The 1930s now seem so far away that many members of the younger generation outside France, and even in France, may never have come across the works of Roger Martin du Gard. Yet, in his day, he was famous enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but even that international accolade is no guarantee of survival. Witness the case of René-François Sully-Prudhomme, the very first winner in 1901, who is now no more than a name in the reference books. But Iremember how eagerly we read Martin du Gard’s novels before the war. Now, having looked at them again, together with this unfinished, posthumous volume, which has taken so long to appear in English, I feel that they have a permanent quality. They may seem rather staid and old-fashioned compared to the overpowering intellectual and emotional fluency of Proust, but they have the merit of defining a certain kind of average Frenchness—that is, bourgeois anti-bourgeoisism—which existed strongly at the time, although it may have evaporated to some extent since then, just as Englishness is no longer what it was in those days.
Martin du Gard’s major work, Les Thibault, which came out in eight volumes between 1922 and 1940, belongs to the genre that was dubbed le roman-fleuve—along with Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, La Vie et aventures de Salavin and La Chronique des Pasquier by Georges Duhamel, and Les Hommes de bonne volonté by Jules Romains. The theme common to these multivolume sagas, which of course owe a lot to the example of Balzac and Zola, is the search for the good, or at least the significant, life on the part of individuals or groups who no longer accept religion and are in revolt, to a greater or lesser degree, against the entrenched bourgeoisism of French society. Martin du Gard, in particular, was fascinated by the tension between social convention and rebellion, and between belief and disbelief.
Already in 1913, before starting on Les Thibault, he had published a novel, Jean Barois, in which the hero is a polemical journalist, a Dreyfusard on the same side as Zola in the battle against the military and religious establishments. However, the struggle proves too much for him. When he becomes fatally ill, his spirit is broken, and he returns to die in the bosom of the Church. The secular profession de foi that he had drawn up as a precaution before the onset of his illness is burned with the approval of the priest who administers the last rites.
Yet it would be wrong to think of Martin du Gard as a rabid anti-Catholic. One of his distinguishing features is his keen sense of the complexities of human nature and his reluctance to make absolute judgments. In various parts of his books, he draws some detailed and sympathetic portraits of priests. In real life, it was a priest, one of his teachers, who first introduced him to Tolstoy, and it was the Russian writer, more …