THE LAUREATE: Roger Martin du Gard was born in 1887 in Neuilly-sur-Seine in France. He studied archaeology and archiving, which gave his writing a scrupulousness and attention to historical accuracy that plays out quite plainly in his work. His first novel was Jean Barois, which was followed in installments by his major work Les Thibaults, a sprawling family saga that lasted from the mid-19th century to the beginning of World War 1. du Gard hung around with Andre Gide and his crowd, and eventually wrote a memoir of life with Gide. He died in 1953
WHAT I’M READING: Jean Barois. Apparently, du Gard was cited for Les Thibaults, but I’m not about to track that down. Jean Barois was enough of a pain as it is, and I’ve got plenty of family sagas to attend to without adding another one to the list.
REVIEW: Jean Barois makes me long for the time I spent reading Quo Vadis; they are both books about a young man becoming religious, and how that makes him feel about things and stuff, but at least in Quo Vadis there is concrete description. Petronius says in one letter something along the lines of “Well, I’ve been thinking about how these Christians say and do things, and it’s interesting stuff. I looked at my slaves for the first time and wondered if maybe I should treat them better.” That is character development. A character who wallowed in the decadence of early Imperial Rome, and in fact wrote the book on it (we think), changes his attitude to the world he epitomized. There were also people who were impaled and set on fire, and some sex. Nothing nearly as interesting happens in the first or last thirds of Jean Barois. In fact, I will save you the bother of reading about a hundred pages of it right now: Jean, to his local pastor: I’m not sure about this whole Catholicism thing. Jean, to his local pastor: Thanks for the books, but they just assert things about faith without saying anything. Jean, to his friend: Thanks for convincing me that the Bible has an allegorical meaning! My faith is strong! Jean to his friend: Man, allegorical readings are garbage! Are we still BFFsies? Then, after the middle part: Jean, to his local pastor: You know, when you’re about to die, you kind religion. Jean, on his deathbed: *dies*
The middle third of the book is actually sort of exciting. It’s about the Dreyfus Affair, when the French army used a Jew nobody liked to conjure a casus belli out of thin air. Jean and his merry band of freethinkers stands up and says YOU’RE A BUNCH OF LIARS and the army leadership stands up and says SHUT UP. Meh. It wasn’t terribly exciting after all. This book was painful and abstract and boring.
RECOMMENDATION: Skip him, unless dialogues about the relative levels and merits of fictional peoples’ faith is your cup of tea. Then, I guess go for it. I’ll mail you my copy if you want.
WHAT’S NEXT: William Golding’s The Paper Men