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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Curtis Hidden Page (1870–1946)

By Anatole France (1844–1924)

ANATOLE FRANCE stands in the front rank of contemporary French writers. He probably excels in more different fields than any other writer of to-day: in the essay and the novel, the short story and the nouvelle, in history, biography, autobiography of various kinds, reflective writing, satire, and criticism; he has also done notable work in poetry and in the lighter and briefer forms of the drama.

He is complex and full of contradictions, yet direct, simple, and sincere. He combines cynicism and human sympathy, irony and pity, intellect and sensuality, mordant satire and generosity of judgment. He is a dilettante, yet a scholar; a skeptic, yet always ready to do battle for causes that he passionately believes in.

As a writer, he is of the direct lineage of Rabelais and Montaigne, of Molière and Pascal, of Voltaire and Musset; yet he is more modern than any adherent of the passing “schools,” and nearer to to-morrow than any futurist. His style is finished, artistic, almost self-conscious; but it is one of the most clear and natural styles ever written, even in France. His ideas and personality, never for a moment absent or even subordinated in his work, are always interesting, and almost always admirable.

He was born at Paris, April 16th, 1844. His father, Noël-France Thibault, had him christened Jacques-Anatole. The pen name, Anatole France, is therefore not, as has often been supposed, a somewhat pretentious attempt to identify himself with the character and spirit of the French nation (though his disciples may take it as accidentally symbolizing this identity), but a simple combination of part of his own given name with part of his father’s. He got his early education in his father’s book-shop on the Quai Voltaire, near the Institute of France; on the sidewalks along the Seine, lined with their boxes of second-hand books; and on the bridges, where he could loaf and watch those laziest things in life, the river and the fishermen. Like Stevenson, he has expressed the spirit of leisure through more than fifty industrious volumes, without being, like Stevenson, urged on by sentence of early death. His schooling was completed in the streets and cafés of the Latin Quarter; and in the Collège Stanislas, where a thorough general training of the mind, chiefly through the medium of Latin, was still imposed upon all students, even the less industrious, to their lasting gratitude (see his essay ‘Pour le Latin,’ in ‘La Vie littéraire,’ Vol. i.). Later, he was employed in the Library of the Senate for a good many years, until his success as a writer made him independent. In 1895 he was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor, and in 1896 elected to the French Academy.

His first literary work of any importance was a study of Alfred de Vigny, published in 1868. Vigny’s noble pessimism, his artistic conscientiousness, his strength and reserve, naturally appealed to the young man who was just learning his art as a poet under the influence of Leconte de Lisle and the Parnassians, and who was to spend fully ten years of his life in devotion to poetry of the school of art for art’s sake. He published ‘Les Poèmes dorés’ in 1873, and ‘Les Noces corinthiennes’ (a poem in dramatic form, later played at the Odéon) in 1876. The preface of the second work gives a characteristic expression of some of his ideas:

  • “In this book,” he says, “I touch on great and delicate matters—matters of religion. I have dreamed over again the dream of faith; I have indulged in the illusion of a living belief…. I know there is no certitude except in science…. But it would be an unscientific idea to think that science can ever replace religion. So long as man shall suck the milk of his mother’s breast, he will be consecrated in the temple and initiated into some divine mystery. He will dream dreams. And what matter though the dream be a lie, if only it is beautiful?”
  • The ‘Poèmes dorés’ is dedicated to Leconte de Lisle. It gives us charming pictures, especially from classical antiquity, in finished verse; but has little substance or imaginative force. A characteristic line is the last one of ‘La Sagesse des Griffons,’

  • “Eternal vows of lips that live a day.”
  • His first important attempt in fiction was not published until he was thirty-five years old and was a small volume containing two nouvelles: ‘Jocasta,’ and ‘The Famished Cat.’ His first marked success, ‘The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard’ (crowned by the French Academy), came in 1881. This was soon followed by ‘The Desires of Jean Servien,’ 1882; and he was now fairly launched on his career as a writer of fiction. Important later works among those which most closely approach the novel as a type, were ‘Thaïs,’ 1890, and ‘The Red Lily,’ 1894. He also began during these years the series of half-autobiographical works of fiction, with one of the best of them, full of pictures from his own youth, ‘My Friend’s Book,’ 1885; and the series of sketches and stories, of which ‘Balthasar,’ 1889, and ‘Mother of Pearl,’ 1892, are important examples.

