France, Anatole (16 April 1844 - 12 October 1924)
Anatole France (16 April 1844 - 12 October 1924)
Catharine Savage Brosman
This entry has been expanded by Brosman from her France entry in DLB 123: Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Naturalism and Beyond, 1860–1900.
SELECTED BOOKS: La Légende de Sainte Radegonde, reine de France (Paris: France Libraire, 1859);
Alfred de Vigny (Paris: Bachelin-Deflorenne, 1868; revised, Paris: C. Aveline, 1923); translated by J. Lewis May and Alfred Allinson in Marguerite and Count Morin, Deputy, together with Alfred de Vigny and The Path of Glory (London: John Lane/Bodley Head, 1927);
Les Poèmes dorés (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1873);
Jean Racine (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1874);
Le Livre du bibliophile (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1874);
Racine et Nicole: La querelle des imaginaires (Paris: J. Charavay, 1875);
Les Poètries de Jules Breton (Paris: J. Charavay aîné, 1875);
Les Noces corinthiennes (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1876);
Jocaste et le Chat maigre (Paris: C. Lévy, 1879); translated by Agnès Farley as Jocasta and the Famished Cat (London & New York: John Lane, 1912);
Lés Désirs de Jean Servien (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1882); translated by Allinson as The Aspirations of Jean Servien (London & New York: John Lane, 1912);
Abeille (Paris: Charavay frères, 1883); translated by Peter Wright as Bee, the Princess of the Dwarfs (London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1912);
Le Livre de man ami (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1885); translated by May as My Friend’s Book (London & New York: John Lane, 1913);
Nos enfants: Scènes de la ville et des champs (Paris: Hachette, 1887); translated as Our Children: Scenes from the Country and the Town (New York: Duffield, 1917);
La Vie littéraire, 4 volumes (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1888–1892); translated by A. W. Evans as On Life and Letters, first series (London & New York: John Lane, 1911); second series translated by Evans (London & New York: John Lane, 1922); third series translated by D. B. Stewart (London & New York: John Lane, 1922); fourth series translated by Bernard Miall (London: John Lane/Bodley Head / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1924); volume 5 of original (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1950);
Balthasar (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1889); translated by Mrs. John Lane (London & New York: John Lane, 1909);
Notice historique sur Vivant Denon (Paris: P. Rouquette & fils, 1890);
Thaïs (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1890; revised, 1920), translated by A. D. Hall (Chicago: N. C. Smith, 1891); translated by B. Gulati, with an introduction by Wayne C. Booth (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1976);
L’Etui de nacre (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1892; revised, 1923) translated by Henri Pène Du Bois as Tales from a Mother-of-Pearl Casket (New York: G. H. Richmond, 1896);
L’Elvire de Lamartine: Notes sur M. et Mme Charles (Paris: H. Champion, 1893);
La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1893; revised, 1921); translated by Jos. A. V. Stritzko as The Queen Pedauque (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923);
Les Opinions de M. Jérôme Coignard (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1893; revised, 1925); translated by Mrs. Wilfrid Jackson as The Opinions of Jérôme Coignard (London & New York: John Lane, 1913);
Le Lys rouge (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1894; revised, 1921); translated as The Red Lily (New York: Brentano’s, Macaulay, 1898);
Le Jardin d’Epicure (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1894?; revised, 1922); translated by Allinson as The Garden of Epicurus (London & New York: John Lane, 1908);
Le Puits de Sainte Claire (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1895); translated by Allinson as The Well of Santa Clara (Paris: Charles Carrington, 1903); partially republished in The Human Tragedy (London & New York: John Lane, 1917);
Poésies: Les Poèmes dorés; Idylles et Légendes; Les Noces corinthiennes (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1896);
Séance de I’Académie française du 24 décembre 1896. Discours de réception d’Anatole France (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1897);
L’Orme du mail (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1897; revised, 1923); translated by M. P. Willcocks as The Elm-Tree on the Mall: A Chronicle of Our Own Times (London & New York: John Lane, 1910);
Le Mannequin d’osier (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1897; revised, 1924); translated by Willcocks as The Wicker-Work Woman (London & New York: John Lane, 1910);
Au petit bonheur (Paris: Pierre Dauze, 1898); translated as One Can But Try (London: John Lane, 1925);
La Leçon bien apprise (Paris, 1898);
L’Anneau d’améthyste (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1899); translated by B. Drillien as The Amethyst Ring (London & New York: John Lane, 1919);
Pierre Nozière (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1899); translated by May (London & New York: John Lane, 1916);
Filles et garçons: Scènes de la ville et des champs (Paris: Hachette, 1900?); translated as Girls and Boys: Scènes from the Country and the Town (New York: Duffield, 1913);
Clio (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1900); translated by Winifred Stephens (London: John Lane / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922);
Jean Gutenberg (Paris: E. Pelletan, 1900);
L’Affaire Crainquebille (Paris: E. Pelletan, 1901); translated by Stephens in Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and Other Profitable Tales (London: John Lane, 1915);
Monsieur Bergeret à Paris (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1901); translated by Drillien as Monsieur Bergeret in Paris (London & New York John Lane, 1921);
Funérailles d’Emile Zola (Paris: E. Pelletan, 1902);
Opinions sociailes (Paris: G. Bellais, 1902);
Crainquebille: Pièce en trois tableaux (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1903); translated by Barrett H. Clark as Crainquebille (New York: S. French, 1915); translated by Stephens (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1925);
Discours prononcé à I’inauguration de la statue d’Ernest Renan à Tréguier (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1903);
Histoire comique (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1903; enlarged, 1930); translated by Charles E. Roche as A Mummer’s Tale (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1908);
Le Parti noir (Paris: Société Nouvelle de Librairie et d’Edition, 1903);
L’Eglise et la république (Paris: E. Pelletan, 1904);
Sur la pierre blanche (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1905); translated by Roche as The White Stone (London & New York: John Lane, 1910);
Vers les temps meilleurs (Paris: E. Pelletan, 1906); translated by May as The Unrisen Dawn (London: John Lane / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928); original enlarged as Vers les temps meilleurs: Trente ans de vie sociale, 3 volumes, edited by Claude Aveline (Paris: Emile-Paul, 1949); revised, 4 volumes (Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1970);
Les Contes de Jacques Tournebroche (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1908); translated by Allinson as The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche (London: John Lane / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1909);
Vie de Jeanne d’Arc, 2 volumes (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1908); translated by Stephens as Joan of Arc (London & New York: John Lane, 1908);
La Descente de Marbode aux enfers (Paris, 1908);
L’lle des pingouins (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1908); translated as Penguin Island (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1909);
Le Tombeau de Molière (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1908);
Rabelais (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1909); translated by Ernest Boyd (New York: Holt, 1929);
Les Sept Femmes de la Barbe-Bleue et autres contess merveilleux (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1909); translated by Stewart as The Seven Wives of Bluebeard and Other Marvellous Tales (London & New York: John Lane, 1920);
L’Uruguay et ses progrès (Montevideo: Tipografía y Litografía Oriental, 1909);
Aux étudiants (Paris: E. Pelletan, 1910);
Deux discours sur Tolstoï (Paris: “L’Emancipatrice,” 1911);
Les Dieux ont soif (New York: Macmillan, 1912; Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1912?); translated by Allinson as The Gods Are Athirst (London & New York: John Lane, 1913);
La Comédie de celui qui épousa une femme muette (Abbeville: F. Paillart / Paris: Calmann-Lévy/Edouard Champion, 1912); translated by Curtis Hidden Page as The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife (New York: John Lane, 1915);
Le Génie latin (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1913; revised, Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1917); translated by Wilfrid S. Jackson as The Latin Genius (London: John Lane, 1924);
La Révolte des anges (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1914); translated by Mrs. Wilfrid Jackson as The Revolt of the Angels (London & New York :John Lane, 1914);
Sur la voie glorieuse (Paris: E. Champion, 1915; enlarged, 1915); translated by Allinson as The Path of Glory (London & New York: John Lane, 1916);
Ce que disent nos morts (Paris: R. Helleu, 1916);
Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard [stage version] (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1918);
Le Petit Pierre (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1918; revised, 1928); translated by May as Little Pierre (London & New York: John Lane, 1920);
Marguerite (Paris: A. Coq, 1920); translated by May (London & New York: John Lane, 1921);
Stendhal (Abbeville: F. Paillart, 1920); translated by May (London, 1926);
Histoire contemporaine, 4 volumes (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1920–1921)—comprises volume 1: L’Orme du mail; volume 2: Le Mannequin d’osier; volume 3: L’Anneau d’améthyste; volume 4: Monsieur Bergeret à Paris;
Le Comte Morin député (Paris: Chez Mornay, 1921); translated by May as Count Morin, Deputy (London: John Lane, 1921);
Les Matinées de la Villa Saïd: Propos d’Anatole France, edited by Paul Gsell (Paris: Grasset, 1921); translated by Boyd as The Opinions of Anatole France (New York: Knopf, 1922);
Le Miracle de la pie (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1921);
La Vie en fleur (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1922); translated by May as The Bloom of Life (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1923);
Le Chanteur de Kymé (Paris: Ferroud, 1923);
Frère Joconde (Paris: A. Ferroud/J. Ferroud, 1923);
Mademoiselle Roxane (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1923);
Dernières pages inédites d’Anatole France, edited by Michel Corday (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1925);
Les Noces corinthiennes: Poème dramatique en trois parties (Paris: A. Ferroud/F. Ferroud, 1926); translated by Wilfrid Jackson and Emilie Jackson in The Bride of Corinth (London: John Lane / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1924);
Prefaces, Introductions, and Other Uncollected Papers by Anatole France, translated by May (London: John Lane, 1927; New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928);
Itinéraire de Paris à Buenos-Ayres (Paris: G. Grès et Cie, 1927);
Le Café Procope (Paris: Au dépens d’un amateur, 1928);
Le Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1933); translated by Stephens in Clio and The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (London: John Lane, 1923).
Editions and Collections: Œuvres complètes illustrées, 25 volumes, edited by Claude Aveline and Léon Carias (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1925–1935);
Œuvres complètes, 29 volumes, edited by Jacques Suffel (Geneva: Edito Service, 1968–1971);
Œuvres, 4 volumes, edited by Marie-Claire Bancquart (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1984–1994).
