Romain Rolland

The French writer Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was the author of many works, all reflecting the conscience of a great humanist.

Romain Rolland was born on Jan. 29, 1866, in Clamecy (Burgundy). His family moved to Paris in 1880, where he graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in 1889 in history. During these years, disillusioned by the decadence of French society, having lost faith in Catholicism, but still looking for ideals, he turned toward the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza. In 1889 he arrived in Rome, where he discovered the Italian Renaissance and met Malvida von Meysenburg, who introduced him to the heroes of revolution and German romanticism; these various influences appear for the first time in his two unpublished dramas—Empedocle and Orsino.

Rolland returned to Paris in 1891, where he slowly turned toward the incipient socialism. In 1898, involved in the polemic aroused by the Dreyfus Affair, he wrote Les Loups (The Wolves), a play that transposed the case to 1793 and attempted to present objectively the arguments of both sides. The success of Les Loups encouraged him to write a whole cycle of plays on the French Revolution, whose spirit, he thought, must be carried into the future; among them were Danton (1900) and Le Quatorze Juillet (1902; The Fourteenth of July). Believing in the revolutionary role of culture, he wrote a series of essays in Le Théâtre du peuple (1903; The People's Theater).

In 1904 Rolland taught at the Sorbonne, inaugurating a course on the history of music. From 1904 to 1912 he wrote Jean-Christophe, a novel which shows the confrontation between an artist and a decadent society. Built like a symphony, Jean-Christophe is an affirmation of the German musical genius. Colas Breugnon (1914) is, on the contrary, a novel whose humor reminds one of François Rabelais. Meanwhile Rolland produced a series of biographies: Beethoven (1903), Michel-Ange (1906), and Tolstoi (1911).

Rolland spent the war years in Switzerland. He accused both France and Germany in a series of essays, Au dessus de la melée (Above the Battle). After the fall of Europe, only the Russian Revolution gave him some hope for the future. Opposing violence, he did not, however, join the Communist party. Throughout the 1920s he called for the unity of all truth-searching minds, regardless of political opinion, in Déclaration d'indépendance de l'esprit (1919; Declaration of the Independence of the Mind). His belief in nonviolence made him praise the Gandhian idea of revolution through his several books on Hindu thought.

Rolland meanwhile came back to his plays on the French Revolution; the last one was Robespierre (1939). In 1933 he published another novel, L'Â me enchantée (The Enchanted Soul), dealing with the problem of political action. Moved perhaps by the mounting fascism, he adhered more closely to communism; several essays show this evolution, in particular, Quinze ans de combat (Fifteen Years of Struggle).

In 1938 Rolland settled in Vézelay, where he composed his Mémoires and Le Voyage intérieur (Journey inside Himself), his spiritual autobiography. He died on Dec. 30, 1944.


Further Reading on Romain Rolland

Stefan Zweig, Romain Rolland: The Man and His Work, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul (1921), is one of the best studies but necessarily incomplete. William T. Starr, the specialist on Rolland who published the detailed and very useful A Critical Bibliography of the Published Writings of Romain Rolland (1950), also wrote Romain Rolland: One against All—A Biography (1971), based on Rolland's works, letters, notes, and diary.

Additional Biography Sources

Kastinger Riley, Helene M., Romain Rolland, Berlin: Colloquium-Verlag, 1979.