Rolland was born in Clamecy, central France, on 29 January 1866, but went to study in Paris from age 14. He was admitted to the École Normale Supérieure to study philosophy, but switched to history and became interested in music. After two years in Italy, he published, in 1895, two doctoral theses, one on the origins of modern lyric theatre and the other on the decline of Italian painting in the sixteenth century. Around 1892, he married Clotilde Bréal, although they were divorced by 1901.
Rolland became a teacher in Paris for some years, including at the the newly established music school École des Hautes Études Sociales from 1902 to 1911. In 1903, he was also appointed to the first chair of music history at the Sorbonne. During these years, he was writing and publishing plays, such as Le Triomphe de la raison and Le 14 Juillet - he dreamt of a ‘people’s theatre’, free from the domination of a selfish clique - as well as biographies of Beethoven, Michelangelo, Tolstoy.
Rolland collaborated with Charles Péguy in the journal Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, through which he published, from 1904 to 1912, his best-known novel, generally considered his masterpiece - Jean-Christophe. It is for Jean-Christophe, largely, that Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. According to the Sven Söderman, writing on the Nobel Prize website, ‘this powerful work describes the development of a character in whom we can recognize ourselves. It shows how an artistic temperament, by raising itself step by step, emerges like a genius above the level of humanity; how a powerful nature which has the noblest and most urgent desire for truth, moral health, and artistic purity, with an exuberant love of life, is forced to overcome obstacles that rise up ceaselessly before it; how it attains victory and independence; and how this character and this intelligence are significant enough to concentrate in themselves a complete image of the world.’
Söderman continues: ‘This book does not aim solely at describing the life of the principal hero and his environment. It seeks also to describe the causes of the tragedy of a whole generation; it gives a sweeping picture of the secret labour that goes on in the hidden depths and by which nations, little by little, are enlightened; it covers all the domains of life and art; it contains everything essential that has been discussed or attempted in the intellectual world during the last decades; it achieves a new musical aesthetic; it contains sociological, political and ethnological, biological, literary, and artistic discussions and judgments, often of the highest interest. [. . ] In this work Rolland has not simply followed a literary impulse; he does not write to please or to delight. He has been compelled to write by his thirst for truth, his need for morality, and his love of humanity. [Jean-Christophe . . .] is a combination of thought and poetry, of reality and symbol, of life and dream, which attracts us, excites us, reveals us to ourselves, and possesses a liberating power because it is the expression of a great moral force.’
High praise indeed! By 1914, Rolland had moved to Switzerland to work full-time as a writer - not returning to France until the late 1930s. He was a life-long pacifist, shown through his writings about WWI such as in Au-dessus de la Mêlée. He was a great admirer of Gandhi, and his 1924 book on the Indian leader is said to have contributed to his growing reputation in Europe. In 1928 Rolland collaborated with the Hungarian philosopher Edmund Bordeaux Szekely in founding the International Biogenic Society. In the early 1930s, he married Marie Koudachef, a half-Russian communist who had been his secretary for some years, and who, historians say, was a Stalinist agent charged by Moscow with securing Rolland’s allegiance.
In 1935, Rolland travelled to Moscow on the invitation of Maxim Gorky, and, significantly, gained an audience with Stalin. For years, he went on supporting the leader’s regime against growing evidence of his atrocities, but, as the truth about them became harder to ignore, so Rolland, once again in France, retreated into his work. He became something of a recluse, suffering from ill health and being closely monitored by the Vichy police. He died in late 1944. Further limited information is available in English at Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica, and in French at Association Romain Rolland. Also there are various biographies of Rolland available to preview at Googlebooks: David James Fisher’s Romain Rolland and the Politics of the intellectual Engagement; Stefan Zweig’s Romain Rolland the Man and his Work, and Patrick Wright’s Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War.
Throughout his life, Rolland maintained a steady correspondence with many intellectual figures - such as Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and Rabindranath Tagore - much of which was published after his death. He also kept a diary, many extracts from which have also been published posthumously, some in books such as Journal des années de guerre, for example, Inde - Journal 1915-1943, and Journal de Vézelay 1938-1944. A list of other publications with diary extracts can be found in A Critical Bibliography of French Literature at Googlebooks. All of these, though, are in French. The only translated examples of Rolland’s diary material that I can find are in Hermann Hesse & Romain Rolland - Correspondence, diary entries and reflections, 1915 to 1940 translated from the French and German by M. G. Hesse, with an introduction by Pierre Grappin, and published in 1978 by Oswald Wolff, London and Humanities Press, New Jersey.
