The World of the Thibaults, by Roger Martin du Gard

Cover from first U.S. edition of 'The Thibaults'Reader Chris Leggette recommends Roger Martin du Gard’s family saga, Les Thibault, a series of seven novels published in the U.S. in two volumes: The Thibaults and Summer 1914, and then in a two-volume set, The World of the Thibaults. Clifton Fadiman included it in his compilation, Reading I’ve Liked, but as you can see from his New Yorker review below, the work held second candle in his eyes to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will. Contemporary reviewers such as Mary McCarthy and Malcolm Cowley also had mixed feelings about The World of the Thibaults — ironically, feelings not dissimilar to those expressed by other reviewers by the time Romains reached the end of his own saga.

A few years ago, Timothy Crouse, best known for his comic account of the press coverage of Nixon’s second presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus, helped translate and revive Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, a massive novel Martin deu Gard left unfinished at his death. Its release in 2000 led John Weightman to write in The New York Review of Books,

The 1930s now seem so far away that many members of the younger generation outside France, and even in France, may never have come across the works of Roger Martin du Gard. Yet, in his day, he was famous enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but even that international accolade is no guarantee of survival. Witness the case of René-François Sully-Prudhomme, the very first winner in 1901, who is now no more than a name in the reference books. But Iremember how eagerly we read Martin du Gard’s novels before the war. Now, having looked at them again, together with this unfinished, posthumous volume, which has taken so long to appear in English, I feel that they have a permanent quality. They may seem rather staid and old-fashioned compared to the overpowering intellectual and emotional fluency of Proust, but they have the merit of defining a certain kind of average Frenchness — that is, bourgeois anti-bourgeoisism — which existed strongly at the time, although it may have evaporated to some extent since then, just as Englishness is no longer what it was in those days.

Other Views on The World of the Thibaults

· Andre Gide, letter to Roger Martin du Gard, 17 March 1936

I do not want … the weekly mail to leave tomorrow without telling you of the immense joy, the profound satisfaction I felt after the first reading [of Summer 1914, the seventh volume of Les Thibault]. It was a difficult contest; you have won….

Dear friend, I believe that this book is destined to create a stir, to have a considerable success. Everything is said in it that needed to be said, with a perfect honesty in its presentation–so that even the most stubborn reader’s deepest convictions will be shaken…. Yes, I believe that this book has a considerable power of persuasion aside from its literary merits. But it is as a man of letters that I want to speak to you, and I can find nothing to say but praise. Some chapters are tours de force of skill and precision. You have written nothing better.

· Mary McCarthy, The New Republic, 26 April 1939

The machinery of the plot works with extreme awkwardness. It is, an a sense, a novel about time, yet the author’s only notion of conveying time’s passage is, after each gap of several years, to have two characters tell each other the events of the interim….

But The World of the Thibaults is not simply the study of a French family. Martin du Gard has taken Tolstoy for a model and, with this family for a center, has attempted to show a society as a whole. Thus the work contains, besides the usual elements of a novel, generous trial samples of modern science, modern literature, modern art, practical politics, religion, war, socialism and pacifism. The difficulty is, however, that these topics have not really been woven into the novel, but merely added to it. The result is not so much a novel of history as a historical grab-bag.

For all its encyclopedic qualities, The World of the Thibaults is not an important book. It is, however, a genuine literary curiosty. Industry and seriousness have been called in to substitute for talent, and the result is a work whose learned obtuseness is, so far as I know, unequaled in fiction.

· Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 10 March 1941

With glazed eyes and swollen lids, I have just finished The World of the Thibaults in the complete English translation — both volumes and all the 1,900 pages. It isn’t fair to blame Roger Martin du Gard, a kindly man and a conscientious writer, for the dull headache that comes from reading too much. Yet I wonder whether this business of writing oversize novels hasn’t been carried much too far, since Marcel Proust first set the fashion. Is there any human subject that can’t be treated in a hundred or at most two hundred tliousand words, instead of spinning the story out to nearly a million? Is there any reason for believing that a novel published in eleven books — as this one was in France — is eleven times or even twice as good as a novel in one reasonably large volume with a beginning, a middle and an end, and not too many extraneous incidents?