Editions in English: The Authorized English Translation of the Novels and Short Stories of Anatole France, 19 volumes, edited by Frederick Chapman, translated by Lafcadio Hearn and others (New York & London: Parke, Austin & Lipscomb, 1890);
The Works of Anatole France in an English Translation, 36 volumes, edited by Chapman, James Lewis May, and Bernard Miall (London & New York: John Lane, 1909–1926);
The Works, 30 volumes (New York: G. Wells, 1918–1924);
Works, 10 volumes (New York: Wise, 1930).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Le Lys rouge, Paris, Théâtre du Vaudeville, 25 February 1899;
Les Noces corinthiennes, Paris, Théâtre de l’Odéon, 30 January 1902;
Crainquebille, Paris, Théâtre de la Renaissance, 28 March 1903;
Le Mannequin d’osier, Paris, Théâtre de la Renaissance, 22 March 1904;
Au petit bonheur, Paris, Théâtre de la Renaissance, 2 February 1906;
La Comédie de celui qui épousa une femme muette, Paris, Café Voltaire, 21 March 1912;
Les Noces corinthiennes [opera], music by Henri Büsser, Paris, Opéra-Comique, 10 May 1922.
OTHER: Les Œuvres de J.-B. P. Molière, with a life of Molière, variants, and glossary by France (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1876);
Bernardin de St.-Pierre, Paul et Virginie, notice and notes by France (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1877);
Xavier de Maistre, Voyage autour de ma chambre, notice by France (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1877);
Marquis de Sade, Dorci ou la bizarrerie du sort, notice by France (Paris: Charavay frères, 1881);
Mme de La Fayette, L’Histoire d’Henriette d’Angleterre, preface by France (Paris: Charavay, 1882);
Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, notice and notes by France (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1883);
Mme de La Fayette, La Princesse de Clèves, preface by France (Paris: Conquet, 1889);
Marcel Proust, Les Plaisirs et les jours, preface by France (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1896);
Emile Combes, Une Campagne laïque (1902–1903), preface by France (Paris: H. Simonis Empis, 1904);
Charles Rappoport, Jean Jaurès, I’homme, le penseur, le socialists, preface by France (Paris: Rouvière, 1915);
Hommage à l’Arménie, text by France (Paris: E. Leroux, 1919);
Paul Louis Couchoud, Japanese Impressions, translated by Frances Rumsey, preface by France (London & New York: John Lane, 1921);
“Le Mobilier en bois de rosé,” attributed to France, Revue France-Hongrie, 71 (November 1961): 63–80; 72 (December 1961): 37–64.
In 1927 poet Paul Valéry delivered his discours de réception, or initial speech, to the Académie Française after being elected two years earlier to fill the seat of Anatole France, who had died in October 1924. Resenting the fact that, in 1875, as an editor for one of the famous poetry anthologies titled Le Parnasse contemporain (Contemporary Parnassus), France had excluded Stéphane Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876; translated as The Afternoon of a Faun, 1956), Valéry, while following the convention according to which the new academician pays homage to his predecessor, damned France with somewhat ambiguous, if not faint, praise, suggesting that his grace, clarity, and ease of style disguised superficiality of content; moreover, while affecting to speak of him, Valéry avoided mentioning his name. (Valéry also disagreed with his politics.) The day France was buried, the surrealists–including Louis Aragon, André Breton, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, and Paul Eluard–disseminated a harsh pamphlet called Un Cadavre (A Corpse), in which they denounced the values France represented–skepticism, irony, and wit–and accused him, in essence, of having been a walking corpse. The same year, the Communist Henri Barbusse, in his magazine Clarté, urged his followers to keep their distance. André Gide had already remarked in 1916 that France’s work, while elegant and subtle, was “sans inquiétude” (without anxiety)–too clear, too easily understood, never disturbing his readers. In 1897, the year before the first collection of France’s Pages choisies (Selected Texts) appeared, Charles-Louis Philippe, proclaiming the need for “barbares” (barbarians), had written: “Anatole France est délicieux, il sait tout, il est érudit même; c’est à cause de cela qu’il appartient à une race d’écrvains qui finit” (Anatole France is delightful, he knows everything, he’s even erudite; that’s why he belongs to a species of writers that is ending).
Yet, in 1921, when France was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, praised both the substance and style of France’s writings as worthy of his great predecessors, including Francois Rabelais and Voltaire, and called the new laureate the last of the great classicists and the most authoritative contemporary representative of French civilization, to which, Karlfeldt stressed, Sweden and the entire world owed a great debt. By 1921 France’s works had been translated into at least a dozen languages; English-speaking readers could read them in a series published by John Lane, and several translations appeared in the Modern Library series, with introductions by such literary notables as James Branch Cabell and Lafcadio Hearn. Biographies of France began to appear that same decade.
Stark differences in artistic judgments are no surprise; literary quarrels, some quite serious and having significant consequences, have marked the French cultural landscape for centuries. While Valéry’s dismissal can be attributed to his devotion to Mallarmé, Gide’s judgment and even more the surrealists’ unfair severity reveal a crevasse between France’s concerns and literary practice and those of the intransigent new aesthetics. In a 1979 article, Dushan Bresky observed: “La beauté classique qu’il avait récréé mourut avec lui. Bien avant sa mort l’esthétique littéraire avait suivi de nouveaux canons” (The classical beauty he had re-created died with him. Well before his death literary aesthetics had followed new canons). Indeed, few authors who live to occupy a pontifical position avoid the pitfalls fame brings; as their skills decline, their art rarely meets their own earlier standards and still less frequently the demands created by changing tastes and artistic evolution.
The irony of awarding the Nobel Prize to a writer who had fallen into disfavor among influential French contemporaries was compounded, for those aware of it, by his suspicion of science and its presumption of progress, a suspicion justified fully, he thought, by World War I. Yet, science was the very foundation of Alfred Nobel’s wealth, and his belief in the future of mankind had led to the prize endowment, the terms of which required recognizing “the most remarkable work of idealistic tendencies.” One wonders which of France’s books the judges had examined. Claude-Michel Cluny observed, in the Figaro Littéraire in 2001, one hundred years after the first French author (Sully Prudhomme) received the prize, that Nobel selections reflect habits of thought of committees, who often confuse intentions and works and can misread one or both: “Pour ces doctes, l’art se voit tributaire d’imperatifs idéologiques, il se doit de porter sur ses épaules ‘un idéalisme noble et sain,’ de ‘donner une image claire de la vie humaine’” (For these learned ones, art must be a tributary of ideological imperatives; it owes itself to bear on its shoulders “a noble and healthy idealism,” to “give a clear image of human life”). France’s work carries out the second imperative better than the first, its idealism being, in truth, greatly qualified.
After France’s death, his reputation continued to decline. His brand of intellectual skepticism and Epicureanism appealed less and less, as the Enlightenment humanism to which he remained faithful fell into disfavor and as the moderate literary values of ornamental beauty and critical reason were widely discarded in favor of radical cultural positions. As Breton put it in his Manifeste du surréalisme (1924, Surrealist Manifesto), “L’attitude réaliste, inspirée du positivisme, de Saint-Thomas à Anatole France, m’a bien l’air hostile à tout essor intellectuel et moral” (The realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas to Anatole France, seems to me hostile to all intellectual and moral development). To the proponents of littérature engagée (committed literature) and left-wing activism between the wars and beyond, France’s social critiques seemed tame. (He observed himself that he was too bold for his own time but later would appear timid–the fate of moderates and evolutionaries.) Although substantial scholarly works appeared on him through the 1960s, in subsequent decades Francian scholarship declined, and his works nearly disappeared from anthologies and school syllabi. Late-twentieth-century critics, suspicious of texts that appeal to reason and influenced by decon-structionism, which questions the possibility of literary meaning, overlooked the hidden subversiveness of his work and thus its modernity, even as they identified the critical underside of writings by Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. Among outstanding exceptions to this scholarly neglect are the 1984 biography by Marie-Claire Bancquart and her edition of his major works in Gallimard’s Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
France was not merely the superficial observer, the Epicurean, the facile writer for which he has been taken. To adopt reason, with considerable skepticism, as a guide to living and thinking is, for the French, honorable and far from naive: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot illustrate how searching the rationalist position can be. France’s suspicion of the dogmatic claims of science was complemented by anticlericalism–rejection of both religious dogma and the church. Yet, he made ample room for human feeling and intuition as well as freedom; his work is often sentimental. To the contention that “l’homme est fait pour comprendre” (man is created to understand), Balthasar, in the story of the same name, replies, “II est fait pour aimer” (He is made for love). In fact, France seems to suggest that sentiment becomes all the more important as developments in knowledge indicate that one can never be sure of anything.
From this intellectual position, France produced a body of literature that is truly sui generis. His fiction is often realistic, especially in Les Désirs de Jean Servien (1882; translated as The Aspirations of Jean Servien, 1912) and Le Lys rouge (1894; translated as The Red Lily, 1898), but he generally eschewed the offshoot of realism, literary naturalism, because of its preoccupation with the sordid and its scientific pretensions. (He was also cool toward the naturalist writers–Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, who had treated him with condescension, and Emile Zola, whose novel La Terre [translated as The Soil, 1888] he criticized in 1887 but whom, however, he later learned to admire.) He likewise has much in common with the decadents of the 1880s and 1890s, cultivating, like Maurice Barrès, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Pierre Louÿs, a sensuous prose and often choosing his topics from periods in which old worlds were ending–particularly the late Hellenic period and the transitional time between pagan and Christian Rome. Irony, that marker of modern literature, is rarely far below the surface in his prose, attracting critics such as Wayne C. Booth; but it is less the deep self-doubt and self-hatred visible in works by Charles Baudelaire and Flaubert or the existentialist irony of Søren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus than a cultural irony–the understanding that all customs and all history are subject to revision, and that human perspective is necessarily limited, subjective.
France was born François-Anatole Thibault in Paris, on the Quai Malaquais, overlooking the Seine on the Left Bank, on 16 April 1844, also the birth year of poet Paul Verlaine. His father, François-Noël Thibault, had become a bookseller and minor publisher after having learned to read, it appears, only as an adult, in the service of his patron, Count Henri de La Bédoyère. Following the custom of his native Anjou region, Noël Thibault had shortened his first name to “France”; he then called his bookshop “France-Thibault,” and by 1844 his imprint was simply “Noël France” or “France.” Anatole, while baptized under the name Thibault, was sometimes known as “Anatole France” as early as grammar school. His choice of name under which to live and write should hence be considered only a half pseudonym. Anatole’s mother, née Antoinette Galas, a widow, had married Noël France in 1840. She was the illegitimate offspring of a miller’s daughter, who married shortly after Antoinette’s birth, then was widowed and remarried; the second stepfather, Jean-Pierre Dufour, a ne’er-do-well, remained, until his death in 1865, a drain on his family and then Noël France’s. Anatole, however, perceived Dufour’s eccentricities as charming; in his fiction they appear in various guises.
