BORN: 1844, Paris, France
DIED: 1924, Tours, France
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881)
Penguin Island (1908)
The Red Lily (1910)
During his lifetime, French author Anatole France, was widely recognized as his country's greatest author. He distinguished himself in two widely diverse areas of literature—wistful storytelling and biting satire—and gained immense popularity with such works as My Friend's Book (1885). After his death, France's reputation suffered a marked decline and is at present undergoing reevaluation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youth in the Second Empire Anatole France was born Jacques Anatole François Thibault in Paris on April 16, 1844, the son of a self-educated bookseller. When France was only four, his country underwent yet another in a series of political transformation. The monarchy of Louis Philippe began seeing events of violent opposition
in Paris in 1848 that eventually resulted in his removal in favor of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, who served as president of the Second Republic until 1852. This Bonaparte then declared himself Napoléon III and ruled France as emperor until 1871. The period of his rule is known as the Second Empire.
France enjoyed average success during two years at preparatory school in St. Mary's Institute, but his next seven years at the senior school, the famous College Stanislas secondary school, were painful. His diary and the comments of his Jesuit masters reveal the youth's sense of inferiority, which led to indifference, carelessness, and outright neglect of schoolwork. Greater intellectual profit came to him from browsing among his father's books and from friendships with influential customers. The most crucial influence on the impressionable youth was one of his father's regular clients, Count Dubois-Dubais, an ardent classicist and admirer of the past whose wealth allowed him to develop and indulge his taste for finer things. The older man's easy, carefree lifestyle appealed to young France.
Took up Literary Life During his late teens and early twenties, France was confronted with the necessity and the uncertainties of choosing a career, though he had the luxury of living at a time when his country was
experiencing great material prosperity as well as colonial expansion. For a time, he had to be content with odd jobs. France assisted his father, worked as a teacher, and worked for a publisher at Bachelin-Deflorenne. Encouraged by his success, he applied unsuccessfully for the post of assistant librarian at the Senate Library. A few months later, in 1866, the sale of the family business made France's search for security more urgent, and he found the courage to approach the young publisher, Alphonse Lemerre, who promptly hired him as an editor and manuscript reader. In his new position, France came in contact with the Parnasse poets, who comprised an anti-Romantic, art-for-art's-sake literary movement during the mid-nineteenth century.
By the mid-1870s France had not yet published any fiction, but he was well known in several Parisian literary circles. To augment his small writing income (mostly from prefaces, encyclopedia articles, and ghost work for Lemerre), which often left him dependent upon his parents for lodging, he finally obtained employment in 1876 at the library of the Senate. It had been only a year since the French Third Republic had been declared, which saw the separation of church and state as well as complete freedoms of the press, speech, and association implemented. In 1877, France married Valérie Guérin de Sauville, with whom he had one daughter before an 1893 divorce.
Published First Novels France began his fiction career with novels and stories of a highly conservative, conventional nature. His first critical and popular success came with The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881). The protagonist, a reclusive scholar unsuited to worldly dealings, was the first of many similar characters, who were to some extent based on France himself. Similar characters included Jean Servien from The Aspirations of Jean Servien (1882) and Jerome Coignard from The Queen Pedauque. As his fame grew, he began to treat more controversial themes with an increased tendency toward passion and love, as evidenced in The Red Lily (1894), and the stories in Balthasar (1889), works which illustrate France's view of the church and social reform.
The writing of the four-novel series “L'histoire contemporaine” spanned a period of great change for France. Until this time, France had never aligned himself with any political cause. However, during the composition of the third novel in the series, The Amethyst Ring, France became for the first time in his life actively involved with a social cause—the Dreyfus Affair.
Politically Active In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason and subsequently condemned to deportation to Devil's Island, a small island located off the coast of French Guiana that was used as a brutal penal colony. The public had no reason to doubt the justice of the sentence, but in the following years, evidence emerged that cast doubt on the captain's guilt as well as on the propriety of the government's conduct in the matter. In a November 1897 interview, France said he could not approve of the verdict, since he had not been able to examine the evidence. After writer Émile Zola published his famous open letter, “J'accuse,” in the January 13, 1898, Aurore to condemn the sentence, he was charged with defamation. France signed the “Pétition des intellectuels” in Zola's support the next day and then testified at his trial.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
France's famous contemporaries include:
Robert Peary (1856–1920): Peary was an American explorer. In a series of expeditions around the turn of the twentieth century, Peary claimed to be the first person to have reached the geographic North Pole.