    Meanwhile he had devoted himself even more assiduously to criticism, in which, probably without intending to do so, he founded a new school. The most important of his articles were collected into four volumes called ‘Life and Letters’ (La Vie littéraire), published in 1888, 1890, 1891, and 1892. His theory, so far as he has one, is best expressed in the Prefaces of the first two volumes. He is against the old-fashioned types of criticism: the dogmatic, that would judge and classify; the technical—he avows by this time, in spite of his early verse, that he is not interested in technique; the historical, that studies a work of art as the expression of an epoch and a race; the biographical, that studies chiefly the individual behind the work; and every other type that could be called in any sense objective. Anatole France maintains, or rather suggests, that the critic should give only his own impressions and reactions in the presence of a work of art; and that, strive as he will, he can do nothing else but this, more or less frankly and vividly:

  • “There is no such thing as objective criticism, any more than there is objective art; those who flatter themselves that they can put anything but themselves into their work are dupes of the most false illusion. In truth, we can never get out of ourselves—that is our human fate…. We are all shut up in ourselves, as in an everlasting prison. The best thing for us to do, methinks, is to accept this frightful fact with the best grace possible, and admit that we are talking of ourselves whenever we have not the strength to keep silence.
  • “To be honest, the critic should say: ‘Gentlemen, I am going to talk to you about myself, à propos of Shakespeare, Racine, Pascal, or Goethe. They offer an excellent occasion for doing so.’”
  • And again:

  • “Criticism, as I understand it, is a kind of novel written for the delight of wide-awake and inquisitive minds; and every novel, if you understand it rightly, is an autobiography. The real critic is he who recounts the adventures of his soul among masterpieces.”
  • This summary of Anatole France’s attitude and method in criticism expresses exactly his attitude toward life, and his method of treating his characters, in his later and most characteristic fiction. Apropos of his people and the events of their lives, he recounts his own opinions and the adventures of his soul. The stories are loosely constructed, and they often lack movement; but they have the unity of his own personality and ideas. No matter if they lead by wandering ways to no conclusion. He quotes with enthusiasm:

  • “Happy the man who, like Ulysses, has gone on wondrous journeys.”
  • This is what Anatole France himself has done in his later works of fiction. They are an Odyssey of the modern intellect.

    Most important among them are the two series of books in which the Abbé Coignard and M. Bergeret, both representing Anatole France himself, play the leading rôles. The scene of the first series is laid in the early eighteenth century; it begins with ‘At the Sign of the Queen Pédauque’ (La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque), and is continued in ‘The Opinions of M. Jérome Coignard’ (Les Opinions de M. Jérome Coignard’), in the preface of which M. France gives a description of the Abbé Coignard, in phrases that are often applicable to himself:

  • “He despised men with loving kindness…. It was his benevolence that made him satirize his fellowmen in their feelings, their philosophy, their science, and their institutions; for he wanted to show them that their childish nature has not imagined or built up anything that is worth attacking or defending very passionately…. The least developed of his faculties was the sense of veneration…. If we only judged each other with a charitable skepticism, quarrels would be less intense in this finest land on earth, and the teachings of Abbé Coignard would have contributed something to the universal good.”
  • Like the Abbé Coignard, Anatole France believes in virtue, but is tolerant of vice. In this he is the opposite of Rousseau, who was intolerant of vice (except his own) without having any real belief in virtue. The Abbé looks on at life, keen and humorous, cynical and pitying, almost always skeptical about men’s motives, but always interested in them.