Anatole’s early life was molded by the atmosphere of his father’s shop, to which writers repaired to exchange ideas, as in eighteenth-century coffeehouses. At the age of eight he composed for his mother a collection of thoughts and maxims. He also began a translation of Virgil’s first eclogue, complete with notes and preface. At ten he thought that nothing in life was more beautiful than correcting proofs. Even if he later recognized the inadequacies of his autodidactic father’s learning, books formed Anatole’s mind, and he would always remain not quite a bookish man but a learned one, a devourer of the printed page, embracing both classics and moderns and accumulating a vast store of knowledge–in short, a preeminent example of the late-nineteenth-century man of letters.
Noël France was not, however, the boy’s favorite parent; as the author wrote in his autobiographical work Le Petit Pierre (1918, translated as Little Pierre, 1920), “En toutes choses, d’instinct, je m’opposais à lui” (I was opposed to him in everything, instinctively). Noël France’s royalist loyalties led his son to adopt republican sympathies early in life; and the boy refused to adopt his father’s livelihood, insisting instead, over objections, upon pursuing a writer’s career (which, at the time, was viewed as somewhat precarious financially and, in some circles, not entirely honorable). Anatole was closer to his mother and, as her only child, was showered with affection. This relationship is painted tenderly in the autobiographical Le Livre de mon ami (1885; translated as My Friend’s Book, 1913), in which Noël France is transformed into a doctor but Antoinette France appears much as she apparently was. This intimate relationship between son and mother foreshadows that depicted by one of France’s emulators, Marcel Proust, who almost surely found in Le Livre de mon ami encouragement for his own study of a close mother-son relationship and who, at least early in his career, was influenced by France’s prose style (the model, it is generally believed, for Bergotte’s in Du côté de chez Swann [1913; translated as Swann’s Way, 1922]).
France’s father and mother were both traditionalists; his mother attended Mass regularly. France probably enjoyed the beauty of services, for his spokesmen express aesthetic appreciation of the liturgy, but he may have lost his faith early, after the disappointment of his First Communion. He resented being sent to the Collége Saint-Stanislas in 1855, after two years elsewhere. While the priests were not unkind, nor indifferent to belles lettres, France did not flourish under their discipline; his performance received praise and prizes only rarely, when the topic of his lessons interested him. Moreover, he felt at a disadvantage with respect to the other boys, nearly all from much wealthier and socially prominent households. His humiliation at having to carry an old portfolio instead of a proper bookbag is recorded in Le Livre de mon ami. A certain awkwardness in his personality, sometimes called obsequiousness, noticeable until he achieved renown, can perhaps be traced to a childhood feeling of inferiority.
France left Saint-Stanislas in 1862, presumably to study independently. Upon receiving his baccalaureate somewhat tardily in 1864, he began earning money from various publishers and embarked on his writing career via journalism (especially in bibliophilic publications) and poetry. Finding a position with Alphonse Lemerre improved his fortunes considerably, for Lemerre soon made him a reader for Le Parnasse contemporain, in which France’s own poetry was included. At that stage it appeared that he would become chiefly a poet, modeling his work (despite its personal tone) on that of the older Parnassians, especially Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle, known for his impassive, chiseled verse and his cult of antiquity. In 1864 France passed off lines by his own hand as work by André Chénier, a late-eighteenth-century poet. Indeed, France’s early verse stands up well in comparison to that of many contemporaries. However, the explosion and disintegration of poetic forms in the twentieth century and the resurgence of a poetry of explicit self-expression have rendered Parnassian poetic values almost antiquarian.
His poetry was nourished by the anguish of unrequited love. From his adolescence he had been unsuccessful with women, from the sisters of family acquaintances to Nina de Callias, a bluestocking, and Elise Devoyod, an actress for whom he long harbored a frustrated passion. Actresses often appear in his works, notably Histoire comique (1903; translated as A Mummer’sTale, 1908), inspired by the memoirs of Mile Clairon, a celebrated eighteenth-century actress.
France also turned to criticism. While somewhat derivative and now outdated, his 1868 book on Alfred de Vigny was for its time a sensitive, if rambling, study of the only would-be impassive and stoic among the Romantics. The book inaugurates the critical style France later made famous in his prefaces and regular columns in the Univers Illustré (1883–1896), Le Temps (1886–1893), the Echo de Paris (1892–1899), and the Figaro (1899–1901). A critic’s function, according to his celebrated formula, was to recount “les aventures de son âme au milieu des chefs-d’oeuvre” (the adventures of one’s soul amid masterpieces). His style was labeled “impressionist” by the then-authoritative critic Ferdinand Brunetière, who intended the term pejoratively because he believed in objective standards for literary judgment and scorned those who thought aesthetic appreciation was necessarily subjective and one might as well acknowledge it. Modern critics, of course, have sided with France.
To augment his small writing income from prefaces, encyclopedia articles, and ghost work for Lemerre, which left him dependent often upon his parents, France obtained employment in 1876 at the Senate library. In 1877 he married Valérie Guérin de Sauville, thirteen years younger than he, in what was at least a half-arranged match. It produced one daughter, Suzanne (born in 1881), on whom France long doted. But France and his wife apparently had little in common besides their daughter, and the marriage was not happy. They were divorced in 1893.
France’s first published fiction, Jocaste, appeared in 1878 in magazine form, then was collected the following year with Le Chat maigre (translated together as Jocasta and the Famished Cat, 1912). Unlike many early novels, usually autobiographical, that are weak in craft and substance, Jocaste is a mature and nonsubjective work with an impressive command of language and a plot designed for the maximum effect on readers craving sensation. While short, it has more than one vein: it is realistic in its character types (which are worthy of Balzac) and its emphasis on the role of money; it is Romantic in its portrait of mute, idealized love and the powerful effects of unexpressed feelings; it is Gothic in its mystery elements (a deformed, vaguely threatening servant slowly poisons his master and then murders a crafty old forger); and it is melodramatic in its characters’ fate (the heroine hangs herself, and the man who loved her, René Longuemare, welcomes the disease that will kill him). Even France’s trademark irony and skepticism are not lacking. René professes an almost nihilistic radical scientism, questioning all possibilities for truth–while harboring a timid, idealized love.
The title Le Chat maigre refers to a Latin Quarter bar where the characters meet. The disquieting eccentricities of certain figures in Jocaste reappear here in harmless form, and the tone is generally humorous rather than tragic. Following Henry Murger and other early realists, the author depicts a Left Bank bohemia of poets, artists, and ne’er-do-wells, to which are added a Haitian politician and his son. The denouement, which brings together the young Creole and the girl he has worshiped and leaves the rest of la bohème to its incorrigible ways, imparts a sense of human freedom rather than fatality.
The same is true for France’s next fiction, Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, membre de l’Institut (1881; translated as The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, 1890), which was awarded a prize by the Académie Française and was long one of his most admired books. It consists of two parts of unequal length, tied together only by the eponymous narrator. A retired professor, book and manuscript collector, and a member of the French Institute, Bonnard resembles his creator in his timidity and his love of old texts.
In the first part he sends a Christmas gift of firewood, including a Yule log, to a young couple living in misery in the garret above him. Otherwise, his routine of research is broken only by conversations with his housekeeper, memories of visits to Uncle Victor (modeled on Dufour), and a trip to Sicily to buy a coveted manuscript. When he learns that the Sicilian dealer who had promised him the parchment has instead given it to his son, who sells antiques in Paris, Bonnard is both furious and disappointed. His travels are, however, made more pleasant by encounters with a charming Parisian and her husband, Prince Trépof, a collector. Back in Paris, Bonnard attends an auction at which the manuscript is for sale, but he cannot outbid an anonymous competitor. At the end of the year, he receives as a gift a hollow Yule log, cradling the precious manuscript. This O. Henryesque ending is made possible by Princess Trépof, who is none other than the woman in the garret, widowed and remarried into wealth; having learned of Bonnard’s disappointment, she has repaid her benefactor generously, with the added drama of surprise. This sentimental ending fits his character–good-hearted, easily moved, and unfit for practical life.
In the second part, Bonnard again exercises charity, this time toward the orphaned granddaughter of a woman he had once loved. His efforts to protect Jeanne and secure her education lead to involvements with a dishonest notary and a mean-spirited, frustrated, calculating headmistress, who attempts to maneuver Bonnard into marriage and, when she fails, turns her ire on the girl. The description of the school and schoolmistress and the episode in which Bonnard successfully spirits Jeanne away are both charming and suspenseful, for, although the reader senses that the basic goodness of the hero and his protégée must triumph, malice and the cruelty of fate form a thematic undercurrent to Bonnard’s humanism. He subsequently arranges for Jeanne to receive her due–the completion of her education and, finally, a suitor, a young scholar. The “crime” occurs at this juncture: Bonnard, who has promised to sell his library in order to give her a dowry, “steals” books from those to be sold–books with which he cannot bear to part. No matter; Jeanne is duly and happily married.
The semi-autobiographical Les Désirs de Jean Servien apparently offered an outlet for France’s bitterness concerning his youth and allowed him to set forth his views on contemporary social issues. Published in 1882, it was, he wrote in his preface to the first edition, composed ten years before (though revised before publication), and thus may be considered a youthful bildungsroman. Some of its themes are found also in Alphonse Daudet’s Le Petit Chose (1868; translated as The Little Good-for-Nothing, 1878) and in Jules Vallès’s Le Bachelier (1881, The Graduate).
Jean is pained by the misery in which he lives with his aunt and father, a hard-toiling bookbinder less erudite than Noël France, and is sensitive to his plebeian status; but he shows no great gifts and has none of the energy of Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, hero of Le rouge et le noir (1830; translated as Red and Black, 1898). His sometime tutor, the boastful drunkard Baron Tudesco, is a farcical character modeled on Dufour, whose appearances always bode ill for the Serviens’ pocket-book, and finally for Jean’s life. Although Jean receives his baccalaureate, he has no prospects; society offers few positions for those with liberal educations. Often he does nothing but go to the theater with money filched from his aunt. (Noël France had complained in 1868 that his son just scribbled, accomplishing nothing.) A job as a school proctor humiliates Jean; he is shortly dismissed anyway. Enamored of an actress, he writes to her, follows her, and finally confronts her and kisses her hand in a passionate gesture. Recognizing that he is just a mooning schoolboy, she dismisses him, though not unkindly. He falls into despair, and his love turns bitter.
