Men of Good Will, by Jules Romains

November 19th, 2006

27 books published in 14 volumes in English between 1932 and 1946

· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Find Out More
· Locate a Copy


Editor’s Comments

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Men of Good Will'One of the longest novels ever written, Men of Good Will seemed to some, at least, to be one of the greatest creative works of the twentieth century. Clifton Fadiman was perhaps its most enthusiastic critic in the U.S., but he stopped reviewing the series well before its last volume, so we have no record of how well Romains’ art sustained his enthusiasm until the end.

Of the 14 English volumes of the work, only Verdun has held its head up against the changing tides of criticism and readership, coming back into print within the last ten years as one of the titles in the Prion Lost Treasures series. For the rest, the consensus today is that Romains (in the words of one bibliographer) “went too many rounds with Tolstoy and Marcel Proust.” Still, Romains’ efforts deserve more than entry stub he’s currently earned on Wikipedia.

Jules RomainsFor my own part, I have to admit that I’ve cracked The Sixth of October and Verdun a few times without getting past the third chapter. Details there are galore. Whether there is a narrative energy to pull a reader through them is another matter. But it would be unjustly neglectful on my own part to put this website together and fail to give Men of Good Will a spot that gathers together more words about this magnum opus than currently appear anywhere else on the Internet.


Other Comments

• from Captain Nicholas, a novel by Hugh Walpole, 1934

He had been brought up, like every intellectual young man of his time, on Proust, and now he had been reading the four volumes of M. Jules Romains’ endless novel. The fourth volume in its cheap French paper was lying beside his bed now. That was exactly what his life seemed to him at the moment. Bits and pieces. He had never supposed that he could write, but now it occurred to him that he could write a very good novel indeed about himself in this present manner. Very easy. No wonder so many of his friends were writing novels! Not of course that he could be as clever as M. Romains, but he need not worry about arrangement or form.

• Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 29 January 1940 (review of Verdun)

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Verdun'It is true that I haven’t read every one of its 4,256 pages, having sometimes been overcome with yawns in the middle of Jerphanion’s arch and soulful letters to his fellow student Jallez. On the other hand, I have read every word of Vols. I, II, III, IV (in French and English), VIII, and the greater part of Vols. V, VI, and VII. The eight volumes
stand before me as I write — 612 cubic inches of reading matter, fully indexed, with more than half again as much to follow. Yet I can’t convince myself that this is a work
that belongs somewhere between the “Comedie Humaine” and “Remembrance of Things Past.” I can’t convince myself that it ranks much above ordinary novels in any quality except sheer size.

Of course its size in itself is a real achievement, and one for which I didn’t give Romains proper credit when I wrote about the novel some years ago. I doubt that there are a
dozen novelists in the world today who could plan such a gargantuan work, then patiently carry out the plan, at the rate of approximately five hundred pages a year. I doubt that there are half a dozen novelists who could give such a complete picture of their nation; Men of Good Will is almost an encyclopedia of modern French life, from aristocrats, financiers, commanding generals and Cabinet ministers down to slum rats, murderers and pimps.

• Jack Ferry, from The Ubyssey, the student newspaper of the University of British Columbia, 1942

To most of you the name of Clifton Fadiman signifies the program “Information Please”. He is much more to me. Fadiman is responsible for introducing me to one of the great experiences of my life, and certainly the greatest experience I have had in literature. For that I love him. Because to me a thing may be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, but still desirable if it is a memorable experience. You see, he introduced me to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will.

It all started last year with one of those Christmas books, which in this case was Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked. Halfway through it I came to the statement: “Jules Romains is the greatest of collective novelists, and to my mind one of the greatest of living novelists. His Men of Good Will is the most gigantic unified effort in the whole world’s literature.” This was a challenge. But it took this to cinch it for me: “Romain endeavors in Men of Good Will to portray not characters, but ‘life in the twentieth century, our own life as modern men.’ Obviously he must choose a terrain: it is France from 1908 to, one may presume, the present, or very close to it. He is writing, he says, one single novel, and its plot has been drafted in advance.”

