The Death of a World

by Romain Rolland
[Holt, $2.50]
FOURTH volume of The Soul Enchanted, The Death of a World reads as an independent novel, though the reader would be likely to voyage upstream into the preceding books. Many a sojourner in post-war Paris must have wondered what it meant for average humanity to be obliged to earn a living in that seething vat. This book is what it is like; its motto might be King Lear’s ‘Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.’ Annette Rivière and her son Marc wage their battles in the post-war chaos. The narrative is spirited; it races — from the Armistice Day tumult in 1918 and Marc’s furious escapade with an unknown girl, through Annette’s tempestuous adventure in Rumania and her secretaryship to a Calibanesque-Cyclopean figure of a newspaper magnate involved with the international armament ring.
Concurrently there are traced the histories of a group of youth in the brutal confusion of the 1920’s in Paris, some of whom have a survival value, while others succumb, one to the guillotine for murder. Marc and his mother keep on like vessels breasting billows, his mother rather better than Marc, yet both at core made of the same incorruptible stuff and both preserving intact the essential integrity of their beings. Intact does not, in Marc’s case, mean unsoiled. That would be asking too much in the circumstances. This is no book for the squeamish. Nothing is flinched. Few Americans realize the lower depths of misery and despair into which postwar Europe plunged persons of the class who figure in these pages.
Rolland’s theme is this: stalwart souls, deserted by their pre-war codes, create new ones as they go forward under desperate stress. What are these codes? They are allowed to appear rather by action than in speech. It is not a letter, but a spirit. Annette herself could scarcely formulate the principles she holds to, yet her integrity almost insensibly communicates itself to the spectator of her struggles. The standards of conduct are often quite different from the old; we are in a world which our parents would scarcely have recognized. Old cargoes have had to be jettisoned to save the laboring ship. She is stripped down to bare poles, but still gallantly outriding the gale.