Jean’s private drama becomes part of the larger, historical drama. His politics are different from the author’s. Although France’s youthful republicanism had set him in opposition not only to his father but also to the Second Empire, he had none of the revolutionary or anarchist in him, and until past middle age he was not involved in political causes. During the last years of Napoleon III’s reign, when there was considerable liberalizing of laws governing freedom of association and the press, France became less hostile to the empire, which, he recognized, had wide popular support. After the defeat at Sedan (1870) during the Franco-Prussian War, he served briefly as a reserve soldier, posted in Paris only. The consequences of the war, especially the bloody Paris Commune (March–May 1871), during which he managed to escape, thanks to a forged passport, seemed to him disastrous. It was both the sign and the cause of chaos; it represented the triumph of irrationality over a rational social order. Jean, in contrast, hates the empire and joins those who hope to overthrow it and establish a popular socialist government; the Commune represents the realization of his political dream. He has not forgotten the actress, however. Discovering that she is the mistress of Bargemont, a corpulent bureaucrat from the Ministry of Finances who had been, briefly, his protector, he falls ill from the shock. Later, meeting Tudesco, who has become a colonel of the Commune, he confesses his misfortunes in love. Tudesco, in his drunkenness, imagines that Jean is enamored of Bargemont’s wife, and steals her portrait for him. When Jean goes to ask for an explanation, he is arrested by Communard guards as a spy of the Versaillais (the army and the Government of National Defense). He is imprisoned, released, but seized again and shot by a vigilante-type citoyenne as personal vengeance against the hated bourgeoisie.
Jean’s somber story is thus an indictment of the Commune, for its violence and anarchy, and of women and an uncaring society. In contrast, the main section of France’s next work, Le Livre de mon ami, is an idealized portrait of himself as a child, called Pierre Nozière. (The second section, “Le Livre de Suzanne,” depicts his daughter’s childhood.) Inspired by a meditation on Dante’s line from the Inferno, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (In the middle of our life’s road), the narrator looks back with tender and bemused eyes on his mother, father, family friends, even an idealized first love. The work purports to be reminiscences, not fiction, and early biographers leaned heavily on it. However, it and its sequels, Pierre Nozière (1899; translated, 1916), Le Petit Pierre, and La Vie en fleur (1922; translated as The Bloom of Life, 1923), doubtless represent considerable retouching of the truth. Long a readers’ favorite for its charm, indulgence, and an almost Proustian sensitivity to the Paris setting and the feelings of childhood, Le Livre de mon ami lacks the critical dimension now expected in autobiography; moreover, the whole problematics of memory and self-writing are missing, though not all irony. France shows his talent for the nice turn of phrase; for example, when the adolescent hero has just humiliated himself unspeakably by replying “Yes, sir” to a woman whose beauty mesmerizes him, France writes: “Puisque la terre ne s’entrouvrit pas en ce moment pour m’engloutir, c’est que la nature est indifférente aux voeux les plus ardents des hommes” (If the earth did not open up then to swallow me up, it is because nature is indifferent to men’s most ardent wishes).
The title story of France’s first collection of tales, Balthasar (1889; translated, 1909), introduced into his prose the important vein of orientalism. Romantic writers and painters earlier in the century had cultivated what they called the Orient, mostly Egypt (made popular by Napoleon’s expedition) and other Near Eastern areas, including North Africa after 1830; but they were preoccupied with the exoticism of their own time. In contrast, France’s orientalism, like Flaubert’s, includes an historical dimension. He displays particular interest in late Hellenic civilization, Egypt, and the Levant at the time of Christ, which appeared to him, accurately, as a period of change with tremendous historical implications. The heir less of rationalist and serene Greece than of its turbulent sequels, France shows keen interest in the Mediterranean cauldron of cultures and cults in which Christianity was forged, and in competing sects such as Mithraism.
Several of the stories in Balthasar, and many later tales, deal with biblical or legendary material. France draws on the Bible, the writings of Flavius Josephus, and hagiography, especially Jacques de Voragine’s (Iacopo da Varezze) La Légende dorée (published first in Latin as Legenda aurea, circa 1474; translated as The Golden Legend, 1483), as well as his own imagination. He was also interested in biblical apocrypha, both Jewish and Christian. The material on which he embroiders acquires sometimes an almost mythic character, revealing, under the disguise of history and legend, truths that late-nineteenth-century readers devoted to the ideal of progress refused to acknowledge: the disruptive and yet creative power of sexuality, the violence in human character, the death of empires, and the power and persistence of religious belief, including superstition. By his taste for the Hellenic and medieval periods, France is an heir both of the Romantics, with their Christian mythology, and the Parnassians, especially Leconte de Lisle, with his interest in antiquity and his pessimism. But France is also a forerunner of those twentieth-century authors who had recourse to myth as an alternative to realism in fiction.
There are also parapsychological and fantastic elements. The taste for the occult and the fantastic, which seems incongruous in such a skeptic, was deeply ingrained. France was, as Bancquart puts it, “seduced” by Gnostic sciences, as were certain lesser-known Romantics and many late-nineteenth-century writers; though some are now almost forgotten, their works fascinated many of their contemporaries. It was the era of the Theosophists, the revival of Rosicrucianism, and other manifestations of occultism and Gnostic mysticism, which had been a subcurrent during the Enlightenment and had influenced Balzac and Baudelaire. A principal occultist was Alphonse-Louis Constant, who took the name Eliphas Lévi, author of La Clef des grands mystères (1861, The Key to the Great Mysteries). Others were Joséphin Péladan (called the Sâr), Stanislas de Guaïta, and Gérard Encuasse (called Papus); the influence of occultism is visible in the prose of Huysmans, Philippe-Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and, later, Guillaume Apollinaire.
Thaïs (1890; translated, 1891), originally called a philosophical tale after Voltaire’s manner, is France’s first full-length orientalist work. Set to music in 1894 by Jules Massenet, with a libretto by Louis Gallet, it became a successful opera. It was inspired in part by marionette performances in Paris in 1888 that led the author to investigate a corpus of tenth-century hagiographic puppet plays. This source complemented his other readings in hagiography and a long-term interest in the courtesan Thaïs, the topic of an early poem.
In part 1, the hermit monk Paphnuce, leaving his desert cell, undertakes to convert Thaïs, a beautiful and successful courtesan of Alexandria. The prose is sensuous, the visual element powerful. France’s anticlericalism sprang in part from the church’s denunciation of the pleasures of the flesh, which he accepted as being perfectly natural and thus good. In Thaïs the flesh takes keen revenge on those who deny it. Until the end, Paphnuce is blind to the attraction of Thaïs, blind to his own motivations and demons, who, unlike those in Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; translated as The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895), an obvious point of comparison, are entirely internal. Throughout, the author suggests the connection between religious and erotic ecstasy, as well as the power of human pride disguised by pious motives.
Part 2 presents a lengthy banquet scene in Alexandria, modeled on Plato’s symposium. The form of the philosophical dialogue is used effectively to convey a range of opinions (Stoicism, Epicureanism) among intellectuals who reject religion in the name of nature and the senses and who discuss such topics as the reason for creation, evil, free will, and death. At the close, Paphnuce seems to have triumphed: Thaïs consents to renounce her life of pleasure and immure herself among the female monks of the desert. However, Paphnuce remains obsessed by her. In the last part, a period of extreme asceticism atop a pillar only brings further temptations. The stylite ultimately recognizes that he has been the dupe of God, who led him to deny the only true good: sensual love. He goes to reclaim Thaïs from her hermitage, but it is too late; she is dying, honored as a holy woman.
The wheel of fate, whose turning brings Thaïs to the end–holiness–that Paphnuce had sought for himself, can have both an ancient and a modern interpretation. Venus has had her revenge, as the monk’s friend Nicias, a hedonist, had warned him; the constants of destiny, which the Athenian Greeks had identified and whose later Hellenic development is explored in the symposium, have prevailed over the efforts of Christianity to deny and counteract this destiny. In modern terms, the libido has burst through the hypocritical and repressive consciousness of Paphnuce, who lied to himself so thoroughly that he denied his true self.
E. M. Forster cited Thaïs for its hourglass construction, by which the fates of the two main characters join briefly only at the center, then diverge again. One can admire it even more for imposing, by means of a lush style, a worldview both alien and yet psychologically provocative, in which France’s anticlericalism is grounded not on rationalist impatience with absurdities but on the understanding of the human self. The violent denunciation of the book, a notable success, by a Jesuit priest, Father Brucker, in the periodical Etudes may have sprung from his recognition that in Anatole France the church faced not just another anticlerical rationalist but an enemy who proposed a total fulfillment of human potentialities, which could not be countenanced by a church preaching sacrifice and self-denial. The church was not to change its position: in 1922 all of France’s work was placed on the Index of Proscribed Books.
The defense of desire expressed in Thaïs is significant in view of France’s personal life. In 1883 he had begun frequenting the salon of Léontine Arman de Caillavet, a lively and intelligent Jewish woman, a Christian convert, whose husband, Albert Arman, had assumed the particle de and his mother’s maiden name. France became known as the lion of her gatherings; by 1888 they were lovers. His marriage, long unsatisfactory, deteriorated even further. In 1892, after a quarrel in which his wife insulted him deliberately, France, in dressing gown and slippers, seized his writing materials, walked out of the room, and went to a hotel; he never again resided with her. Later he moved to an apartment. Thenceforth the center of his activities was Mme de Caillavet’s residence.
Appearances were always maintained: although he had his room upstairs, it is said that for Mme de Caillavet’s receptions he entered through the front door, like the other guests; but he lunched and dined and spent nearly all day there, and their intimate relationship was well known. Mme de Caillavet remained married until her death in 1910; Arman took no visible umbrage at her involvement with the by-then famous writer, and the three traveled together. The Armans’ son, Gaston, who became a successful playwright in collaboration with Robert de Flers, was, however, disturbed by his mother’s conduct. Mme de Caillavet became freer when in 1893 Gaston married Jeanne Pouquet, a friend of Proust (considered one of the models for Gilberte Swann). France and Mme de Caillavet accompanied the young married couple on a wedding trip to Italy.
The affair between Mme de Caillavet and France was a stormy one, marked by quarrels and reconciliations; but they established a close intellectual companionship. She spurred him to write; it was doubtless she who urged him to compose the preface for Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896; translated as Pleasures and Days, 1957). Although she may have been despotic as a muse, France seemed to thrive, and she gave him more confidence in himself than had his wife, always hostile to his career; even public adulation was not as inspiring to him as Mme de Caillavet’s presence. On occasions she wrote a column or so for him; but it is excessive to maintain that she composed whole works.