Henry Ford (1863–1947): Ford was an American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company. He pioneered practices, from the assembly line to the institution of the eight-hour workday, that revolutionized industry.
Émile Zola (1840–1902): Zola was a journalist, critic, social activist, playwright, and novelist. He was highly influential among his fellow Naturalist writers and in liberalizing French politics. His article “J'accuse!” (“I accuse!”) condemning the anti-Semitic “Dreyfuss affair” was a landmark event in European politics.
Paul Verlaine (1844–1896): Verlaine was a French poet noted for his contribution to the French Symbolists. He believed the function of poetry was to evoke and not describe.
France's new involvement was reflected in the covert political and legal systems that became a recurring theme in his writing. The short story “Crainquebille” is probably France's most well-known indictment of judicial injustice. As he grew in social awareness, satire became one of France's chief literary tools, of which he made increasing use in such later novels as Penguin Island (1909), The Gods Are Athirst (1913), and The Revolt of the Angels (1914). In France's later years, he was increasingly involved politically with the extreme left and for a time became a supporter of the French Communist Party, as did many intellectuals and artists of this period who generally stood in opposition to World War I. In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He published his last book the following year, the novel The Bloom of Life (1922). France died six months after his eightieth birthday, in 1924.
Works in Literary Context
The work of Anatole France is characterized by urbanity, wit, taste, craftsmanship, astuteness, and rationalism. Not without reason was he called “The Master,” both in his own time and often in the large body of criticism that appeared after his death. However, France's elegant style and subtle humor have not secured for him the same kind of enduring reputation enjoyed by his more revolutionary or politically involved contemporaries. To some, his work appears dated and sentimental. He wrote during a major change in the arts and literature, when old Europe was giving way to a vastly new and different modern Europe. To his contemporaries, however, France was a modern writer with the bravery to write biting, even shocking, satires of major cultural institutions.
Rationalism and Skepticism France adopted reason, in the French tradition, with a goodly dose of skepticism as a guide to living and thinking. He considered himself a rationalist. Rationalism is a school of thought in which human reason is considered the arbiter of truth. France was careful, though, to avoid giving human reason more credit that it deserved. Though France was scornful of religious dogma, he was nearly as suspicious of the dogmatic claims of science. Thus, France was also a skeptic, meaning he had a disposition to doubt that truth could ever be ascertained about certain things.
Works in Critical Context
While France received lavish praise from critics during his lifetime, he was ignored or disparaged after his death. The nostalgic sentiment of his early work appealed to fewer critical readers than it once had, and the social and political issues that inspired his satires are now primarily of historical interest. In the 1980s, a significant number of critics have offered favorable rereadings of his works. Critics who have reevaluated France have found a new and more complex appreciation for the artistic qualities of his fiction and his sophisticated handling of literary forms.
In 1897, the year before the first collection of France's Selected Texts appeared, Charles-Louis Philippe had written: “Anatole France is delightful, he knows everything, he's even erudite; that's why he belongs to a species of writers that is ending.” In 1916, André Gide had remarked that France's work, while elegant and subtle, was “without anxiety”—too clear, too easily understood, never disturbing his readers. Yet in 1921, when France was awarded the Nobel Prize for 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 François Rabelais and Voltaire, and called the new laureate the last of the great classicists and the most authoritative contemporary representative of French civilization.
The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard One work for which France received praise during his lifetime was The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard. Reviewing the book in 1890 in his introduction to an English translation, Lafcadio Hearn wrote, “The author of Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard is not classifiable,—though it would be difficult to name any other modern French writer by whom the finer emotions have been touched with equal delicacy and sympathetic exquisiteness.” Similarly, the Nation stated in 1885 that the book “revealed to the world five or six years ago that M. Anatole France, besides being a savant, was a poet with a fine and rare fancy, and above all a tender and sympathetic heart.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Whether it was religion or science, France always demonstrated a certain amount of skepticism. Other works in a similar skeptical vein include:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a novel by Mark Twain. Consistently named as one of the Great American Novels, Twain's most popular work takes satirical aim at institutionalized racism, religion, and society in general.
Babbitt (1922), a novel by Sinclair Lewis. A scathing look at conformity in the American middle class and, as Lewis calls it, “boosterism,” the act of promoting your town's outward appearance.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Loosely based on the Cold War thriller Red Alert (1958), by Peter George, this black comedy skewers the contemporary military mindset and the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction.”
Responses to Literature
- Discuss France's contributions to French literature.
