Why you should read: The Soul Enchanted, Romain Rolland
By Shadi H. Parsa
The Soul Enchanted is a book about the life of a woman. It starts with a twist. A girl is engaged to a wealthy and credited man, from a noble family. On the verge of the wedding, she deeply questions their relationship and calls it off. The twist is a presence of a child, which makes the woman a unique protagonist, at least for the time that Roland wrote it. A single mom by choice, Anette starts a journey through one of the most chaotic social and political eras of Europe in the 1920s and early 30s. Losing her father, Anette is alone until she finds out about her half sister Sylvie. Sylvie is a tailor with a lavish Parisian lifestyle, in both love and fashion. These two tackle many obstacles together as they tackle one another with their opposing universes of thought.
The child, Mark, is a son of “river,” as Anette’s surname means river. The mother and her son consistently flow among their differences, neither one getting stuck by the other. They both seek freedom and perfection in the form of thoughts.
It is a book of a life, a detailed one in the most confusing era of Europe. Each time one reads the novel, new aspects of the meaning are revealed. I read it at three different ages and each time my perception of Anette has varied. The book is written in seven volumes and each sentence sounds like the powerful rhyme of a brave mind. Characters come and go and nourish the three main characters: Anette, Sylvie and Mark, all with the family name that literally means river. The story goes on until the Anette’s last breath, depicting each moment of her grief after experiencing the loss of the ones she loved.
No one is certain, but some have suggested that Anette, the lead character, is one of those figures that make the reader feel brave and vulnerable at the same time. She breaks the barriers of old minds, destroying the traditions that stop her from growing, and not being concerned about general opinions. Personally, I was introduced to this book on the verge of a huge personal loss. Mentally driven to perceive the world as factually as possible, my encounter with Anette was a milestone. Her presence is a mere delicacy and at the same time, it is a mirror of confrontations that usually are hidden under the comforting words of tradition, norms and taboos. For her, there is nothing but a very human side to everything. Non-judgmental as she can be, she is not a typical woman of Europe in the 20th century. She is expressive and non-conformist. But what is very heart warming to consider is the fact that this character was created by a male writer. I do not want to depict the cliché of male-oriented stories, but what I mean to shed light on is the delicacy of his observation. Anette was created by Romain Rolland, a man who also created a very strong male character in another book of his: Jean Christophe.
Romain Rolland is great at depicting the emotions via his characters. His doubts are embodied by the slightest actions and interests of his characters. Anette is a system of thought which is supported by her sister, a very different type of person, her son and her other transient admirers. None of these people change her essence, but she learns and molds into the ideas that can make her feel more alive, as originally as one can define being alive.
“In one summer, Anette discovered the void underneath the robe of civilization, art, glory and chaos. She expressed the despair in a sentimental train of words: ‘…what a rare occasion it is to witness the genuine voices, those bright glimpses of nature, the vivid conscious inner voices embracing the vision of virtues and life itself. What a hard thing to witness, human civilization is based on a trembling base, continuing on a basis of the habit. Soon this tower is about to collapse.’” This was fifteen years before the World War.
Also, in the interplays between man and woman, there is no frame, all are working as one. Rolland’s questioning of the social roles of men and women is all portrayed through the events and the dialogues of this book. And the surrounding characters all contribute towards the growth of the main character. The Parisian woman of fashion and pleasure is Anette’s sister, very divergent version of herself, but still vital to her existence as a whole.
The book is like a tree: if you cut it, each layer is a complex core forming the character’s life. I guess the revolution is made with each layer. Annete vaguely matures after her son goes through puberty. Chaotic in nature, her son resembles a part of Anette that was refined over the passing years. Anette is re-born within her doctrine of thought through her relationship with her rebellious son, experiences of war and within the radical social change of the time. She lives the modern era through her son and his friends.
Characters passing by each touch Anette or her son, shaping the flow of the story towards the so-called final destination. The mother as a classic icon morphs into an activist, a mother to all, and that is where she opens her feathers for a larger part of society. She becomes a broader mother, not only to nurture but also to let the young ones experience a more democratic presence even for a short amount of time.
The last volume has a part that is set in Italy. As I am now living in Milan, I felt the essence of culture and the rebelliousness mentioned in the book, and at the same time, the beauty of the streets and the art. Anette, her son and his wife get the hungry eyes of post-war Homo sapiens, thirsty for the loving touch of art, humanity and spaces. The harshness still resides everywhere but the moments they spend in the center of art makes them more philosophical—this poetics of space coupled with the characters made a symphony of thoughts which enables us as readers to have a fairly stoic viewpoint of any dramatic, tragic event.
The Soul Enchanted, or as its original beautifully rhymed in French, L'Âme enchantée is not only about the main characters, but an integral detailing of any character taking a part in this book. It’s as if anyone can be a part of the revolution that is about to happen.
Another aspect which really grasped my attention as well as my admiration is that, contrary to the other books of the time, it gives no indication of the writer’s political agenda. Depicting the youth movement of the time, it dissects the essence. It has a mental dialogue with every grumpy so-called political activist. Maybe judging by a loose button, Anette could know more about the man speaking than any other person. This does not compromise her vision as an intellectual, though; each personal aspect of her adds value to the whole party and the community she is inside. Very interestingly stated within the lines and lines of her many encounters, she is accepted as she is, without any glory but as a pure example of a truth-seeking human.
An encounter with Anette in the plot of the book is a blessing in disguise for anyone. She is not an ordinary nurturing woman, but more an arrow of wisdom for the ones who are seeking it.
Her interactions with the most difficult people, in terms of their thoughts (in the beginning), is a classroom on how to make a sustainable relationship with people who do not have the same mind as yours.
Her sister, Sylvie, is another planet of thought and action. But as they grow older, their relationship becomes more and more mature. The taboos that were their points of disagreement are gone after the course of the war; war kills all of the arbitrary virtues. There is no room for drama since there are not so many people left in families. That is something Romain Rolland liked to depict in almost all his texts. I would like to make another reference to the book Jean Christophe here again. It’s the story of a very talented musician with a difficult family to live in. Anette and Jean both have much in common: the surrounding people do not understand their beauty of mind for a long time. But they both go on, bruised and neglected as they move ahead. They are not alive to be seen; they are alive because each day is a glory.
I would like to add a note about the progressive feeling it gave me. This book, I can say, pushed me to become a better human without having to compromise any of my thoughts. I would also like to thank the editor Erica for this amazing opportunity to write, so I can share and re-feel the beauty of this book via words.
You can find The Soul Enchanted here.
My name is Shadi, which means happiness in Farsi. I am an engineer, designer and a part-time bookworm. I've lived in Kyoto, Istanbul and Milan so far. Design has always been my passion while engineering quenches my thirst for the details. While living in Istanbul, I experienced the chaos and the beauty of the city and its people. It made me a better person and made me observe and feel the city with my heart. During my stay in Istanbul, I became more and more obsessed with specific types of books, biographies and fictions since it was the essence of the city. Now I am in Milan, the city of design and the new reading list of mine leans more towards philosophy, aesthetics and thinking. My new concept crush is "composition of thoughts". I do not know where will I live next, but I am eager to learn more and read as much as I can.