, an omniscient watchman available to chronicle all that is in Jean-Christophe's heart and mind. Because of this, the greater novel of ten volumes has the shape of nothing more or less than Jean-Christophe's life. Individual volumes represent chronological snapshots of a genius, satisfying the literary urge for growth and development, but thwarting any desire for resolution or climax. Jean-Christophe as a ten volume novel has now passed through the first two volumes, and Jean-Christophe the character has grown. He is less a boy and more of a man and, more importantly, he has seen the clear path of his future. Whether or not he will be able to stay true to his desired destiny I do not know – but we can assume from the difficulties of Jean-Christophe's heart that there will be challenges ahead.
Note: It is difficult to find Morning 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 herehref>.
Title by Romain Rolland also under review:
------Jean-Christophe Volume I: Dawn
------Jean-Christophe Volume III: Youth
---Pierre and Luce
Project Gutenberghref> - text of the first four volumes