Romain Rolland - Pierre and Luce
French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland was one of the great pacifists of the early twentieth century. He spoke out against World War I, then known as the Great War, and he wrote texts in support of pacifist movements, and he created novelistic treatments of pacifists struggling with their beliefs in the midst of nations ravenous for war. He did all this at great personal expense to himself, both in his career and as a person. Pierre and Luce, written in 1920 alongside the brilliant anti-war manifesto, Clerambault, is a firm indictment of war and the unbearable loss of potential it causes.
Pierre comes from a well-to-do family and his brother, whom he adores, is off fighting against the Germans. He cannot understand this – he hears the propaganda of the war effort, but it washes over him as insincere. Pierre thinks that,
It is nothing to undergo pain, it is nothing to die, if only one can see a reason for it. Sacrifice is a good thing when one understands why it is made. But what is this why? What is the sense of this world and its harrowings for a youth? If he be sincere and sound of mind, in what way can he interest himself in the coarse medley of nations standing head to head like stupid rams on the brink of an abyss, into which all are about to tumble?
Pierre is a young man, “at that plastic age when the soul, with a bark still too tender, wrinkles up at the slightest breeze that comes from outside and under its furtive fingers moulds its form shudderingly". He is deeply sensitive, his mind swaying with the seduction of art, music, and the tantalising truths offered by philosophy. Life is opening up to him like an endless variety of impossibly beautiful flower and, as is the wont of youth, he wishes to inhale from them all. Every avenue seems open to him, except that they are really all closed, in that the war encroaches, and the reality of being called up to fight for his country remains always in the present. The grand plans he makes for his future in the realm of art must necessarily be curtailed by the apparent necessities of war. And Pierre, young and bursting with feeling, can't believe that life could be so limited.
It is a joy, here and in Rolland's masterpiece, Jean-Christophe, to read his thoughts on music. His explorations into the pleasure music is capable of stirring within one's soul are controlled and clear, while brimming with excitement and energy. Here is a man who truly,
deeply feels the power of music, and what is more, is able to share with great intellect and clarity, his understanding and passion. His protagonists are always sensitive and empathic, prime characteristics for uncovering both the beauty and the mystic potential inherent in music. When Rolland writes on art -
When into our eyes penetrate the divine proportions of lines and colors, or into the voluptuous windings of the sonorous ear-shell the lovely, varied play of accords which combine and interlock in obedience to the laws of harmonious numbers, peace takes possession of us and joy inundates our souls.
We can see the beginning stages of mysticism, both in his protagonist,
and in his own development as a thinker. Pierre and Luce along with Clerambault, are two deeply pacifist novels which seek redemption through the intellectual arts. Both hint at the direction their author will take, and Rolland's interest in Indian and Far East thought, particularly inspired by Ghandhi, are in their beginning stages here.
Midway through the novel Pierre, his heart bursting for the world and the possibilities art has opened up to him, meets Luce, an artist, and he becomes enamoured with her, and then his heart is devastated. Why? Because she must, like so many of us, earn money and make a living. And her method for this is artistic reproduction. She tells Pierre that,
Life is complicated…In the first place it is necessary to eat, and then to eat every day. In the evening one has dined. It's necessary to being again the next day. And then it's necessary to dress oneself. Dress oneself completely, body, head, hands, feet. That's so far as clothing is concerned! And then pay of it all. For everything. Life, it's just paying.
Pierre, safely bourgeoisie, cannot sit comfortably by while another has to work to earn their living. This causes conflict between them but, most importantly, allows Rolland to show the innate shallowness of Pierre's class. Pierre is not, himself, particularly bad or lazy, but there is an expectation amongst those of his class that all shall work out, that tummies will always remain full, and that the bullets and poison gas of war will kill others, and not them. Pierre's is life's potential never met, and a large part of that revolves around his inability to act, to do, even in the face of incredibly adversity.
The war is present, always. Pierre and Luce's love develops, and it grows with the sweetness of two people who have never before loved, and who have never had the sadness of rejection. But they remain aware of the conflict abroad, and how serious matters are. At one stage, Rolland considers that an ill-tinged feeling,
has come since the war. There is something in the air. Everybody is troubled. In families one sees people who are not capable of doing without one another marching off today, each one in his own direction. And as if intoxicated each one runs along with nose on the trail.
Luce is herself a solid character, though less developed than Pierre. With only a hundred pages in which to explore his theme, Rolland necessarily devotes his words to his primary protagonist, his confused young man who wishes only for art, but instead finds war. But Rolland, naturally, finds Pierre somewhat ridiculous, and has Luce think that,
She did not resemble much that little fellow who loved her and whom she loved, tender, ardent and nervous, happy and miserable, who always enjoyed and suffered to excess, who gave himself, who flew into a rage, always with passion, and who was dear to her just because he resembled her hardly at all.
Rolland writes of passion, of music, of heartfelt feelings and the churning teeth of war, with the cool blue flame of the inspired intellectual, his pen incisive, sure, and true. We can sense his feelings without becoming swamped by them, which is exactly the sensation he is aiming for. Rolland's beliefs are firmly stated and clearly told, and his fondness for art and love is well conveyed. War is the great devourer of human endeavour, it annihilates great swathes of youth and potential, and destroys the treasure of nations. But he is less concerned, perhaps, with the power and vigour of a nation such as France in time of war, than with the first, the very first, delicate, blush of love. What is more important? Rolland writes so tenderly of Pierre and Luce, the way their hands tentatively brush together and then spring apart as if burnt, the way first one, and then the other, makes those oblique declarations of love we wish in our own lives the other would interpret as an 'I love you', while not having the courage to outright saying it and, what's more - they do! He understands the heart at its first and strongest beat, and what's more, is able to express this first efflorescence without wallowing in sentimentality or kitsch.
It should be admitted that the ending of Pierre and Luce is a cloying, overly sentimental one, and is of lesser value than the text that precedes it. Rolland should be commended for avoiding the too-easy strategy of having Pierre die in the war, but the outcome he chose provides no great satisfaction. This miss-step, however, should not detract from the overall impression. This is an achingly sweet, and achingly sad, indictment of war without the hum of rockets or the explosion of grenades ever entering the piece. This is the story of a man unjustly taken from the world thanks to the heartless machinations of nation-states and the people that lead them. Rolland's Pierre and Luce is unapologetically anti-war, but he achieves this through the sweetness and ambition of his two characters, people who, sadly, were born in an age (any age), where the best use for them seems to be as pieces in a great board game called war.
Title by Romain Rolland also under review:
------Jean-Christophe Volume I: Dawn
------Jean-Christophe Volume II: Morning
------Jean-Christophe Volume III: Youth
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"as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings"
-Nobel Prize in Literature, 1915