Isn’t it possible that giantism in fiction is quite as unhealthy a symptom as giantism in business or architecture or armies? The least one can say is that the author who writes an inordinately long novel is like the orator who delivers an inordinately long speech; he is disregarding the capacity for attention of his audience. Either the book must be leisurely sampled over a period of .weeks, in which case the reader is likely to have forgotten the beginning before reaching the end; or else it must be read as a reviewer’s chore, hour after hour and day after day, in which case it leaves one with aching eyes and perhaps a blurred picture of the author’s intentions. And the author, too, is running a risk. Any man who sets out to write a 2,000-page novel is betting against fate and human experience that he can remain unchanged until the book is finished….

Summer 1914 is the work for which Martin du Gard will be remembered and for which he deserved to receive the Nobel Prize. In the easy-running translation by Stuart Gilbert, it can be enjoyed almost as much as in the author’s pedestrian French. Yet it would have been better, I think, if it had been written quite independently, without regard to the family affairs of the Thibaults and the Fontanins. Standing alone, without seven other books as an introduction and without an epilogue, it would be even more impressive. It could then be read for itself, and with clearer eyes.

· Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker, 1941

In 1939 there was published in this country The World of the Thibaults a book containing rather less than half of his Thibault series. Now, bearing the title, Summer 1914, the remainder is available in another book. The entire series, under the general heading, “The World of the Thibaults,” thus appears in two thick volumes, equivalent to eleven in the original French. Those who have not read “The Thibaults” may find “Summer 1914” somewhat puzzling. It is advisable to tackle the whole job or not tackle it at all. That means a total of 1,879 pages, but they are 1,879 pages that offer you a solid, almost tangible experience. They are pages for grown-ups….

In “The Thibaults” the emphasis was all on individuals and their relation to society; in Summer 1914 society itself almost ursurps the canvas. For me, there is a certain loss of power and originality….

But when du Gard concentrates he approaches magnificence: in his study of the Fontanin family, in his agonizingly perceptive account of the love between Anne and Antoine, in his heartbreaking record of the slow decay of the mind and body of Antoine. As a whole, The World of the Thibaults is unquestionably an impressive work. That world is now dead, its final hours having lasted from 1918 to 1939…. Someone had to write its epitaph, and for that epitaph to be clear it was necessary to go back to the roots of the Thibault world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was du Gard’s task, to which he has now devoted two decades of his life. The task, one presenting almost insuperable difficulties, has been presented with honor…. You may not read him with absorption; you will read him with respect.

· Time magazine, 24 February 1941

In 1937 when Martin du Gard’s award was announced, the question arose why — if the Nobel committee wanted to pick a long, social French novel — it did not crown Jules Romains’ longer, as yet unfinished Men of Good Will. The question is still valid. Both works cover the same period, both are fraught with the desire of idealists to stop the war, both are written with objectivity approaching self-effacement. The general impression left by Men of Good Will is rich, vascular, forthright; of Les Thibault nervous, sinewy, tangled. Men of Good Will chronicles a whole society, Les Thibault a family and its immediate connections. Romains cut into French life at scores of levels, pulled out hundreds of characters. They are alive, but they are polished as flawlessly as marble. Some are almost too pat to his purpose.

Martin du Gard’s people have the puzzling surfaces of real people whom he has studied closely but not entirely understood. At times their motivations stretch thin to the vanishing point, and their behavior seems perverse and arbitrary. But in some ways they are even more alive than Romains’ people. Doubtless Romains’ book is a greater work of art; but Les Thibault may be the better novel.

· Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

Perhaps, in Martin du Gard’s eyes, the only guilty person is the one who refuses life or condemns people. The key words, the final secrets, are not in man’s possession. But man nevertheless keeps the power to judge and to absolve. Here lies the profound secret of art, which always makes it useless as propaganda or hatred…. Like any authentic creator, Martin du Gard forgives all his characters. The true artist, although his life may consist mostly of struggles, has no enemy.