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Escape in Passion'Once I returned to Varsity after Christmas I lost no time in starting upon volume one. In this book alone I met about sixty characters, most of whom appeared throughout the series. On and on I went. I paused for the Easter exams; and then while I sought volume four, missing at UBC, at the Public Library. Through most of the summer 1 read volume after volume. Each day, clutching my book, I passed the guard at that west coast aircraft factory. I think he thought I was smuggling blueprints. Each volume encompasses two books of the original French version. I read through The Sitxth of October, Passion’s Pilgrims, The Proud and the Meek, The Depths and the Heights, and so on. I followed two young college students through the problems of early manhood. I saw the birth of socialism in France. I saw the automobile-oil combines emerge. I learned a system for writing poetry. I met a man who could stop his heart action. I learned how it felt when a child was born—from the point of view of the baby. I saw a young man search for a faith. I stepped into the inner sanctums of Freemasons and Roman Catholics. I watched four crooks float a bond issue that ruined a million simple Frenchmen. I saw the Great War come, and learned why Verdum (like Stalingrad) could hold — one of the most magnificent passages ever written. I challenge anyone to deny it. And now — I’ve finished the ten volumes completed to date. Over 8,000 pages. There is no question about it “being worth it” In those pages so it seemed, I learned as much as I had during all of the past eighteen years.

Yes, parts of it were dull — just like parts of a summer sunset are dull. Here’s a suggestion: If you want to read about the most important things that have happened since 1900 without discussing dates, and treaties, and agreements, and economic trends, and social trends as such, and still digest all these things — then give this great work a try.

• Denis Saurat, Modern French Literature, 1870-1940, 1946

Romains’ poetic gift is at the bottom of all that is successful in his immense production, but it is obscured and may be unnoticed under the mass of his writing. In the novel his truly amazing effort in Men of Good Will, a series of twenty-seven volumes, relegates to the second rank, as far as quantity in one novel goes, even Balzac himself, who does not connect his pieces so well, or Zola, whose artificiality in construction is too obvious nowadays.

Yet is Jules Romains’ series the really great this is the description of the battle of Verdun in two volumes which are truly an epic presentation of war. The description of the superhuman silence that descended on the front before the world grashed in the great German attack will have a permanent place in literature; it is an achievement of imagination rendered possible by the absence of the writer from the field of battle, which permits the deployment into genius of his capacity for being there in spirit.

Two or three volumes on Quinette raise the detective novel to a height which perhaps that kind of writing does not deserve, and enrich it by the annexation of Gide’s “gratuitous crime.” The description of the mentality and intrigues of professional literary men rivals Lost Illusions of Balzac (not the best Balzac, it is true). Every type of reader will find something in this extraordinary series.

Time magazine, 2 December 1946

Put out more flags; this is the end.

Jules Romains’ colossal super-novel, Men of Good Will, has at last ground to a wordy stop, after 14 volumes (the original French runs to 27), some 7,500 pages, and about 1,000 characters.

The most grandiose literary project of a generation, introduced to the U.S. public more than a dozen years ago, Men of Good Will has been admired from a safe distance by many, praised to the skies by a few, actually read in its entirety by still fewer. It stands as a monument to the almost incredible industry and endurance of Novelist Romains and his readers. A vast, inchoate panorama, as broad as all Europe and 25 years long, its net effect is more nearly that of a giant notebook than of a novel.

Many of the individual chapters are subtly, brilliantly managed; here & there (as in Volume VIII, entitled Verdun) they blend into a more or less related whole. But ordinarily Author Romains moves his characters about by whim or wind, endows his chance encounters, political musings, philosophic sermons, fancy seductions with no more apparent interrelation than that of news stories in the daily press.

Author Romains once explained that the grand strategy of Men of Good Will was to “reflect a whole generation.” That it does, as faithfully, as arbitrarily and almost as indiscriminately as a mirror set up in a public square.

Vercors, Les Lettres Francaise, 30 August 1972

Men of Good Will is an extraordinary work, an extraordinary novel. It is not flawless — how could it have been? Pierre Daix said that after its twelfth volume, after the pinnacle of Verdun, it seems more or less to have taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps this is true — but not all that true. If the last volumes gave people at the time an impression of decline, I believe it was in part because these volumes were published a year apart, as if they were separate novels; thus, everyone expected what is generally expected of the latest novel by an author, something different from his preceding novel, be it a deepening or a revelation. But in this novel of twenty-seven volumes, since each book was the equivalent of a chapter, it was not intended to bring something different….