- Write a short essay in which you describe France's use of satire in his apparently straightforward stories.
- As a class, justify why France won the Nobel Prize in 1921 despite the fact that his literary reputation was already in decline.
- What themes in France's work make his writing uniquely “French”? Do you think these themes helped fuel his popularity during his life? How might they have affected his marginalization after he died? Create a presentation of your findings.
Axelrad, Jacob. Anatole France: A Life without Illusions, 1844–1924. New York: Harper, 1944.
Bresky, Duskan. The Art of Anatole France. The Hague: Mouton, 1969.
Cerf, Barry. Anatole France: The Degeneration of a Great Artist. New York: Dial, 1926.
Dargan, Edwin Preston, Anatole France: 1844–1896. New York: Oxford University Press, 1937.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Introduction to The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (Member of the Institute). New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890.
Jefferson, Carter. Anatole France: The Politics of Skepticism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965.
Levy, Diane Wolfe. Techniques of Irony in Anatole France: Essay on “Les Sept Femmes de la Barbe-Bleue.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.
Sachs, Murray. Anatole France: The Short Stories. London: Edward Arnold, 1974.
Tylden-Wright, David. Anatole France. New York: Walker, 1967.
Virtanen, Reino. Anatole France. New York: Twayne, 1968.
Conrad, Joseph, “Anatole France.” The Living Age 24, no. 3140 (September 10, 1904).
Journal of the History of Ideas. (January 1972).
Nation (November 5, 1924); (April 22, 1944).
New Republic. (September 7, 1932); (December 7, 1932); (October 24, 1934).
Nineteenth-Century French[BA14] Studies. (Fall-Winter 1976–1977).
“Recent French Literature.” Nation 41, no. 1047 (July 23, 1885): 75–77.
Times Literary Supplement (London), September 29, 1966.
The works of the French novelist and essayist Anatole France (1844-1924) combine classical purity of style with penetrating flashes of irony. He is a major figure in the tradition of liberal humanism in French literature.
Jacques Anatole François Thibault, who was to take the literary name of Anatole France, was born in Paris on April 16, 1844, the son of a self-educated bookseller. He attended the Collège Stanislas, a Catholic school, but was far from a brilliant pupil and emerged with a lasting dislike of the Church. Greater intellectual profit came to him from browsing among his father's books and from friendships with influential customers, which led to work for a publisher. France's first book was a study of the poet Alfred de Vigny and was followed by poetry and a verse drama, politely received but not particularly successful. At the same time he was pursuing a career in literary journalism, and in 1877 he married Valérie Guéin, the daughter of a well-to-do family, with whom he had a daughter, Suzanne, in 1881.
France's first great literary success came in 1881 with Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard). This story of an aging scholar betrays to the present-day reader an excessive sentimentality, but its optimistic theme and kindly irony were welcomed as a reaction against the brutal realism of the prevailing school of Émile Zola. The novel which followed, Les Désirs de Jean Servien (1882; The Aspirations of Jean Servien), was less well received. By the close of the 1880s France had established himself as a literary figure and had also begun a liaison with Madame Arman de Caillavet, who had a celebrated literary salon. Their relationship ended only with her death in 1910. France's marriage was dissolved in 1893.
In 1890 appeared Thaïs, set in Egypt in the early Christian era, treating the story of the courtesan Thaïs and the monk Paphnuce with tolerant irony and skepticism. It was followed in 1893 by La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque (At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque), another tale with philosophical implications, this time set in the 18th century; and in 1894 by Le Lys rouge (The Red Lily), a more conventional novel of love in the wealthier classes, set largely in Italy. Le Jardin d'Épicure (1884; The Garden of Epicurus) consists of reprinted articles but contains the essence of France's attitude to the world at that point: a weary skepticism redeemed by an appreciation of the delicate pleasures of the mind.
Elected to the French Academy in 1896, France was at the height of a successful career. But his journalistic articles had begun to include social as well as literary criticism, and when the Dreyfus case came to a head in 1897, he felt obliged to take sides with the Jewish officer, whom he considered to have been wrongly condemned. For the rest of his life France was to abandon the political skepticism of his earlier years, while the irony in his books turned sharply critical of the contemporary world. This becomes increasingly evident in four books of L'Histoire contemporaine (1897-1901; Contemporary History), in which the figure of Monsieur Bergeret acts as the representative of France's own views on the Dreyfus case and other social problems, and in the story Crainquebille (1901), in which the case was transposed into a parable of the unjust prosecution of a harmless and innocent street peddler.
