In Romain Rolande’s own words Colas Breugnon is a kind of interlude between his large epic and dramatic cycles, a secondary line, an episode in his total production; it is cheerful and life-affirming, even though its story is full of sad, indeed tragic events – like that of Anatole France’s Rotisserie de la Reine Pedauque. This tension and the triumph of life that springs from it is the decisive thing: here the old life-affirming, epicurean materialism, the great tradition of the French humanist breaks through. The historical theme is not accidental because, with the action taking place in the time of the Regency under the young Louis XIII, it expressed the continuity of this attitude to life among the French people.
Indeed Romain Rolland intends much more than an uninterrupted historical development. The outlook of this great humanist, his belief in the eternity of human feelings and passions goes beyond continuity. “Bonhomme vit encore”(Fellowship still lives) he writes as the motto to this novel, and in the preface where he gives his reasons for publishing the work unchanged (it had been completed just before the imperialist World War) he says that the grandsons of Colas Bruegnon , the heroes and victims of the bloody epic of the World War, had proved to the world how right this motto was.
Colas Breugnon, then, is conceived by his author not only as ason of his time, a time long past, but also an eternal type. And –which is decisive – a type representative of French popular life. With Anatole France the epicurean wisdom and blithe affirmation of life “despite everything” was the intellectual property of a declassed intellectual of the eighteenth century. Romain Rolande’s outlook has deeper roots in the people. To be sure Colas Breugnon, the artist craftsman also feeds his spirit and outlook on literature, but his his wisdom is essentially more native, more directly drawn from life, from popular life.
Here lies the imperishable beauty of this work, which makes it a unique product of our time. Romain Rolande nowhere idealizes his hero. In fact he deliberately sets a whole series of negative features in the foreground: a tendency to loaf, a certain laxness and negligence about life, etc. . Colas is not modelled to perfection: his faults and merits correspond in no way to those images which, at different times and on different sides have been used to glorify the French people.
But if Romain Rollande refuses to throw a false gloss over the French people in keeping with those traditions, he is even more strongly opposed to those modern literary trends which seek to provide a natural picture of the people by stressing human brutality; even though they would make “circumstances” responsible for this. Romain Rollande’s portrait of a popular hero is throughout blunt and robust. But inseparable from these qualities, which have more to them than their form suggests, is the hero’s human genuineness, subtlety and tenderness in his relations to people, his simple and shrewd decisiveness which in moments of real trial and danger soars into true heroism, heroic steadfastness. Certain scenes are hardly to be equaled in any other writer of the present: the hero’s encounter and farewell to the sweetheart of his youth, from whom we learn the humorous and moving story of their love, his farewell to his efficient, prosaic wife with who he has lived all his life in humorous discord. One has to go back to Gottfried Keller’s scenes of popular life to find the equal of this popular humanism. . .
The historical novels of the German anti-Fascist writers give us the poetry of the struggle for humanness and culture, against reaction and barbarism; but as yet this poetry is still abstract, not fed by real popular forces. It is quite different in Romain Rollande. We have already stressed the lofty ad vital poetry of popular life in this novel. This, however, rests on a conscious aloofness from the political struggles of the time portrayed, an aloofness which has been raised into a philosophy. Not that Colas Breugnon and his author do not take sides in these struggles. But the position they do take is one of blunt plebeian mistrust, repudiating both contending parties of the age, the Catholics as well as the Protestants. Romain Rollande has his hero say; ‘One party is worth as much as the other; the better one is not even worth the rope with which it ought to be hanged. What do we care whether this or that good-for-nothing plays his knavish tricks at court”?” And even more clearly at another point : “God protect us from the protectors! We are quite capable of protecting ourselves. Poor sheep! If it was only a question of defending ourselves against the wolf, we’d soon know what to do. But who will protect us against the shepherd?” Romain Rollande not only has his hero state this view repeatedly, but shows by striking examples through the course of the story how right the plebeians of the time were to distrust both sides in this way and how they attempted to translate their mistrust into deeds, now slyly, now boldly. . . .