During the late 1880s and 1890s France’s books and columns were widely appreciated, and he made money. In 1890 he resigned from his librarian’s position at the Senate, a stopgap duty for which he had been unenthusiastic. In 1894 he bought a private town-house, 5 Villa Saïd. Two years later, after he had satirized the Académie Française in Les Opinions de M. Jérôme Coignard (1893; translated as The Opinions of Jérôme Coignard, 1913), the institution elected him to the seat vacated when Ferdinand de Lesseps died. The decade was made sadder for France by the death in 1892 of an intellectual master, Ernest Renan, author of Vie de Jésus (1863), a recounting of the life of Christ according to the principles of nineteenth-century scientific historiography.
The last decade of the century also marked France’s initial involvement in political matters. Temperamentally conservative, fond of order, yet Voltairean in his hatred of fanaticism and obscurantism, he had maintained for years a moderate course. His experience during the Commune and his vast reading concerning the French Revolution had made him particularly wary of anarchism and, what was to him nearly the same, socialism. This wariness is visible in L’Etui de nacre (1892; translated as Tales from a Mother-of-Pearl Casket, 1896)–stories reprinted from a long periodical publication, “Les Autels de la peur” (The Altars of Fear; Journal des Débats, 1884), which portray the brutality and lawlessness during the Reign of Terror. In 1888 France was vaguely interested in the career of the nationalist general Georges-Ernest Boulanger but denounced him when it became clear that he represented a threat to constitutional government.
The Dreyfus Affair changed Anatole France permanently. In 1894, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason and subsequently condemned to deportation to Devil’s Island, the public had no reason to question the justice of the sentence; but evidence later emerged that cast doubt on the captain’s guilt as well as the propriety of government conduct. In a November 1897 interview, France said he could not approve of the verdict, since he had been unable to examine the evidence. After Zola published his famous open letter, “J’accuse,” in the Aurore (13 January 1898) and was charged with defamation, France signed the “Pétition des intellectuels” in his support and then testified at his trial. When Zola was suspended from the Legion of Honor in 1898, France, who had been named to the society in 1884, refused to wear his decoration, and in 1900 he ceased attending Académie Française meetings because of the coolness colleagues showed him as a result of the affair. He pronounced an impassioned eulogy at Zola’s funeral in 1902.
For the remainder of his career France remained a Left-leaning liberal, associated on and off with the Socialist Party, which he supported in a public speech in 1904 and to whose paper, L’Humanité, he contributed. His socialism was, however, undogmatic, inspired less by economic theory than by the failures of the Third Republic, dominated by a wealthy oligarchy. In the quarrel and subsequent split within the party, he followed Jean Jaurès rather than the intransigent Jules Guesde. His socialism was also an expression of his humanist concern for individuals and in no way represented a radical conversion. In 1921 it was announced that he had joined the Communist Party, but he withdrew his support the next year.
Some of France’s best-known prose appeared in the 1890s. La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque (translated as The Queen Pedauque, 1923) and Les Opinions de M. Jérôme Coignard, both published in 1893, recall eighteenth-century picaresque novels, philosophical tales, and rambling novels of ideas and conversation. La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque has three thematic strands. The first is Enlightenment skepticism, the sort associated with Voltaire but visible also in works by such figures as Diderot and Pierre Bayle, whose Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697, Historical and Critical Dictionary) helped initiate the eighteenth-century struggle against superstition. The second is orthodox church doctrine, which the author mocks and which is judged morally inadequate but not entirely discredited, especially in comparison to popular superstition.
The third strand is occultism. It too is patently mocked, but France appears interested in it nonetheless. Moreover, since he is suspicious of dogma of any sort, both occultism and religion benefit from the skeptic’s recognition that perhaps, after all, one should not rule out certain phenomena simply because one cannot understand them, and from the psychologist’s awareness that irrational beliefs may spring from the soul. As Jérôme Coignard says, “II semble que les vieilles erreurs soient moins fâcheuses que les nouvelles, et que, puisque nous devons nous tromper, le meilleur est de s’en tenir aux illusions émoussées” (It seems that old errors are less harmful than new ones, and, since we must necessarily be mistaken, the best thing is to stay with well-worn illusions).
For La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque, France drew on a wealth of sources, among them Gnostic texts and The Arabian Nights, although his text is not just a compendium. The novel takes its title from a Paris cookshop where the young Jacques Ménétrier helps his father by turning the spit–hence his sobriquet, Tournebroche. Jacques narrates his youthful adventures around 1730 in the company of his tutor, Jérôme Coignard, a priest given to the delights of the flesh, whose fortunes have declined; later they are joined by M. d’Astarac, an alchemist and occultist. The loose structure of the work allows for digressions, but the plot is not merely episodic: France knots its threads successfully to bring about a dramatic denouement.
Coignard represents skepticism (which he imparts to the candid Jacques) in all matters save doctrine, for despite his moral failings, he remains faithful to the core of church dogma, through the mechanism of credo quia absurdum (“I believe it because it is absurd,” a position France mocks but considers no worse than efforts to prove the existence of God by logic). In worldly matters the priest is a prudent and perspicacious counselor. D’Astarac is the opposite; persuaded that he can overcome the limitations of reason and the senses, he tries to fabricate diamonds, pursues the invisible (in the form of sylphs and salamanders), and conducts other magical experiments. He engages Jacques and Coignard to visit his estate outside Paris to assist him in interpreting Greek Gnostic texts while he works with Egyptian hieroglyphs. His illuminism is contagious: Jacques almost comes to believe in otherworldly beings and nearly expects the beautiful salamander that d’Astarac has promised him. What Jacques meets, however, is no spirit but a living young woman, Jahel, the niece (and probably mistress) of old Mosaïde, a Jew who helps d’Astarac with cabalistic texts. A projection, perhaps, of the author’s images of woman, she resembles also many eighteenth-century heroines in her faithlessness and talent for troublemaking.
Jacques and Coignard become embroiled in a farcical scrape in Paris involving Catherine (a luscious creature Jacques had coveted), one of her lovers, and the older “protector” at whose house the group is engaged in revelry during his absence. After the protector’s sudden return, there is a scuffle, during which Coignard kills a servant. Jacques, Coignard, and the lover are forced to flee, while Catherine will be shipped off to Louisiana. The three men take temporary refuge on d’Astarac’s estate and then head for a hideaway near Lyons, taking with them what they think is one of d’Astarac’s valuable diamonds and Jahel, who has meanwhile deserted Jacques for the new arrival, Catherine’s former lover. On the road their carriage is wrecked when Coignard utters a magic word, “Agla.” Coignard is brutally attacked by Mosaïde, who has pursued them from Paris in a jealous rage. But d’Astarac, who has accompanied him, says it was not Mosaïde who wounded Coignard but the spirits, because he had revealed the secrets of the elves. Coignard dies an edifying death, his sins remitted, according to a local priest, by his repentance in extremis. Sometime thereafter, Jacques returns to Paris and finds work at the bookshop of St. Catherine. While going to visit d’Astarac, he learns that Mosaïde has drowned, and he sees the château burning–the result, doubtless, of an experiment gone awry, with the alchemist himself perched on the flaming rooftop, calling out that he is rising on the wings of fire.
The main characters are memorable. By his erudition, his frank admission of his shortcomings, his vitality, and his appeal to reason, Coignard endears himself to both Jacques and the reader. D’Astarac is impressive by his very lunacy, at once frightening and charming, with even a few grains of wisdom. Jacques, a brother to Voltaire’s Candide, appeals by his thirst for knowledge as well as his uninhibited attitude toward young women. The rational and the irrational exist side by side not only thematically but also in the development of the plot–as if France wanted to acknowledge, like Voltaire, the inscrutability of human destiny.
In the sequel, Les Opinions de M. Jérôme Coignard, the narrator explains that he found Jacques’s manuscript of La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque in a Montparnasse bookstall; having published it, he now is adding a second text, discovered at the same time. France thus evokes the “found manuscript” trope frequent in eighteenth-century novels. The work consists of conversations between the abbé Coignard and Jacques Tournebroche, chiefly on the topic of government. Coignard here becomes France’s spokesman–“le plus sage des moralistes, une sorte de mélange merveilleux d’Epicure et de saint François d’Assise” (the wisest of moralists, a sort of marvelous mixture of Epicurus and Saint Francis of Assisi). Contemporary topics are thinly disguised under a cloak of eighteenth-century references–on the model of Enlightenment texts in which oriental characters and settings are subterfuges for attacks on contemporaneous institutions. Readers had no trouble, for instance, in seeing the Panama Scandal of the 1880s in “L’Affaire du Mississipi [sic],” ostensibly concerning the John Law financial scandal (in connection with land in Louisiana) in the early eighteenth century. Parallels between the ancien regime of Louis XV and the republic some one hundred and fifty years later are obvious, as when the priest argues that raison d’état (reason of state) cannot justify dishonesty (and this book was written before the Dreyfus Affair broke).
Even more striking is Coignard’s implied political philosophy, antirevolutionary because it refutes the Rousseauist principle (so named only in the preface) according to which human beings are perfectible creatures and a government of virtue can be attained. With hindsight, France knew that those who had wished to usher in the reign of virtue had brought instead the Reign of Terror, and that the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment were still far from being realized. He thus has his abbé argue that changing the form of government would do little to improve conditions; the next government might be still worse, and government by the many holds out more possibilities for mediocrity and abuse than government by one. Any progress will be imperceptible. Meanwhile, ministers are all venal and incompetent, and wealth and honors reign over virtue; the only good thing that can be said is that ministers play a minor role in the development of human history, which France identifies as the product of vast forces rather than the action of a few individuals. Under such circumstances true freedom is as yet impossible in the body politic; it should be sought, rather, in the self, in a soul freed from ignorance, superstition, and the vanities of the world.
Le Lys rouge, one of France’s best-constructed novels, is in a contrasting vein, that of psychological and social realism. It demonstrates that, contrary to those people, including himself, who thought he was naturally a tale-teller, he had a sense of the novel also, which allowed him to structure a work to make plot and psychology coincide. Almost Jamesian in parts, Le Lys rouge is a study in love and jealousy. It is also a portrait of society; like Stendhal before him and Proust afterward, France excels at making social mechanisms not only the background but also an agent of personal development.
