The World of the Thibaults
ByVIKING, vols., $6.00
PORTIONS of the French edition of this work have appeared at intervals from 1922 to 1929. Before it was completed, the Nobel Foundation honored itself by awarding the author its prize. Now, after long and unaccountable neglect, the whole work appears in a good English translation by Mr. Stuart Gilbert.
In my judgment it is by far the greatest work of fiction done in our time. Indeed, by putting on a little extra pressure here and there, one might make a pretty plausible case for placing it second only to War and Peace; not a close second, by any means, but closer than any book has vet come or is likely to come. Aside from the extraordinary excellence of its architectonics and its style, two qualities go to make it so; two qualities which we have not seen in perfection elsewhere in contemporary fiction. The first and most striking is the unvarying humanness of its characters. The Thibaults and their associates are not French; they are folks, people, human beings. Change the setting to another country and the characters to another nationality, and the story would lose nothing. Lucien de Rubempré is as French as Antoine Thibault is not; he is as French as Nicholas Nickleby is English or as Werther is German. M. Martin du Gard’s characters are folks all the time. This quality of a universal humanity might in itself plausibly serve as the basis of a prediction, if one were inclined to make it, that The World of the Thibaults has a long lease of life.
The second quality appears in the extraordinarily wide scope of the author’s understanding. He is equally at home in the consciousness and subconsciousness of all sorts and conditions of boyhood and girlhood, youth, manhood, womanhood. For this reason he remains invariably as far from slushiness as from hardness in dealing with his characters. He never sentimentalizes a single person or situation; yet on the other hand he never pursues a character with the dogged relentless savagery with which, for instance, Flaubert pursues Mme. Bovary, or Mr. Sinclair Lewis pursues poor old besotted Babbitt. Studied from this point of view, the episode of the runaway boys; the relations of Antoine and Jacques; the loyalties of Mme. de Fontanin and of the enigmatic Jewess Rachel, both requiring all a great artist’s resources of insight and delicacy to make them convincing; the figure of Jerome, of the half-caste girl Gisèle, and the sombre, sultry, smouldering figure of Jenny — all these will be seen as capital instances of that rarest of qualities which pervades the entire work.
If the expression of historical truth and common sense is held subversive by Americans, as it appears to be, the second volume — Summer 1914 — may be recommended only provisionally and with misgivings, ft does not fall in very well with the high temper of hatred and hush-hush now prevailing. Still, that temper is merely of the moment, and those who have any thoughtful curiosity about history’s judgment on it will find that judgment accurately anticipated here. The book will remind them, perhaps uncomfortably, of some things which the unthoughtful have long forgotten. ‘I’m all for your upheaval,’ said Antoine to his brother, speaking of the utopianminded European pre-war collectivists, ‘but f can’t help wondering what you and your friends will make of it when it comes to building up that new world of yours. For, try as you may, you can’t get around the fact that you must build it of the same human material, and if there’s one thing that never changes, it’s human nature.’
‘ Men will still be men,’ Antoine went on. ‘There’ll always be successful men and underdogs; only the men on top won’t be the same, and their power will be based on different institutions, different customs, from ours. These men will form a new group of profit-takers, a new ruling class. That’s a law of life.’
I his law is hardly a subject for popular discourse just now; yet it has declared itself with unfailing regularity at every turn of human history so far recorded, and the probabilities are therefore strong that a short time hence we shall see that it has declared itself once more. A. J. N.