Mother and Son: The Soul Enchanted

The Soul Enchanted, by Romain Rolland. Translated by Van Wyck Brooks. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1927. 12mo. vii + 415 pp. $2.50.
THE war, seen through the personality of a sincere and noble woman, Annette Rivière — such is the pedal bass (for M. Rolland is as much musician as author) of this third volume of his feminist epic, The Soul Enchanted. Its theme is the relationship, during the storms of adolescence and of war time, between the mother and the son she has borne courageously out of wedlock.
One sees war-torn France now as by the brush of an historical painter, now as by the bit of the etcher’s needle; families, refugees, communities — Paris, provincial towns, the frontier, Switzerland, individual fates, political manœuvres, together with a mordant vignette of Clemenceau. The writing steadily gathers momentum. It begins, like one of Beethoven’s piano concertos, with an orchestral prelude — a view of war-time Paris focused in one of those many-familied houses, huge and old, built round a central courtyard, in which the Latin Quarter abounds. With the entrance of the solo instrument, Annette, the drama begins to unfold: her growing disillusionment with the war; that superb scene of her rescue of the German wounded from a mob; her engineering of an Austrian prisoner’s escape to the bedside of a dying friend in Switzerland; her own return at deadly peril to shield a generous confederate; the scene with Clemenceau; and, in counterpoint with this, her son’s escapades in a Paris racked with the fevers and passions of war; his encounter with his father, now become the political concert pianist of war oratory — all this in a tale told at tempo vivace mounting to dramatic climaxes.
The writing has extraordinary power. One can feel the invigoration. Not a page but will have some memorable episode, some shrewd thrust of dialogue, some choice turn of phrase over which the mind lingers as the eye will linger on some fall of drapery, some finely chiseled contour of thigh in the subtle stonecutting of an Athenian sculptor in a museum. The work shows extraordinary spontaneity. One could imagine that these episodes came rushing imperiously into the author’s brain, that his pen had many a mad race to keep up with the winged sandals of his fantasy. I am thinking of that closing page of Annette’s conversation with the blinded soldier, and those parting words of hers: —
‘ I am only a companion in your misery. But I bless your poor eyes. I bless your body and your thoughts, your sacrifice and your goodness. And you, in turn, must bless me. When the Father forgets his children, the children must be fathers to one another.’
No one invents such pages. They are given.
And I am thinking of that touching scene the evening when the mother and son, after years of misunderstanding, find their way to each other’s heart, sitting, hour after hour, far into the night. unbosoming. ‘And they continued to do so later, from one room to the other, when at last they decided to go to bed. Then, in the middle of the night, he got up and went in his bare feet into Annette’s room. He sat down in a low chair by her bedside. They did not talk any more. They only needed to be near each other.’
How does a man of letters recapture the passion, the tenderness, the delicacy of such moments, quivering with the very heartheats of life, when one soul finds another and no longer has need of speech? The spirit that creates gives to the giver. ‘ Dem Helfer half der Helfer droben.'
Better workmanship than this translation by Mr. Van Wyck Brooks would be hard to imagine. It is so good that it has the force of an independent work in English. And never has even M. Rolland been more outspoken about that pair of touchy subjects — war and sex. He has, in his free speaking, exposed himself to attack with complete indifference. He can afford to. For he is one of few men living through the war period who has earned the right to say, ‘All evil comes from the fact that no one dares be sincere beyond the line where his own interests and passions are threatened.’
This book holds burning words. They are red-hot irons with which this man of courageous heart and honest mind goads the wild beasts of human hate and violence out of the arena in the colosseum of Imperialism. The spiritual core of the book is in these words which he has written of Annette Rivière; but they are equally true of Romain Rolland: —
‘The peculiar duty assigned to her was to save the sacred sentiment that filled her, this Friendship — Friendship, the country that survives all the Iliums. In order to respond to this appeal she was ready to forego people’s respect and to transgress every human law. A higher law had spoken. If every one did the same, in his own restricted domain, it would be the greatest Revolution of humanity.’