Louis-Henri-Jean Farigoule’s contribution to French literature is noteworthy for its varied genres, originality of thought, and constancy through nearly seven decades. As Jules Romains (roh-man), he wrote steadily for most of his eighty-seven years, producing more than one hundred titles, among them a novel of twenty-seven volumes, internationally acclaimed dramas, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. In addition, as cofounder of the French literary movement “Unanimism,” Romains gave to literature an original manner in which to view the world.
Born in Saint-Julien-Chapteuil, Romains soon moved to Paris, where he lived until age nineteen. An intelligent student, he attended the same elementary school where his father was teaching. Later, he embarked on the challenging khâgne, the preparatory course for the prestigious Êcole Normale Supérieure. Academically, he remained at the head of his class. Romains began writing early, completing a comedy at age nine and a five-act political drama (“Tsar”) at fifteen. However, it was poetry that brought his first widespread literary recognition with the 1908 publication of his book La Vie unanime. After earning degrees in science and philosophy, he taught philosophy until deciding in 1919 to devote himself full-time to writing.
Romains broke with his Catholic upbringing at fourteen. Eventually, he conceived the general principles of Unanimism. At eighteen, while out walking through Paris one evening, he beheld a vision of the whole city collectively representing a single entity–all people, shops, animals, vehicles–comprising one collective consciousness, and he himself possessing an intuitive understanding of it. Together, Romains and his friend Georges Chennevière expanded this vision into the full-fledged literary movement named Unanimisme. Unanimism recognizes the potency of the unified group consciousness as well as the artist’s need intuitively to merge with it. At first presenting this new concept through essays and articles, Romains soon gave it a central role in his poetry and other literature. Also expressing his Unanimist ideas were his earliest dramas, produced at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier.
Romains married Gabrielle Gaffé in 1912, and they lived in Paris, often taking short trips together to nearby destinations. As Romains’s literary success and prosperity increased, he was able to buy a car and feed his love of travel with more distant jaunts.
Intelligent and sensitive from youth, Romains found the 1914 outbreak of World War I traumatic. As a student, he had been granted a shortened term of military service, but even that one-year army term proved disturbing, as his sensitivities were affronted by the coarseness of army life. Later, during the 1940 German occupation of France, Romains sought refuge in the United States, remaining there until the end of World War II. While in the United States, Romains further indulged his love of travel, visiting many major cities as well as Mexico, Canada, and Cuba.
In addition to receiving early acclaim for his poetry, Romains was also a successful playwright. His 1923 drama Dr. Knock has been called a comic masterpiece, and in 1932 it was made into the film Dr. Knock, starring well-known actor and producer Louis Jouvet. In 1931 Romains began writing the serial novel Les Hommes de bonne volonté. Published from 1932 to 1946, these twenty-seven volumes covered historical, domestic, and criminal aspects of 1908 to 1933 French society. Prior to this novel’s publication, critics sometimes accused Romains of didactic writing in the wake of his earlier teaching career. However, initial volumes in this novel series silenced much of that criticism, and the book remains among his best known.
Divorced in 1936, Romains married Lise Dreyfus. That same year, he became president of the French branch of the International Federation on PEN Clubs and was also elected its international president months later. Additionally, he served as international president of the Universal Society of the Theatre and in 1946 was elected to the French Academy. In the remaining decades until his death, Romains wrote numerous and varied works, only a few matching the force and quality of his pre-1946 work. Nonetheless, his reputation remained strong to the end, and his position in French literature is secure today.