Thérèse Martin-Bellème is a sensitive and intelligent woman married to a politically ambitious man, who gives her wide latitude as long as she respects proprieties. In their Parisian salon gather diverse social, artistic, and political figures. Thérèse is also, as she says, a sensual woman; but while a late-nineteenth-century French novelist could, without shocking the public as Zola did with Nana (1880; translated, 1880), allow himself, as France does, to refer openly to sexual desire among the upper classes, there are no detailed erotic scenes. When Thérèse’s lover, Le Ménil, prolongs a hunting trip, she decides to accept the invitation of Miss Bell, a Pre-Raphaelite poetess, to visit her villa in Florence. Much of the action thus takes place in Italy, where natural beauty competes with some of the most exquisite products of the human eye and hand.
In this setting, where nearly every prospect delights the eye–except cemeteries and other reminders of decay–Thérèse is courted by an artist, Dechartre (who is much like the author). Finally yielding, reluctantly, to his importunate suit, she then finds herself falling in love with him. The scenes of their passionate idyll are overlaid with references to art but also to unhappiness. Le Ménil, receiving no reply to his letters and anxious to retrieve the woman he had taken for granted, arrives in Florence. Each lover discovers the existence of the other and feels betrayed. Back in Paris, where her husband needs her help in promoting his election, Thérèse tries to break with Le Ménil, but he pursues her. Dechartre, already jealous of her past, suspects, wrongly, that Thérèse and Le Ménil are still lovers. His physical and mental sufferings are such that he must end the affair; love has led to its own destruction. At the opera, Thérèse injures her hand on the red lily pin he had designed for her as a sign of their Florentine love, and the blood drips onto her bosom.
The character portraits–including those of the eccentric Miss Bell, her unscrupulous suitor Prince Albertinelli, and the half-mystic, half-calculating poet Coulette (modeled partly on Verlaine in his last years)–match those by other masters of French fiction. Similarly, the social comedy and workings of a salon where contacts are made and political maneuvers prepared are handled skillfully. France excels chiefly, however, at depicting love, especially the impossible desire for total possession of the beloved. While the language, symbolism, and other aspects of the novel follow nineteenth-century conventions, they do not invalidate the work as a keen study of desire and unhappiness.
The reader of Thaïs, Balthasar, and famous tales including “Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame” (Our Lady’s Juggler, first published in the Gaulois, 10 May 1890) and “Le Procurateur de Judée” (The Procurator of Judea, first published in Le Temps, 25 December 1891), collected in L’Etui de nacre along with stories based on saints’ legends, might conclude that France was incurably attracted to the past, precisely because it is unverifiable and thus can give free rein to the imagination. But in the four novels later grouped together as Histoire contemporaine (Contemporary History), France revealed himself to be a keen, witty, and accurate painter (sometimes a caricaturist) of contemporary mores, society, and politics. He ranks not far from Proust for his depiction of the social and political mechanisms and currents that dominated the Third Republic just before 1900.
L’Orme du mail (1897; translated as The Elm-Tree on the Mall: A Chronicle of Our Own Times, 1910), first published serially, deals with two major opposing forces: the Church, which until the separation law (Emile Combes law) of 1905 was still established and protected; and the republic, built partly on the strictly secular principles of the Revolution and including virulently anticlerical elements. The situation is complicated by the new papal order of ralliement (that is, expedient recognition of the legitimacy of the French republic), which the novelist satirizes. Despite a structure that lets some plot threads simply dangle, the work has unity because of the piercing social satire and the convincing tones and phrasing by which France renders the speech, thoughts, and appearances of the characters, major and minor. Deft plot turns mirror the machinations of the church and the unvisionary Third Republic, the very image of government by intrigue.
The main plot centers around who will be named bishop of Tourcoing. The competing candidates and the archbishop are so well individualized that, as Jacques Suffel notes in Anatole France par lui-même (1954, Anatole France by Himself), they rival the priests of Stendhal and Balzac. Their unctuousness nearly drips off the page; but under that self-righteousness, their scheming and ambitious ways are as visible as those of their lay counterparts, the politicians who support one candidate or another according to their own–or their wives’–purposes. In the background is the insoluble conflict between an established church that remains royalist in both its pronouncements and sympathies and a republic that is anticlerical through historical reference and has a pathological fear of restoration. An additional focus of the novelist’s attention is Jewish influence in French society and the role of Jews as brokers of wealth and power. In a nation where Edouard Drumont’s inflammatory tract La France juive (1886, Jewish France) had enjoyed widespread favor, the depiction of Jewish politicians involved in naming a bishop was not merely a nice irony. In counterpoint to this main plot and associated intrigues are others, chiefly the story of M. Bergeret. Like Sylvestre Bonnard, he seems dear to the author’s heart. A modest professor married to a haughty and somewhat shrewish wife, he is only an observer, not a maker, of political and ecclesiastical intrigue; but, as a Voltairean, neither fanatical nor venal, he can play the role of listener and raisonneur (reasoner).
The same characters and intrigues are pursued in Le Mannequin d’osier (1897; translated as The Wicker-Work Woman, 1910), but politics are minor compared to Bergeret’s continuing story. It is essentially a domestic drama, rendered without bathos and with wry humor. Bergeret is portrayed in his triple role of husband, professor, and voice of civic reason. He exercises the latter function often in the local bookshop and during walks with friends, repeating some of Coignard’s (that is, the author’s) views. As a professor he is not seen at the university but rather at home, with his favorite pupil, M. Roux. Again, the author is clearly interested in the master-disciple relationship, which takes a melodramatic turn: the professor comes home unexpectedly to find his wife and Roux joined in an embrace. If his first reaction is predictable and uncivilized–namely, the impulse to kill them–his next, following immediately upon suppressing the first, is to leave the room and hurl to the courtyard below the effigy of his wife, in the form of her wicker dressmaker’s model (a gesture France himself had performed in a rage).
To put the whole thing out of mind and reassert his rights as master of the house, the professor henceforth denies his wife’s existence, neither conversing nor having any other commerce with her. Public opinion sides with her (her friends deny the rumors of an affair and see her as victimized, and even those aware of Roux’s assiduities tend to blame Bergeret, since cuckolds are always ridiculous); but Bergeret philosophically ignores the mockery and spends his time either with books or friends. By the end he succeeds in driving his wife to return to her mother. This drama is obliquely related to the occasional political concerns, for the domestic conflict reflects that between the conservative aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie and their republican opponents.
In L’Anneau d’améthyste (1899; translated as The Amethyst Ring, 1919), the bishop is finally named, thanks in part to pressure from three different women-two Jewish, and all involved in illicit affairs–who, for varying reasons, none disinterested, urge the government to choose the crafty abbé Guitrel, who has been helping his own cause. His first official act is to declare that, given the unjust tax burden–from which, according to papal decree, the church should be exempt–the congregations of the diocese will refuse henceforth to comply. In the background is the Dreyfus Affair. What, in the novelist’s view, made the original judicial error possible and so hard to rectify is implicit throughout Histoire contemporaine, although the series was planned before the affair broke. The aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie, who as a caste wield dominant power in the Third Republic–although some members are royalist–are anti-Semitic, pro-army, and pro-church. The characters’ reactions are entirely predictable: the politicians and churchmen say that to doubt the verdict of the military court or call for revision is nothing less than treason, and they point out that charges of judicial error come from Freemasons and Jews. Bergeret, on the contrary, argues that seven judges may indeed have been in error.
Monsieur Bergeret à Paris (1901; translated as Monsieur Bergeret in Paris, 1921) is a novel of politics, but not quite a political novel, because the political vision is never called into question and dramatized. Moreover, there is little change in the characters’ political understanding, and Bergeret, now a Sorbonne professor, undergoes almost no evolution. His socialist commitment to collective ownership and human solidarity is not the result of personal drama but rather the logical consequence of his views, especially concerning the Dreyfus Affair: “L’Affaire a révélé le mal dont notre belle société est atteinte comme le vaccin de Koch accuse dans un organisme les lésions de la tuberculose” (The affair has revealed the moral evil with which our fine society is afflicted, as the Koch vaccine indicates tubercular lesions). Since it was the government that committed errors, to accuse Dreyfusards of attacking and sabotaging the army and the nation is unjust; they are merely trying to rectify errors, in opposition to those who through conviction or self-interest affirm Dreyfus’s guilt and call his supporters subversive.
The strange political alliances created by the affair, related to the deep division between republicans and monarchists, will surprise no one familiar with party politics in France. In the major plot of the book, a staunch royalist wins an election as a nationalist, endorsed eventually by republicans and socialists, whom he despises. Much is made also of the alliances between old aristocrats, often impoverished, and wealthy Jewish families, who adopt anti-Semitic positions in order to secure their social standing. The mobility of French society, which Proust later analyzed brilliantly, is well suggested.
The structure of the novel is imperfect, but the portraits are skillfully done, the conversations lively, and the themes played out in multiple registers, including a sixteenth-century fable introduced through mise en abyme (interior reproduction of stories or motifs). What is most important about the volume and the series (in which France proved himself to be, with Stendhal, Balzac, and Zola, one of the major sociologists in nineteenth-century French fiction) is the connection established between fundamental flaws in the French social and institutional fabric–oppressive, unjust, obscurantist, and benighted–and outward political dramas such as the Dreyfus Affair.
During the first decade of the new century, two major works appeared, Vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1908; translated as Joan of Arc, 1908) and L’Ile des pingouins (1908; translated as Penguin Island, 1909), along with many other books, articles, and prefaces. France’s literary fame and political notoriety increased; to the conservatives, he was persona non grata. He published in Charles Péguy’s Cahiers de la Quinzaine (Fortnightly Notebooks) and wrote the preface to Une Campagne laïque (1902–1903) (1904, A Lay Campaign [1902–1903]), concerning Combes’s campaigns for the separation law. For some years France had traveled extensively in Europe and enjoyed lengthy stays at the country properties of the Arman de Caillavets and friends such as the novelist Gyp (Countess of Martel). After 1900 his travels became even more frequent, involving cruises and extended stays in various European countries. Mme de Caillavet usually accompanied him. But his private life was again turbulent. The marriage of his daughter, Suzanne, in 1901 to Henri Mollin was followed by her scandalous liaison with a student, Michel Psichari, Renan’s grandson. The marriage ended in divorce in 1905, and later she married Psichari, after the birth of their son, Lucien. France refused, however, to attend the wedding, and he and Suzanne thenceforth remained estranged.
