Historical Necessity & Conscience

Historical Necessity & Conscience

One of the great novels of 20th-century Europe, Roger Martin du Gard’s The Thibaults, has recently been reprinted in English translation by Bantam Books, with an introduction by Albert Camus. Little known in the U.S., The Thibaults consists of a large sequence of novels covering the span of European life between 1890 and the First World War. One of its most perceptive critics is the Italian writer Nicola Chiaromonte; below is a section of an extended study of Martin du Gard’s work.—ED.

In my opinion, Les Thibault by Roger Martin du Gard is the last great novel in the classical nineteenth-century manner. But in the soberness of its style as well as in the apparent discontinuity of its composition (consisting of a series of separate episodes rather than an uninterrupted flow of narration), it shows more than a trace of twentieth-century sensibility. It is not my purpose here to analyze the artistic quality of the work; I take it for granted. A mediocre book could hardly provoke sustained intellectual interest or supply substantial matter for reflection. If, however, I call Les Thibault the last great novel of the nineteenth century it is for reasons that are not primarily aesthetic.

The first reason is the scope of the narration, which covers the story of a French bourgeois family from about 1890 to the end of the First World War; on November 18, 1918, seven days after the conclusion of the armistice, Antoine, the younger of the Thibault brothers, knowing that he is going to die from having been gassed in the war, deliberately puts an end to his life.

The novel begins with an episode in the childhood of Jacques, the elder Thibault brother. A notebook in which the passionate friendship between him and his schoolmate, Daniel de Fontanin, is expressed in the ardent language of adolescence, having been discovered by his father, the stem Catholic and even sterner bourgeois Monsieur Oscar Thibault, the boy is sent to a “reformatory” —or, as it is called in the book, a “penitentiary.” Jacques endures his punishment stoically and, when freed, continues his studies with great success, being admitted to that seventh heaven of the French school system, the Ecole Normale Superieure. His nature, however, remains that of a rebel. He becomes a socialist and, as soon as he can, leaves Paris and his family to live in Switzerland, giving up a strong although, on both sides, utterly unexpressed passion that had been growing between him and Jenny, his friend Daniel’s sister.