Roger Martin du Gard's speech at the Nobel
Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1937
The presence of so many illustrious persons
assembled under the patronage of His Highness, the Crown Prince,
heightens the emotions that I feel at finding myself here and
hearing the words of praise that have just been addressed to me.
I feel rather like an owl, suddenly roused from its nest and
exposed to the daylight, whose eyes, used to the dark, are
blinded by dazzling brightness.
I am proud of the exceptional mark of esteem the Swedish Academy has bestowed on me, but I cannot conceal my surprise from you. Ever since I felt your favour lie upon and almost overwhelm me, I have asked myself how to interpret it.
My first thought was of my country. I am happy that in making a French author its choice for this year, the distinguished Swedish Academy has thought fit to glorify our French literature in particular. On the other hand, I know some great poets among my compatriots, noble and powerful minds, whom your votes might have chosen with much better reason. Why then am I today in this place of honour?
The demon of vanity, never completely silenced, at first whispered to me some flattering presumptions. I even went so far as to ask myself whether by granting this distinction to the «man without dogma,» that I profess to be, the Academy did not wish to emphasize that in this century, when everyone «believes» and «asserts», it is perhaps useful that there should be some who «hesitate», «put in doubt», and «question» - independent minds that escape the fascination of partisan ideologies and whose constant care is to develop their individual consciences in order to maintain a spirit of «inquiry» as objective, liberal, and fair-minded as is humanly possible.
I should also like to think that this sudden honour acknowledges certain principles dear to me. «Principles» is a big word to be used by a man who says that he is always ready to revise his opinions. I must, however, admit that in the practice of my art I have imposed upon myself certain guidelines to which I have tried to be faithful.
I was still very young when I encountered, in a novel by the English writer Thomas Hardy, this reflection on one of his characters: «The true value of life seemed to him to be not so much its beauty, as its tragic quality.» It spoke to an intuition deep within me, closely allied to my literary vocation. Ever since that time I have thought that the prime purpose of the novel is to give voice to the tragic element in life. Today I would add: the tragic element in the life of an individual, the tragedy of a «destiny in the course of being fulfilled».
At this point I cannot refrain from referring to the immortal example of Tolstoy, whose books have had a determining influence on my development. The born novelist recognizes himself by his passion to penetrate ever more deeply into the knowledge of man and to lay bare in each of his characters that individual element of his life which makes each being unique. It seems to me that any chance of survival which a novelist's work may have rests solely on the quantity and the quality of the individual lives that he has been able to create in his books. But that is not all. The novelist must also have a sense of life in general; his work must reveal a personal vision of the universe. Here again Tolstoy is the great master. Each of his creatures is more or less secretly haunted by a metaphysical obsession, and each of the human experiences that he has recorded implies, beyond an inquiry into man, an anxious question about the meaning of life. I admit that I take pleasure in the thought that, in crowning my work as a novelist, the members of the Swedish Academy wished to pay indirect homage to my devotion to that unapproachable model and to my efforts to profit from the instruction of his genius.
I should like to conclude with a more sombre hypothesis, although I am embarrassed to disturb this festive mood by arousing those painful thoughts that haunt all of us. However, perhaps the Swedish Academy did not hesitate to express a special purpose by drawing the attention of the intellectual world to the author of L'Été 1914 [Summer 1914].
That is the title of my last book. It is not for me to judge its value. But at least I know what I set out to do: in the course of these three volumes I tried to revivify the anguished atmosphere of Europe on the eve of the mobilizations of 1914. I tried to show the weakness of the governments of that day, their hesitations, indiscretions, and unavowed desires; I tried above all to give an impression of the stupefaction of the peaceful masses before the approach of that cataclysm whose victims they were going to be, that cataclysm which was to leave nine million men dead and ten million men crippled.
When I see that one of the highest literary juries in the world supports these books with the prestige of its incontestable authority, I ask myself whether the reason may not be that these books through their wide circulation have appeared to defend certain values that are again being threatened and to fight against the evil contagion of the forces of war.
For I am a son of the West, where the noise of arms does not let our minds rest. Since we have come together today on the tenth of December, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel (that man of action, «no mere shadow», who in the last years of his life seems indeed to have put his supreme hope in the brotherhood of nations), permit me to confess how good it would be to think that my work - the work that has just been honoured in his name - might serve not only the cause of letters, but even the cause of peace. In these months of anxiety in which we are living, when blood is already being shed in two extreme parts of the globe, when practically everywhere in an atmosphere polluted by misery and fanaticism passions are seething around pointed guns, when too many signs are again heralding the return of that languid defeatism, that general consent which alone makes wars possible: at this exceptionally grave moment through which humanity is passing, I wish, without vanity, but with a gnawing disquietude in my heart, that my books about «Summer 1914» may be read and discussed, and that they may remind all - the old who have forgotten as well as the young who either do not know or do not care - of the sad lesson of the past.
Prior to the speech, Professor A.E. Lindh of the University of Uppsala spoke: «It is with great pleasure and gratification that we find among our distinguished guests this evening Roger Martin du Gard, crowned today with the golden laurel of the Nobel Prize. We thank you most heartily for what you have given us through the medium of your literary work, and particularly for your great masterpiece, Les Thibault, which has come into being as a result of an intense study of reality, and of a profound knowledge of human dissimilitudes. In your psychological work survives that classical French realism which dauntlessly portrays life in all its naked truths, and which demands of its practitioners an incorruptible conscience and a great sense of justice. We admire the way in which you have permitted the family chronicles in Les Thibault to develop into a tragic and complete picture of Europe such as it appeared before those calamitous years of the World War. In acknowledging your powerful accomplishments we add our respect for the earnest pathos which runs through your literary works.»
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1937