While traveling in South America in 1909 to lecture, France had an affair with an actress, Jeanne Brindeau; it was not his first infidelity to Mme de Caillavet, but, unlike others, it was broadcast in Parisian scandal sheets. Upon returning home he found that Mme de Caillavet, who had attempted suicide, was gravely ill; he then broke off the liaison with Brindeau. Mme de Caillavet died in January 1910. That same year, he began an affair with Emma Laprévotte, who had traveled with them as Mme de Caillavet’s chambermaid, and by December, Laprévotte was living at Villa Saïd. This arrangement did not prevent other liaisons, notably with an American woman, Laura MacAdoo Gagey, who committed suicide in 1911. France finally married Laprévotte in 1920.
Sur la pierre blanche (1905; translated as The White Stone, 1910) concerns the knowability of the historical process and the possibility of achieving an ideal society–topics that must be connected in any rational theory of history. The story is set in Rome, where visiting archaeologists gather in the Forum to discuss the past, present, and future. The past and future are evoked by embedded tales; France was fond of frame narratives, although he did not always exploit their possible irony. The first tale is set in the Roman Empire during the first century a.d. Questions of cultural change and the unforeseeability of the future are raised when–like Pontius Pilate in “Le Procurateur de Judée,” who does not remember Jesus–Seneca’s brother Gallion, the Roman proconsul in Corinth, disdains and misunderstands the implications of the new religion that the apostle Paul, Stephen, and others preach. In ironic contrast, Gallion supposes that the peace of the Empire, over which Nero is about to reign, will endure indefinitely. The conclusion is that human beings are enclosed within cultural solipsism and cannot identify historical process.
The second tale, a dream, deals with a socialist utopia of 2270, presented as only one, not the sole, possible development. Means of production are owned by the state; men and women dress in unisex clothes; the traditional division of labor is blurred; and no single religion dominates. Yet, individualism remains, particularly thanks to art, and the state is not markedly oppressive. France acknowledges, however, both social and individual flaws in even this rational society. Anarchism and illegal dealing persist, as do the constants of the human condition–illness, unhappiness–for human beings are animals and often not reasonable ones. France sees the end of history not as rational synthesis but rather as a process of both social and biological evolution, in which the human species will ultimately be replaced by another.
Doubtless the most famous of France’s books in North America, L’Ile des pingouins is a cutting satire in the form of an historical fable. The satire is directed chiefly against nationalism and superstition, including Christian hagiography; both, France shows, invite fanaticism and lead to persecutions and other abuses. He exposes the pious veil clothing French history and criticizes the idea of divine omnipotence and omniscience, mocking God’s “aveugle clairvoyance” (blind lucidity). The medieval period, he shows, was characterized by brutality, by which private property and aristocratic privilege were established. (The depiction of the origin of private property is almost Rousseauist.) Other critical remarks concern purported French racial purity, American imperialism, the press, and modern-style architecture in “Alca” (Paris). The author spares virtually nothing and no one. His wit is not subtle; perhaps he had concluded that satiric niceties would be ineffective for people capable of stampeding in the streets to pursue Zola when he tried to defend Dreyfus.
In early medieval times, the myopic Saint Maël baptizes by mistake some penguins. A heavenly council decides that the penguins must be turned into men, since the virtue of baptism would otherwise be fruitless, and that would be contrary to Christian theology. Their history is recounted, from the metamorphosis and miraculous hauling of their island to the Breton coast (hence a Celtic flavor) to the great penguin revolution (that is, 1789), thence to the present. Even the future appears, with frightening lucidity: a great war (France was prescient); a polluted, barren, skyscraper-dominated city of 15 million; and a huge tree of smoke created by the energies of radiation.
In most readers’ memories, the fable is preeminently the history of the Dreyfus Affair, transposed into the “Affair of the Eighty Thousand Bales of Hay.” The themes of superstition, nationalism, the aristocracy, and anti-Semitism are brought together in the episode. Partisans of the army, anti-Jewish nationalists, royalists, and ecclesiastics, never reconciled to the republic, all self-serving, are allied against a handful who think justice has miscarried. The invented controversy closely follows the real one, and contemporary readers had no difficulty identifying the historical figures; Zola appears as Colomban and France himself as Bidault-Coquille. The author jabs constantly at the governments of fanaticism, militarism, and intrigue that had plagued his nation for more than a century. These social vices are not the result of flawed institutions; rather, the institutions derive from and mirror human viciousness. Religion and morality are but a hypocritical cloak; in reality, men are brutes. Clearly, France’s view of life had not mellowed after he passed sixty; the Dreyfus Affair and other signs of what he viewed as institutionalized injustice and inequity throughout European society had led to deep pessimism. Whereas Sur la pierre blanche evokes a rational and successful (if fanciful) new society, the future in the penguin fable appears somber. The book does propose, however, some possibilities for social amelioration. The forward-looking views of an authorial spokesman who argues for different relationships between men and women, including a new sexual morality, contrast with the double standard, still countenanced then not only by the church but also by such novelists as Marcel Prévost, whose Les Demi-Vierges (1894; translated as The Demi-Virgins, 1895) extols chastity for women while granting men the privilege of unlimited sexual adventures.
L’Ile des pingouins should be read in connection with France’s history of Joan of Arc, published earlier the same year and well received by almost no one. He had been interested for years in the Maid of Orleans and had worked intermittently since 1875 on what became two massive volumes. He was not alone: after Jules Michelet’s seminal work, which read the Middle Ages in Romantic terms, Maurice Barrès, Léon Bloy, and Péguy all wrote on the Lorraine heroine. Following 1871 and the loss of the eastern provinces, interest in Joan had increased, and during World War I she played an important role in patriotic iconography and rhetoric. In 1908 she was not yet a saint, however; declared Venerable in 1894, she was pronounced Blessed in 1909 before reaching full canonization in 1920.
France took issue with church conservatives, who interpreted her story in miraculous terms. While concerned to preserve her status as a national heroine, he explained her “voices” and other behavior in rational terms and indulged his anticlericalism by attacking the church for sending her to death. His views are not wholly consistent, however; the task of giving a coherent, nonreductionist explanation was beyond him, given the lacunae in knowledge concerning the period when Joan lived.
After Mme de Caillavet’s death, France’s existence was filled with activity, although–or perhaps because–he felt her loss keenly. He continued traveling, visiting Algeria and, in 1913, taking his seventeenth (and last) trip to Italy. He knew well and corresponded with many famous figures–the sculptor Auguste Rodin; the socialist Jaurès; the actor Sacha Guitry; the writer Barrès–and he met various others, including Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, and Valéry. His support for liberal causes was constantly solicited, and he so often complied that his activity in this decade, joined to that of the previous ten years, justifies calling him one of the first écrivains engagés, or committed writers, of the twentieth century.
France’s last major fictional works, Les Dieux ont soif (1912; translated as The Gods Are Athirst, 1913) and La Révolte des anges (1914; translated as The Revolt of the Angels, 1914), are, like many of his books, novels of ideas, although not romans à thèse (thesis novels) in which characters are manipulated to demonstrate the dominant thesis. Les Dieux ont soif concerns the Terror of 1793, one of the most repressive regimes in modern history. Although after 1900 the author expressed confidence that a better society could be established and European war eliminated through political and economic reform, this reformist creed was only grafted onto and did not replace his long-held belief that ideals are not sufficient to improve mankind, and especially that power held by the masses leads to anarchy and violence. In Les Dieux ont soif, the hero, Evariste Gamelin, an honorable person, devoted to the republic and its principle of popular sovereignty, becomes one of the butchers of the Terror, voting with self-righteous conviction for the execution of scores of compatriots. France shows how the Jacobins’ ideological obsession, which makes Gamelin admire Jean Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre and judge the moderate Girondists as treacherous, usurps traditional morality, feeling, and rational thought; they are no better than the tyrants and inquisitors they replaced. Opposed to their fanaticism is the tolerance of Brotteaux, a neighbor who is denounced and then condemned by Gamelin. A reader of Lucretius and an authorial spokesman, Brotteaux illustrates the best of the eighteenth-century philosophes’ thought: stoical, he accepts with equanimity the changes in his fortunes; virtuous and moral, although he is an atheist, he willingly assists others. He accepts his end with dignity, while realizing the price of the life he is losing. His friend the abbé Longuemare, a persecuted priest, is as devoted to his Christian faith as Brotteaux is to Lucretian philosophy; it is a measure of France’s own tolerance and pity that he makes the abbé die with as much dignity as his friend.
Gamelin’s end–upon the guillotine to which he had sent many–brings together poetic and historical justice, since it reflects the fate of the principal Jacobin leaders, which illustrates the author’s conviction that persecutions beget further persecutions. The novel also offers intimations of the synthetic process, identified by Karl Marx and later historians, by which the excesses of the Terror and failure of the republic led, through reaction, to the militarism of Napoleon and the empire.
La Révolte des anges, which sold sixty thousand copies within six weeks, is a whimsical, imaginative mock epic on serious matters. Set in modern France, it satirizes mores, politics (including monarchism and anarchism), class structure, religion, and, not least, women. It also retells Western history from antiquity through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and modern times. Finally, it attacks the Judeo-Christian religious tradition through mockery of sacred teachings and God, or Yahweh, himself. The attack was especially timely, in the author’s eyes, in view of what is called the Catholic Renaissance in the early twentieth century in France, which included noteworthy conversions among writers and various manifestations of religious militancy–Ernest Psichari’s militarism, Georges Bernanos’s call to arms under the sign of Joan of Arc, the ministry of Charles de Foucault in Africa, and the nationalistic Catholicism of Charles Maurras’s Action Française movement. The Catholic press did not overlook the offensiveness of La Révolte des anges: one review was titled “Un Possédé de Belzébuth” (One Possessed by Beelzebub). France’s novel will offend any pious reader who reads enough to see that God is called merely a petty Demiurge, the local, limited, but tyrannical deity of a few primitive Syrian tribes; but it will delight those who appreciate the Enlightenment tradition of biblical and doctrinal criticism by its reductio ad absurdum and arguments appealing to natural law. For nature is the author’s great model: natural substance, natural law, and natural impulses are the only truth, and morality is merely a useful artifice devised and prolonged by custom.