The book in which France's political irony reached its height was, however, L'Île des Pingouins (1908; Penguin Island), a penetrating glance at French history and life and perhaps the only satire in French literature which can be compared to Voltaire's Candide. The novel generally regarded as France's finest came out 4 years later: Les Dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Athirst). Set during the French Revolution, the book portrays the gradual development of a young artist, Évariste Gamelin, from his initial idealism and good nature to a point at which, through membership in a Revolutionary tribunal, his virtues have been transformed into a bloodthirsty and merciless fanaticism. France's own attitude is made clear through the character of Brotteaux, a formerly wealthy tax collector whose only possession is now his edition of Epicurus. Brotteaux, unjustly condemned by Gamelin's tribunal, meets the guillotine with stoic resolution. The novel ends with the overthrow of Robespierre and Gamelin's own execution.
France's last major work was La Révolte des anges (1914; The Revolt of the Angels), another satire, in which a group of angels attempt to free themselves from divine despotism. Less bitter than L'Île des Pingouins the book is also less successful. In France's later years he was increasingly involved politically with the extreme left and for a time became a supporter of the French Communist party. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; a year later his works were put on the papal Index. France, who had married again in 1920, died 6 months after his eightieth birthday, in 1924.
The many other books by France include collected articles on literary and social topics, volumes of autobiography, and a life of Joan of Arc. Regarded at the turn of the century as probably the most important French writer of his age, France lived too long for his reputation not to be viewed with impatience by a younger generation of writers who had little time for either his clarity of style or his polished irony. He himself had said, "People will reproach me for my audacity until they start reproaching me for my timidity." But if overvalued earlier, looked at in perspective, France's achievement as a novelist and satirist and his stand for the principles of justice and tolerance mark him as a major writer.
The most recent biography of France in English is David Tylden-Wright, Anatole France (1967). Among the older biographies, Edwin Preston Dargan, Anatole France: 1844-1896 (1937), treats France's life until the Dreyfus case, and Jacob Axelrad, Anatole France: A Life without Illusions, 1844-1924 (1944), deals with France's entire career. Up-to-date literary studies are Reino Virtanen, Anatole France (1968), and Dushan Bresky, The Art of Anatole France (1969). Alfred Carter Jefferson concentrates on France's political development in Anatole France: The Politics of Scepticism (1965). Useful earlier studies are James Lewis May, Anatole France: The Man and His Work (1924), and Haakon M. Chevalier, The Ironic Temper: Anatole France and His Time (1932). □
French poet, novelist, critic; b. Paris, April 16, 1844;d. Saint-sur-Loire, Oct. 13, 1924. He was the son of a Parisian bookstore owner and bibliophile, and was educated at the Collège Stanislas. He began his literary career (under a pen name for Jacques Anatole François Thibault) rather inauspiciously in 1873 with the publication of Poèmes dorés, tepid imitations of Parnassian verse. Long an admirer of (Joseph) Ernest renan, France imitated him in tempering knowledge with skepticism to combat what he considered the prevailing dogmatism. Like voltaire, he argued for a kind of pragmatic humanism that barred any basic metaphysical and spiritual considerations and considered reason and justice the only redemptive factors in a universe corrupted by materialism.
His Crainquebille (1902; adapted for the theater, 1905) is a cleverly veiled treatment of the Dreyfus case. Crainquebille, like Dreyfus, appears as the innocent victim of shamefully partisan political justice. Les Dieux ont soif (1912) denounces religious and political fanaticism; France's narrow conception of humanism leads him to confuse dogma, law, and established order with constraint and repression of thought. This attitude was probably what led to all his works being put on the Index in 1922. Reacting to the scientific and positivistic currents prevalent in literature, he wrote and edited four volumes of literary criticism, La Vie littéraire (1888–92). This work, however, is more a compendium of France's own literary preferences and aversions than a balanced analysis of the literature of his time. His reputation rests mainly on the wit and wry humor that salts all his writings, however wrongheaded or superficial they may appear to the modern reader. He was elected to the French Academy and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921. It is curious that he should be remembered best for some of his least objectionable stories, such as "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame," and "Pierre Nozière."
Bibliography: a. france, Anatole France par lui-même, ed. j. suffel (Paris 1954). e. p. dargan, Anatole France, 1844–1896 (New York 1937). a. france, Oeuvres complètes illustrées, ed. l. carias and g. le prat, 25 v. (Paris 1925–35).
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