· David Tylden-Wright, The Image of France: Studies in Contemporary French Literature, 1957

When in 1937 Roger Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize for Summer 1914, the seventh part of The Thibaults, it seemed a fitting reward to mark not only the completion of a mammoth and magnificent achievement but also a life or remarkably disinterested devotion to literature…. He has never attempted or wished to be an exceptional writer in the sense of shunning the duller, more ordinary side of life. Rather the reverse. his aim, it has always seemed, has been to reflect life itself, with its tedium, its limitations and its complexity, not raised on the pedestal of a particular point of view but life in the round, in the rough, as it appears to, and affects, ordinary people such as, for example, the Thibaults.

· Masterplots, Revised Second Edition

The eight-part novel cycle The World of the Thibaults was inspired by the author’s desire to emulate for his own time the accomplishment of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In fact, the work’s style and pessimism is closer to Roger Martin du Gard’s countryman Gustave Flaubert than to the Russian author. Although the historical background of the action in the novel is of interest, it is the powerful depiction of human relationships that constitutes the book’s chief merit.

In many respects, the most influential character in the vast novel is old Monsieur Thibault, the patriarch of the Thibault family. A complete hypocrite, he announces to the world that his conscience is clear, yet he is concerned only with his own convenience and peace. Cloaking his craving for power and authority under a guise of fervent religiosity and philanthropy, he actually has no sense of either religion or generosity. He possesses no love for his sons, demanding only that they be completely docile. Any contradiction or sign of individuality throws him into a rage. For all of his big gestures, he is a petty man. Everyone automatically hides feelings from him, for one never can tell what his reaction might be. He forces his family into hypocrisy. By avoiding all introspection, Monsieur Thibault unknowingly condemns himself to a life of petty pride and cruelty, a life so alone that he must find his only consolation in public honors and the “knowledge” that he is a “good man.” As he grows older, however, the fact of approaching death terrifies him increasingly, and he desperately seeks some kind of immortality, as if he subconsciously realizes how futile his busy life actually has been.

The volumes of the series are crowded with fascinating, well-drawn secondary characters. These include Monsieur Chasle, the middle-aged secretary of Monsieur Thibault, who is suddenly revealed to have his own life, his own preoccupations, fears, and miseries. The reader becomes aware of many other lives lurking in the background, and beyond them still others. In the volume entitled The Springtime of Life, the adult Daniel and Jacques experience the bohemian life of Paris, encountering characters such as Mother JuJu, the retired prostitute, and many colorful girls of the streets, as well as the rich Jew Ludwigson, who sells Daniel’s pictures. Earlier, in a powerful scene at young Jenny’s sickbed, the Rasputin-like pastor Gregory chants and prays and condemns with equal fury and somehow saves the girl’s life….

The graphic realism of the sickbed and death scenes, and, in the seventh volume, Summer 1914, the dramatic buildup of the war, as the European nations are swept relentlessly to destruction, are impressive achievements. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that as the focus of the novel expands, the author never loses sight of the individuals who make up the world. For this vast, panoramic survey of society and the meaning of life, as well as for his earlier novel of the Dreyfus affair and atheism, Jean Barois (1913), Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937.

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2 thoughts on “The World of the Thibaults, by Roger Martin du Gard

  1. Hi. I am interested in purchasing The World of The Thibaults & Summer 1914. I am not sure how many volumes there are all together. I’ve been searching online, but some sites have The World of The Thibaults with only one volume and some have two. Can you tell me what to look out for so I don’t make a mistake? Thanks for the help!

  2. It turns out I made a mistake about the U.S. editions. “The World of the Thibaults” is a two-volume set that reissued “The Thibaults” and “Summer 1914” together, using common jacket designs. So you can buy the two books separately or together as “The World of the Thibaults.”

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