The cosmogony and theology of Dante and John Milton and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s universal history are the author’s negative models, as he ridicules the account of creation and the fall in Genesis, Mosaic law, and the doctrine of redemption, and criticizes the imposition of the new religion in the Roman Empire, the establishment of a state church, monasticism, obscurantism, the Reformation (Martin Luther and John Calvin are worse than the popes), and the Romantics’ emotional religion. His fallen angels–who turned against God, descended to live in France, and took on human features–expound the truth about the universe and the Divinity himself and, like Prometheus, propose to assist men, whom they pity. But they also plot a new rebellion against Heaven. They consult with Lucifer, who resides in a comfortable Hades where the shades enjoy the sort of intellectual discourse the author loved. Lucifer’s prophetic dream enacts what will happen if Heaven is besieged and God is overthrown: God will be exiled to Hell, a new victim, and Satan will assume divine prerogatives and reign as tyrannically as Yahweh. Thanks to this warning, showing what France thought of political power, the angels abandon their plan.
The fable ends without apology for its irreverence and anthropomorphism, and the novelist leaves his reader with a fraternal sense of the physical world. The work, which shows a tolerant understanding of human foibles, as well as human possibilities, constituted a remarkable feat for a man of seventy years; while its mixture of fantasy and social criticism has led to comparisons with Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican (1914; translated as The Vatican Swindle, 1925), by its vitality it also bears comparison with his farewell to fiction, Thésée (1946; translated as Theseus, 1948).
World War I confirmed predictions France had made concerning the dangers of industrialized warfare. In September 1914, after he had mentioned publicly the possibility of friendship with Germany after the conflict, he was hounded by accusations of treason–including an attack by Maurras–and calls for punishment. He then asked, at the age of seventy, to be drafted for military service. Pronounced unfit, he left Paris with Laprévotte for a country property, La Béchellerie, which he purchased two years later. Thenceforth he was cautious about making pronouncements that might appear unpatriotic.
In 1917 Michel Psichari was killed at the front, and the next year Suzanne died of Spanish influenza. Three years later, when his first wife (who had remarried in 1900) died, France was declared the guardian of his only grandson, Lucien. After the war he made famous pacifist statements, probably truer to his convictions than the patriotic positions he had taken in wartime. His prestige was tremendous; as Bancquart notes, he was endowed, in the eyes of many, with a “sacerdoce antisacerdotal” (antipriestly priestly authority). In 1919 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Athens and, two years later, the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is significant that, in what was doubtless a gesture of good will toward the principal belligerents of World War I, the Swedish Academy also honored the rector of the University of Berlin and winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (which was awarded in 1921), Walther Nernst, whose hand France shook. For the writer’s eightieth birthday, an official celebration was held in Paris, attended by representatives from all over the world, and after his death on 12 October 1924 he was granted a national funeral.
During the last two years of France’s life, controversy continued to surround him. Much of it stemmed from his Nobel Prize speech, in which he criticized the Treaty of Versailles (1919) as being not “un traité de paix, mais la prolongation de la guerre” (not a treaty of peace, but a continuation of the war). He also called for a new Europe and praised Romain Rolland, who was widely despised for his wartime pacifist writings. As Jacques Suffel notes, most Frenchmen did not yet speak so harshly of the treaty in 1921; to do so appeared pacifistic and pro-German. France’s words, widely publicized around the world, confirmed his reputation among his compatriots as an enfant terrible with leftist sympathies. Many observers were outraged. Unfavorable reaction was rapid: the day after his speech, two Paris newspapers expressed displeasure, and echoes of disapproval were heard until his death, reinforced by additional words and gestures of his that appeared pacifistic.
France’s work illustrates, in a pleasing style, traits generally admired as most Gallic, as if his mind were in harmony with his name: urbanity, wit, taste, craftsmanship, perspicacity, and rationalism. Not without reason was he called “The Master.” Yet, his work presents no great synthesis. He came too late, and was perhaps temperamentally unsuited, for the great, creative, utopian imagination of the Revolution and Romanticism, and he was prejudiced, partly because of the Commune, against its late-nineteenth-century avatars; so that, despite his adoption of liberal views when he was past middle age, his modes of writing and thinking were set and he was unable to go beyond his essentially critical spirit. As for visions of destruction and cataclysm, he was prophet enough to see what risks the twentieth century would run but not enough to imagine fully the moral and spiritual consequences. In short, by the measures of the twentieth century, and even more present ones, France may seem to come up short, his humor and workmanship more ornamental than substantive, his insights superficial–his art like the flitting of the bee in Jean de La Fontaine’s sixteenth epistle, the “chose légère” (light thing) that goes from flower to flower and object to object.
Yet, to see France as only a shallow, bourgeois dilettante would be shortsighted. At the risk of alienating friends and readers, he embraced the major liberal cause of the late 1800s and in his social novels attempted to show the flaws in French thought and institutions that made possible the miscarriage of justice for Dreyfus. Like Voltaire, he was determined to instruct–indeed to admonish–as well as to please; he was a relentless moraliste. In opposition to contemporary scientism, he argued that the apparent progress of science was illusory, since the horizons of the infinite unknowns merely retreat, and that too much reliance on the intellect was dangerous. He belongs thus to a major tradition in French thought and literature that reappears in later writers such as Camus and Gide. As for the anxiety that Gide found missing, it was not entirely absent. As Bancquart writes in her introduction to volume 4 of the Pléiade edition, in France’s last novels “nous entendons des interrogations qui annoncent notre modernité inquiète” (we hear interrogations that announce our disquiet modernity). Reason constantly struggles with the unreasonable, the mystery that mocks the very reason which identifies it, and with the inadequacy of language: “On ne dit rien dans un livre de ce qu’on voudrait dire. S’exprimer, c’est impossible” (One says nothing in a book of what one would like to say. It is impossible to express oneself).
Anatole France lived long enough to see that the twentieth century would bear out his skepticism: although abbé Coignard said that the future was a useful place for building dreams, what the new century brought was not a brave new world but destruction: “Les armées augmentent sans cesse en force et en nombre. Les peuples entiers y seront un jour engouffrés” (Armies are ceaselessly growing in strength and numbers. Whole peoples will one day be engulfed by them). With such a prospect, France cultivated the garden of belles lettres and the mind, for his own pleasure and that of readers.
Lettres inédites d’Anatole France à Jacques Lion, edited by Marie-Claire Bancquart (Paris: Société Anatole France, 1965);
Lettres inédites d’Anatok France à Paul-Louis Couchoud et à sa femme, edited by Claude Aveline (Paris: Société Anatole France, 1968);
Lettres inédites d’Anatok France à Paul Grunebaum-Ballin (Paris: Société Anatole France, 1971);
Quelques lettres inédites d’A. France et de Mme A. de Caillavet à Charles Maurras, edited by Philippe Delatte (Paris: Société Anatole France, 1972);
Anatole France à l’Académie française, lettres inédites (Paris: Société Anatole France, 1975–1978);
Anatole France et Madame de Caillavet, Lettres intimes, 1888–1889, edited by Jacques Suffel (Paris: Nizet, 1984);
Anatole France et Robert Dell, une correspondance inédite (1913–1917), edited by G. Corbière Gille (Paris: Société Anatole France, 1992).
Lewis Piaget Shanks, Anatole France (New York: Harper, 1919; revised, 1932);
James Lewis May, Anatole France (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1924);
Nicolas Ségur, Conversations avec Anatole France (Paris: Fasquelle, 1925); translated by May as Conversations with Anatole France (London: John Lane / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1926);
Jeanne-Maurice Pouquet, Le Salon de Madame de Caillavet (Paris: Hachette, 1926);
Ségur, Dernières conversations avec Anatole France (Paris: Fasquelle, 1927); translated by May as The Opinions of Anatole France (London: John Lane / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928);
Pierre Calmettes, La Grande Passion d’Anatole France (Paris: Seheur, 1929);
Jacob Alexrad, Anatole France: A Life Without Illusions (New York & London: Harper, 1944);
Léon Carias, Les Carnets intimes d’Anatole France (Paris: Emile-Paul, 1946);
Jacques Suffel, Anatole France (Paris: Editions du Myrte, 1946);
André Vandegans, Anatole France: Les années de formation (Paris: Nizet, 1954);
David Tylden-Wright, Anatole France (New York: Walker/London: Collins, 1967);
Géraldi Leroy, ed., Les Ecrivains et l’Affaire Dreyfus (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983);
Marie-Claire Bancquart, Anatole France: Un sceptique passionné (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1984).
Marie-Claire Bancquart, Anatole France (Paris: Julliard, 1994);
Bancquart, Anatole France, polémiste (Paris: Nizet, 1962);
Bancquart, Les Ecrivains et l’histoire d’après Maurice Barrès, Léon Bloy, Anatole France, Charles Péguy (Paris: Nizet, 1966);
Dushan Bresky, “Cinquante ans de la critique francienne,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 7 (Spring-Summer 1979): 245–257;
Bresky, The Art of Anatole France (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1969);
Jean-Jacques Brousson, L’Itinéraire de Paris à Buenos-Ayres (Paris: Cres, 1927);
Barry Cerf, Anatole France: The Degeneration of the Great Artist (New York: Lincoln, MacVeagh, 1926);
Haakon Chevalier, The Ironic Temper: Anatole France and His Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932);
Michel Drouin, L’Affaire Dreyfus de A à Z (Paris: Flammarion, 1994);
Europe, 32 (December 1954): 3–67 [group of articles on France];
Carter Jefferson, Anatole France: The Politics of Skepticism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965);
Jean Levaillant, Les Aventures du scepticisme: Essai sur l’évolution intellectuelle d’Anatole France (Paris: Armand Colin, 1965);
Diane Wolfe Levy, Techniques of Irony in Anatole France: Essay on “Les Sept Femmes de la Barbe-Bleu” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Department of Romance Languages, 1978);
Le Lys Rouge (Paris: Société Anatole France, 1933–1965, 1969–);
Murray Sachs, France: The Short Stories (London: E. Arnold, 1974);
Jean Sareil, Anatole France et Voltaire (Geneva: Droz, 1961);
W. Searle, The Saint and the Sceptics: Joan of Arc in the Work of Mark Twain, Anatole France and Bernard Shaw (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976);
Jacques Suffel, Anatole France par lui-même (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1954);
Suffel, Les Ecrivains et l’Affaire Dreyfus (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983);
G. Todisco, Anatole France: Littérature et engagement (Poggibonsi: Antonio Lalli, 1975);
Reino Virtanen, Anatole France (New York: Twayne, 1968);
Loring Baker Walton, Anatole France and the Greek World (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1950).
Many of Anatole France’s manuscripts, including correspondence and notebooks, are at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Others are held in private collections.
"France, Anatole (16 April 1844 - 12 October 1924)." Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 2. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jan. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
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