Romain Rolland - Jean-Christophe Volume III: Youth
Melchior is dead. Jean-Christophe’s family, united under the muscular wing of their father, begins to unravel. His brothers leave home, and then there remains only Christophe and his mother in their too-large house, the immense silence of absence suffocating their interactions with the outside world, each other, and their own selves. Christophe "took a fiercely angry pleasure in self-castigation for having wished to be happy. To expressions of sympathy and kind words he made no reply, but was proud and stiff…His pupils who knew of his misfortune where shocked by his insensibility"
The second volume in French author Romain Rolland’s epic ten-novel cycle, Jean-Christophe, concluded with the death of the budding musician’s father. Morning balanced the inherent complexity of a young genius in a town, and in a family, of ordinary people, and showed that perhaps even stratospheric talent has something to learn from those people around them who do not share their immense talent. The third volume, Youth, opens with Christophe experiencing the first truly meaningful death in his life – which is to say, the death of a person with whom he was in continual conflict, and who occupied a complex position in his life that will (now) never properly resolve. His father was supposed to be there as a counterbalance to his own selflessness when it came to his family, and then, suddenly, he wasn’t.
As often happens, particularly with teenagers, when a void is created something is found to fill the hole. Generally the match is not exact (how could it be?), but can be near enough. Christophe falls into a deep despondency after his father dies, and nothing his friends or musical colleagues do is able to help. But there is one area of his life opening up at the same time as his childhood seems to be closing, and that is sexuality and the allure of the opposite sex. Previously, Christophe’s affections toward women was platonic, as seen with his mother, or innocent, as shown with his relationship with younger females. Now, though, he is gripped with powerful lusts, urgings that he wants to follow but knows he should not. A series of faraway longings occur, adventures of the heart that do not necessarily require the reciprocation of the beloved, for Christophe is young, still, and afraid to consummate his feelings.
Christophe's depression deepens as the sexual tension within increases: "The conscientious boy, who for years had never missed a lesson, or an orchestra rehearsal, even when he was ill, was forever finding paltry excuses for neglecting his work. He was not afraid to lie. He had no remorse about it….Human nature, healthy, strong, free, that was alone was virtue: to hell with all the rest!" His unsettled mind culminates in an action of the body which shocks him out of his stupor - he attacks a girl, pushing himself on her, though she is able to struggle and free herself. "He remembered that delirious moment when he had held her by the throat. Everything was possible."
But all this is perhaps puberty. Granted, rape - attempted or successful - is never an acceptable action, but, in Christophe's case, it seems that what he wanted was not sex but contact. He begins to notice women in a much more immediate, physical and sensual manner, and takes to watching a girl through open windows as she prepares herself for the day by doing her hair and fussing with perfume and accessories. The girl, Sabine, "was like a little Florentine figure. Her well marked eyebrows were arched: her gray eyes were half open behind the curtain of her lashes." Later: "her movements were lazy. Dressed carelessly - a gaping bodice, buttons missing, ugly, worn shoes, always looking a little slovenly - she charmed by her grace and youth"
Christophe becomes enamoured with the earthy reality of the female, loving the dirt as much as the soap. A woman is so intensely other, while also allowing for such intimacies – he is swamped. And in well over his head. First love is often blinding in its heat and breathtaking in its shortness, overwhelming both the lover and the loved with its power to obliterate the self in a misguided attempt to prove that love is a more powerful force than anything else. Christophe, always passionate, always piercing, intimidates the females he wishes to impress, and even frightens himself. One day he cannot do anything but imagine her: “He wished to think of her and he would close his eyes. But after half an hour, or an hour, or sometimes two hours, he would begin to see that he had been thinking of nothing. The sounds of the valley, the roar of the wind, the little bells of the two goats browsing on the hill, the noise of the wind in the little slender trees under which he lay, were sucked up by his thoughts soft and porous like a sponge. He was angry with his thoughts: they tried to obey him, and to fix the vanished image to which he was striving to attach his life: but his thoughts fell back weary and chastened and once more with a sigh of comfort abandoned themselves to the listless stream of sensations.”
The succession of girls, the intensity of infatuation, and the darkness to which he descends upon rejection (by himself or by the women he loves) have an episodic nature to them, a certain sameness of feeling that makes them obviously, to the reader and to Rolland’s gently ironic narration, unreal and incapable of lasting. Thus we have the initial meeting, the high-flown emotions of grandeur and love, and then the inevitable crash – and then we have it again. And again.
Where is music in all this? It fades, from his life and from the text, relegated to side comments about teaching and snippets of conversation concerning prominent contemporary composers. At the beginning of the novel, Christophe is consumed with grief, allowing his studies to slip in a misguided attempt to ‘let the world burn’ merely because he is suffering. By the end, his attention and focus – both prodigious – are directed toward women, and the soft and subtle attractions they may (or, in his case, may not) provide. Music comes last, long behind, surprisingly, religion (something he toys with, briefly, in an attempt to find answers to unanswerable questions), and well behind friends and family.
The third volume feels like a transition. The first and second dealt with the astonishing musical genius of Christophe, his precocity and his unfailing intensity in all areas of his life. The third shows him at a cross-roads, torn between the conventional life of marriage, children, and a family – and life he is very much drawn to – and one that is more difficult, riskier, and requires sacrifice beyond, perhaps, that which he is willing to permit. Late in the novel, one of the characters tells Christophe, "Do not think of what will be in a year, or in ten years. Think of to-day. Leave your theories. All theories, you see, even those of virtue, are bad, foolish, mischievous. Do not abuse life. Live in to-day. Be reverent towards each day. Love it, respect it, do not sully it, do not hinder it from coming to flower. Love it even when it is gray and sad like to-day. Do not be anxious. See. It is winter now. Everything is asleep. The good earth will awake again. You have only to be good and patient like the earth. Be reverent. Wait. If you are good, all will go well. If you are not, if you are weak, if you do not succeed, well, you must be happy in that. No doubt it is the best you can do. So, then, why will? Why be angry because of what you cannot do? We all have to do what we can." Christophe’s response? “It is not enough.” And he’s right, it isn’t. But nothing is ever enough, not really. The day is ours, if we can merely reach out and grasp it. But what does that mean, truly? For Christophe, he thinks at first he knows, and that the answer is music. Later, it seems to him that the answer is women. Still later, he is unsure. Youth shows a troubled young man dipping his toes into the world to which he is by temperament drawn, and also into the more mundane reality which he knows will be easier and possible, but ultimately less fulfilling. The novel ends with hope, with Christophe gazing resolutely forward, his life bound no longer (he hopes) to anything but what he chooses.
Title by Romain Rolland also under review:
------Jean-Christophe Volume I: Dawn
------Jean-Christophe Volume II: Morning
---Pierre and Luce
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