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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Grace Elizabeth King (1852–1932)

By Édouard Rod (1857–1910)

ÉDOUARD ROD belonged in the class of young French authors of the last quarter of nineteenth century; the last recruits in the column of which De Stendhal, in the opening quarter, was the standard-bearer. His writings belong to that phase of the literary development of the period which may be termed parenthetical, rather than transitional. They are in their nature a consequent, a production, a reflection, rather than a factor, a vital actor; and their value lies perhaps in their ethical rather than literary relation to their period, important and charming as they are from a literary point of view. They might indeed be fitly defined as intuitive, had not the author, by himself assuming the classification of “intuitivist,” shorn the term of its fundamental meaning of self-unconsciousness.

Although Rod’s writings belong to French literature, he himself is Swiss. He was born at Nyon in 1857, and studied at Berne and Berlin; and after a brilliant literary career, was invited to the chair of professor of foreign literature in the University of Geneva. Starting with essays upon his first ideals,—Leopardi, Schopenhauer, and Wagner,—Rod followed in his books, as a critic has pointed out, the entire revolution of thought with which men’s minds have been in travail for twenty years: first the inflexible rulings of naturalism and positivism,—of facts, externals, experiences, limited by the contracted horizon of immediate reality; then the gradual modification of the reactionary movement, when facts began to be accompanied by explanatory and supplemental ideas,—deprived of which they had been proven incomplete and sterile of conclusions. The soul was rediscovered; the phenomena of conscience began to be observed; intellectual activity was recognized to have an aim, and its development to be in conformity with certain rules and regulations of the time; the sum of whose changing, amended formulæ constitutes morality, which is of and for all time. And now it is being asked in literature if this morality, to be solid, should not rest on some supernatural foundation. In short, the human mind has turned round and retraced every step of its previous journey.

Rod’s first novel, ‘Palmyre Veulard,’ is dedicated to the author of ‘Nana.’ “Conscientiously brutal and studiously impure,” says the judicial critic, René Doumic, “it is worthy a disciple of Zola and the school of Medan.” But—to follow the reasoning of this authority—Rod’s own nature protested against the developing tendencies of Naturalism; and besides, outside influences came to his assistance. He was a Swiss University man, and he was a Protestant; even though he retained but little tenderness of heart for the religion in which he had been reared, and mocked it upon all occasions. “But we remain prisoners for life in the religion that first fashioned our souls; we may lose faith, but not mental discipline.” Disengaging himself from Zola, and following his intuitive predilections for Leopardi, Schopenhauer, the music of Wagner, the art of the English pre-Raphaelites and the great Russian novelists, and for the contemporary psychological analysis, as applied by Bourget,—he came to the conception of his own work, his own true originality, and his self-possession, enfranchised from all other mastership.

‘La Course à la Mort’ (The Way to Death), ‘Le Sens de la Vie’ (The Sense of Life), ‘La Haut’ (Up Above), ‘La Vie Privée de Michel Tessier’ (The Private Life of Michael Tessier), and ‘La Seconde Vie de Michel Tessier’ (The Second Life of Michael Tessier), are the novels which, succeeding one another in rapid succession, have carried his name and the stream of his fresh strong thought afield into literature. Their titles are a fair indication of their essential nature. ‘La Course à la Mort’ is the intimate journal, the pitiless self-analysis, of the typical pessimistic youth of the day; a despairing cry in the darkness; the confession of the want of the very light of which one denies the existence. It has been criticized as a catechism of pessimism drawn from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and its author is reproached with its possible contagious influence upon the young. But as he himself observes in the preface to the book, the analysis of a more or less subjective state of mind, which is itself more or less general, is not to be taken as the personal conviction of the author,—a confession of faith; still less as the propagation of a system. ‘La Haut’ itself is the antidote to the contagious influence, if such there be, of ‘La Course à la Mort.’ It is the story of the cure of a soul and its restoration to virility and hope, in the pure heights of an Alpine village. ‘La Vie Privée de Michel Tessier,’ with its sequel, is the melancholy story of a high-principled man, overtaken in his home and in an honored and honorable career by a love which seems to him pre-eminent above all previous claims and duties; and his conscientious effort, through divorce and remarriage, to reconsecrate his life with love, and his love with life. It is a modern French tragedy of the purest writing. ‘The Sense of Life,’ crowned by the Academy, is however the work which displays M. Rod’s originality to the best advantage, to himself and to that of the reader. There is hardly a novel in modern French literature that can be read with more profit, particularly by the foreign student of that literature and that life. And it is one of the books upon which criticism seems least profitably employed;—necessarily, from its nature and from the nature of M. Rod. To quote a characteristic passage from Jules Lemaître about it:—“M. Édouard Rod puts to himself the question: ‘What is the Sense of Life?’ and if I have quite understood him, he answers himself in pretty much these words: ‘If life have a meaning, it is that which honest and brave people give it, no matter what be the kind and degree of their culture.’… Life has no meaning except for such as believe and love,—that is his conclusion.”

Besides these stories, Édouard Rod wrote other works on the same lines. It would hardly be just to the author to omit the competent criticism of M. Anatole France upon one of these:—“I understand nevertheless that there is a moral in the book of M. Rod,—that to the vain all is vanity, to the lying all is lies…. But even in its desolation of sadness, the book warns us to fear egoism as the worst of evils. It teaches us purity of heart and simplicity. It brings back to our memory that verse of the ‘Imitation’: ‘For in whatever instance a person seeketh himself, there he falleth from love.’”

‘Moral Ideals of the Present Time’ opens with a worthy dedication to M. Paul Desjardins, and passes in review Renan, Schopenhauer, Zola, Bourget, Lemâitre, Scherer, Dumas, Brunetière, Tolstoy, and De Vogüé; it is an invaluable document to any student of the literary influences of the nineteenth century. Rod contributed to this LIBRARY a brief study of Rousseau, and made this author the hero of one of his last works, a drama entitled ‘Le Reformateur’ (1906).