Times Literary SupplementFriday, January 13, 1950
Cahiers Romain Rolland: Correspondence entre Louis Grillet et Romain Rolland. Choix de Lettres etabli par Mme. Louis Gillet et Mme. Romain Rolland. Prèface de Paul Claudel. Cahier 2. Paris: Editions Albins Michel.
This is the second volume in a series of letters of Romain Rolland published posthumously by his friends. It may seem paradoxical, but the most eloquent thing in this correspondence with the art critic and historian Louis Gillet is the silence of the writers between 1915 and 1942. The tragedy of their lost friendship, or at least of their interrupted dialogue, gives to this intimate diary à deux the shape of a drama. Rolland wrote that "intelligence is free from earthly ties," but even this great friendship could not survive the catastrophe which befell Europe in 1914. It needed another outbreak of war to unite them again in 1943, when both were already approaching death. Their last dialogue sounds like an epilogue written after the fall of the curtain.
Their friendship and correspondence began in 1897 at the École Normale, where Gillet was a student in his early twenties and the future author of Jean Christophe, who was barely thirty, was lecturing on art and music. For this generation, as Rolland's friend and contemporary Claudel points out in the preface, the world of rationalized ideas of Taine and Renan, Zola and France had become "uninhabitable." The young ones were discovering Ibsen and Tolstoy and were breathing the spirit of Wagner, and, indeed, this correspondence begins with Gillet's ecstatic letters from Bayreuth.
Those who remember Rolland's professions of social radicalism and his Communist sympathies after the war may wonder what attached this free-thinker to the devout Roman Catholic Grillet. But Rolland was no scientific socialist. He did not protest when Gillet stated that "the socialist barracks of Marx and Kautsky" were alien to both of them. Rolland's revolt was in the tradition of his maternal ancestors of this Palais Royale, a jansenist rebellion against rules, law, codification. He believed in the communion of souls, in a better and peaceful world, rising to the standards of Michael Angelo and Beethoven, Tolstoy and Gandhi.
Rolland claimed "not to be one who denied Jesus Christ, but one who could not understand that people believed in Him" and said that for himself to be able to believe in miracles, especially in resurrection, the miracles would have to occur perpetually. What was important was that they, Rolland and Gillet, should keep their precious friendship, and should either conciliate each other in the matter of their faiths or should avoid the subject. The latter solution was, of course, easier: and they tacitly agreed on it. Thus most of their letters are an exchange of aesthetic impressions from their journeys: and as these take them from Paris to Berlin and from Paris to Edinburgh their correspondence becomes an artistic Baedeker of Europe, which is difficult to summarize. It is interspersed with comment on literary events in which praise for Tolstoy, Pegay or d'Annuzio mingles with contemptuous remarks on Zola, Mirabeau, France. Every now and then the religious controversy flares up, as when Gillet makes a plea in defense of Baptism. Yet the whole correspondence is permeated with such friendship and written with such exalted affection that it may astonish the foreign reader. Gillet had a presentiment, nevertheless, that their friendship might be wrecked by politics. Sometimes, as during the Boer War, he vituperated against England; at other times he cursed German imperialism. The sense of French superiority was hardly ever absent from the remarks either of the Conservative Catholic of Left-wing humanitarian: both agreed that France was "the conscience of the world."
Thus, though the correspondence grew less fervent as the two men were gaining recognition and fame, it still bore the marks of profound affection. Gillet grieved over Rolland's divorce and over his lack of success with the Plays of the Revolution as much as Rolland was overjoyed with Gillet's happiness in family life. Then came the war. Gillet was called up. Forgotten were his vituperations against the army, "the corruptness of the Nation." For a fortnight he still wrote with dignified patriotism of the spirit of Valmy. Then he turned upon "the Huns." Rolland, in Geneva, saw his humanitarian edifice crumbling. Prophetically he said that Germany, defeated by arms, would rise again in arms. He addressed men of good will in all camps. His fraternal message, Au dessus de la mêlée, found no echo in the heart of his friend, who considered it his duty to stay in the trenches. The correspondence was ended.
It was only resumed after twenty-seven years. The two friends exchanged greetings on standard postcards which were allowed to circulate between "free" and occupied France. Both fell ill and wrote with trembling hands. Rolland hastened to Paris to the deathbed of his friend. An echo of this last meeting is left in Gillet's note written on the same day: "Cher, cher ami. Un mot pour le bonheur d'hier. Un mot pour le bonheur de dire tu. Adieu, que tu es bon! Esperance! Je t'embrasse. Ton vieux Louis." A strange and moving friendship.