‘An excellent article by the German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of November 3, entitled “O Freunde, nicht diese Tone!” Since he lives in Switzerland Hesse escapes the German contagion. He addresses himself to writers, artists, and thinkers. He regrets seeing them eagerly participating in the war. In expressing his righteous idea, Hesse probably tends to exaggerate the artist’s duty to remain silent. This harmonizes only too well with the spirit of German docility. If it doesn’t manifest itself in force, it can only conceal its independence within itself. However, I would like to see a thinker from Germany who would resolutely oppose force. Anyway, we have to take men as they are! Hesse is one of the best of his race; and he says many things to which I could subscribe: against writers who arouse hatred; against the humanitarians in peace time who when war breaks out, etc.. Against the war itself, he doesn’t want to say anything. He hopes it will be very violent, so that it will end more quickly. And he recommends the attitude of Goethe “who held himself so marvellously aloof during the great war of independence of his people.” ’
18 February 1915
‘Hermann Hesse publishes in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Abendblatt) an article on a new German review. Die Weissen Blatter of Leipzig, which is reissued after an interruption of several months. Germany’s generation of young poets expresses itself in this journal. Hesse calls attention to their great serenity. One of its contributors, the Alsatian Ernst Stadler, has been killed. A lecturer at the Free University in Brussels, translator and friend of French poets, he was supposed to go to Canada last September to teach. He was thirty years old. Hesse compares the journal’s Europeanism to mine. He doesn’t see in it an isolated exception, but the early flowering of the Europeanism that is latent in the best German youth. Among the most gifted of these young writers, Hesse mentions Werfel, Stemheim, Schickele, Ehrenstein.’
‘Hermann Hesse, who has been living for the past two years in Montagnola, above Lugano, comes to dinner (September 26). He is thin, gaunt, clean-shaven, ascetic, severely cut to the bone - like a figure by Hodler. Hesse has gone through an exceptionally severe crisis from which he has emerged - according to him - as a new man. External circumstances have contributed to it - his wife is mentally ill and confined to a hospital; he is reduced to poverty, his children are separated from him and are in schools in northern Switzerland. Hesse lives in complete isolation, and his material existence is reduced to the minimum. Under these circumstances the old principles, implanted in his mind by India and China, which had always attracted him, have developed in an exceptional manner. He maintains he has now attained a state of mind which fully conforms to his Asian ideals and he creates for himself a life that is in harmony with his thinking. He is completely detached from the entire contemporary world, from art, from today’s literature which he regards as a futile game, and especially from politics. He is even detached from almost everything that gives value to life for the modern man: comfort and public esteem. Hesse lives like a wise man from India (even though his ideal is rather the wisdom of China with its cheerful accommodation to life). Hesse claims he is happy. To keep busy and to earn some money, he has taken up painting. He embellishes with sketches the manuscripts of his poems which some collectors buy. Last year he published a work under a pseudonym.’
‘Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, whose first part is dedicated to me, is one of the most profound works a European has ever written on (and in the spirit of) Hindu philosophy. When he read it in Lugano,
Kalidas Nag was filled with admiration for Siddhartha. The last fifteen to twenty pages may be added to the treasure of Hindu wisdom. They don’t merely paraphrase it, they complete it. Hesse writes me that none of his other works has been greeted with such absolute silence. His friends haven’t even taken the trouble to thank him for it.’
‘A renewed exchange of affectionate letters with Waldemar Bonsels and with Hermann Hesse. My sister and I are going to publish under the Ollendorff imprint some volumes of Hesse’s tales and short stories. Hermann Hesse, who must be close to sixty, is going to marry again. He sends me a beautiful aquarelle which he painted in the Tessin.’
17 September 1933
‘Visited Hermann Hesse in his charming house in Montagnola on the ridge of the Golden Hill above the vineyards and chestnut trees. He had us picked up in a friend’s car. He awaits us with his wife and sister in front of his house. The misfortunes of our time have not marked his face which appears much fresher, calmer, and younger than the last time I saw him (two years ago on the eve of his remarriage). He complains only about his eyes which cause him some concern. Indiscreetly I perceive more anxiety on his wife’s face. She is a brunette with intelligent and attractive features. As far as the sister is concerned, she is a kind, stocky old lady who doesn’t speak, but who listens with an assenting smile. Hesse alludes only briefly at the beginning of our conversation to the afflictions caused by the events in Germany and the passage of emigrants in the Tessin. But throughout the balance of the conversation, Hesse reveals that he is quite detached and ill-informed (he avoids the reality of events that threaten to destroy his fragile mental equilibrium). He readily satisfies himself with the idea that the true German culture will remain safeguarded from the torrent. And he loves to cite the example of a friend, a musicologist who at this very moment is preoccupied with his research in folklore.
Also, in his innermost being Hesse feels utter contempt for Fuhrers - especially Hitler, whom he considers mediocre, but well attuned to the mediocre German sensitivity and therefore chosen by those who manage the whole business. But Hesse declares he is completely detached from his fatherland (which, he adds, he wouldn’t have said, nor felt, during the war of 1914). However, he didn’t have to suffer personally. No measures have been take against him in this respect: he continues to publish in Germany. The letters he receives from his young readers are quite similar to those he received in previous years. Undoubtedly because his public, like him, flees into art and dreams from the pressures of reality. For a year and a half Hesse has been working, but without haste, on a utopian work whose form he is in no hurry to find. [. . .]
His beautiful house and his supporter have shielded him from the need to act - even with his pen. I don’t think that this is good for him. His most substantial artistic activity is his work as aquarellist. He delights in colours. And every day he adds one sheet after another to his collection of landscapes. Last spring Hesse saw Thomas Mann who seems the most contemplative and worthiest among all the great German Emigres. This man who comes perhaps farthest - (for he was basically a great German bourgeois, most attached to the city and the fatherland, and I was harsh toward him in 1914-1915) - will probably have the courage to go furthest along the path of abandoning his former prejudices and convictions. But he will do so only after long and private struggles with his conscience and meditation. When he is strengthened in his convictions, it’s likely that his daily life will conform to them, whatever risks it may involve.’