I decided to reread Men of Good Will, to reread this immense novel at one stretch from one end to the other — without being sure I would not stop on the way, especially toward the end, because I remembered my disappointment, during the war and afterward, in reading the last volumes.

This time I was not disappointed…. To be sure, the same shortcomings are there. While Romains is perhaps without equal in depicting male friendship, he is much less at ease in depicting love. The dialogue is dry and even a little awkward, both too sugary and too intellectual….

What had formerly seemed to me to be a rather haphazard structure now appeared a very rigorous design, and one executed by a master. And what a language, what rich expression and vocabulary! The style is perhaps not beautiful, not “elegant.” But it is better than beautiful. It is rich and full, with a precision and an apprpropriateness that have rarely been equaled and never surpassed.


Find Out More


Locate a Copy

Below is the complete list of English volumes of Men of Good Will. Alfred A. Knopf published the series in 14 volumes, each, with the exception of the final one, incorporating two books as originally published in French. The volume titles link to listings of used copies available for purchase through Amazon.com.

Volume 1: Men of Good Will

Book 1. The Sixth of October

Book 2. Quinette’s Crime

Volume 2: Passion’s Pilgrims

Book 3. Childhood’s Loves

Book 4. Eros in Paris

Volume 3: The Proud and the Meek

Book 5. The Proud

Book 6. The Meek

Volume 4: The World from Below

Book 7. The Lonely

Book 8. Provincial Interlude

Volume 5: The Earth Trembles

Book 9. Flood Warning

Book 10. The Powers That Be

Volume 6: The Depths and the Heights

Book 11. To the Gutter

Book 12. To the Stars

Volume 7: Death of a World

Book 13. Mission to Rome

Book 14. The Black Flag

Volume 8: Verdun

Book 15. The Prelude

Book 16. The Battle

Volume 9: Aftermath

Book 17. Vorge Against Quinette

Book 18. The Sweets of Life

Volume 10: The New Day

Book 19. The Promise of Dawn

Book 20. The World is Your Adventure

Volume 11: Work and Play

Book 21. Mountain Days

Book 22. Work and Play

Volume 12: The Wind is Rising

Book 23. The Gathering of Gangs

Book 24. Offered in Evidence

Volume 13: Escape in Passion

Book 25. The Magic Carpet

Book 26. Françoise

Volume 14: The Seventh of October

Book 27. The Seventh of October

5 Responses to “Men of Good Will, by Jules Romains”

  1. JULES ROMAINS: “MEN OF GOOD WILL” NOVEL « Cambridge Forecast Group Blog Says:

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  3. Michael A. MacIver Says:

    Would someone be interested in acquiring “Men of Goodwill”?

    I have the complete English version, consisting of 14 hardcover books. The quality of this set is as good as can be expected of hardbacks printed in early mid-20th century. They appear to be complete, i.e., no torn pages, etc.; and appear to have no markings other than the usual wear and tear. I am not an antiquarian bookman.

    I also have Volumes 3 – 27 of the French version in paperback. The quality of this set is as good as can be expected of paperbacks printed in mid-20th century. They appear to be complete, (except for missing volumes 1 & 2), i.e. no torn pages, etc.; and appear to have no markings other than the usual wear and tear.

    I also have Romains’ Le besoin de voir clair and Lettres à un ami, both in paperback.

  4. Aleqx Franz-Grieg Says:

    I am interested in the Men of Goodwill series in English that you mentioned above. I am not a dealer, and I hope to read these books, and many others, when I retire to France in several years.

    Thank you.

    Aleqx

  5. James MacDonald Says:

    The volumes in themselves are not difficult. Each can be read within a day. And the language is demotic, unlike that of both Balzac and Proust. It is not for nothing that John O’Hara heralded this as a great achievement; at one time he even expressed his desire to write an American equivalent. Of course, there are readers who dismiss O’Hara’s work. But the social novel has its place. And Jules Romains celebrates it magnificently with his work.

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