    The second series deals with our own day, and has the general title ‘Contemporary History.’ It consists of four volumes: ‘The Elm Tree on the Mall,’ 1897; ‘The Wicker Dummy,’ 1897; ‘The Amethyst Ring,’ 1899; ‘M. Bergeret in Paris,’ 1901. In this series are contained many of Anatole France’s best satirical and ironical pictures of life, and many of his best sayings, usually put in the mouth of Monsieur Bergeret, the provincial professor, who is transferred to Paris at the middle point of the series. We have the intrigues of a university town, the ecclesiastical intrigues of various candidates for a certain bishopric, the political intrigues of clericals, anti-clericals, freethinking republicans, Catholic Jews, and financiers. In the last two volumes the Dreyfus case plays a large rôle. In connection with it, M. France abandons his characteristic attitude of suspended judgment, and comes out strongly on the side of the Dreyfusards. Political satire occupies a large part of the later works, and is at its best in ‘Penguin Island’ (1908). The Penguins having been baptized by an overzealous missionary, God solves the difficult problem as to whether they have souls or not, by changing them into men. The history of this newly created human society contains many incidents suggestively characteristic of mediæval and modern Europe. Perhaps no better example of Anatole France’s manner in political satire could be found than the following description of Draco the Great, hero of the Middle Ages:

  • “He carried fire indifferently over the territory of the enemy and his own domain; and he was wont to say, to explain his conduct: ‘War without burning is like tripe without mustard—it is insipid.’ His justice was rigorous. When the peasants whom he had taken prisoner could not pay their ransom, he had them hanged on a tree; and if any unhappy woman came to beg his mercy on her penniless husband, he dragged her by the hair of her head at the tail of his horse. He lived like a soldier, free from effeminacy. It is a pleasure to acknowledge that his morals were pure.”
  • “Satire at the present day,” says Mr. Colby, “requires objects less remote than Jehovah, Heaven, and the angels.” Perhaps this is why M. France’s religious satire, also continued throughout his work, and at its best in ‘The White Stone’ (Sur la Pierre blanche) (1905), and ‘The Revolt of the Angels’ (1914), is not quite so effective as the political. Perhaps it is, as Mr. Colby suggests, a bit too obvious. Yet it is expressed with as much engaging irony as any of his ideas. Professor Stuart Sherman has summarized this part of his work in a dozen words: “A late, unpersecuted Voltaire, he would gently laugh Jehovah out of Paradise.” He takes Montaigne’s motto: “Que scais-je?” and Montaigne’s method of being irrefutable because, while he affirms nothing, he likewise denies nothing. He simply asks questions. And, like Voltaire, he makes amusing and suggestive comparisons, and tells clever stories. He is unlike Voltaire, in that he takes an interested delight in all the phenomena of religion and superstition. One of his best characters is Bergeret’s little dog, Riquet, whose reflections often take a theological turn, and make a deity out of his master, the insignificant old Professor:

  • “My master keeps me warm when I lie behind him in his arm-chair. That is because he is a god…. I love my master, Bergeret, because he is terrible and powerful….”
  • “I speak when I choose. From my master’s mouth, too, issue sounds which have a kind of meaning. But their meaning is less plain than that which I express with my voice. Everything uttered by my voice means something. But from my master’s mouth comes much senseless noise…. It is difficult, but necessary, to define the thought of the master….
  • “An action for which one is thrashed is a bad action. An action for which one is caressed or given something to eat is a good action.
  • “O my master, Bergeret, God of slaughter, I adore thee. Praised be thou when thou art terrible, praised when thou art gracious! Great art thou and beautiful when, seated at thy spread table, thou devourest abundant meats. Great art thou and beautiful when, bringing forth fire from a tiny stick of wood, thou changest night into day.”
  • Some of Riquet’s reflections might possibly apply to the methods of modern science in the presence of nature, as well as to those of primitive religion:

  • “There are carriages which horses draw in the streets. They are terrible. There are also carriages which move of themselves, snorting loudly. These, too, are full of malice.
  • “Men, animals, and stones grow larger as they approach me, and become enormous when they are quite close. It is not so with me. I remain the same size wherever I am.”
  • This last may be contrasted with Bergeret’s own reflections upon the unfaithfulness of his wife:
  • “‘No doubt,’ he said to himself, ‘this event is commonplace and of small importance, but since I am of small importance myself in the world of common humanity, I am proportioned to it; and I have a right to think it of importance to me, and not to be ashamed of the pain it causes me.’”
  • Some of Anatole France’s satire is ephemeral—the more so, the more it is successful. Many of his works will, like Voltaire’s (he would hardly be displeased with this comparison) be little read in future just because they are so successful in their immediate effectiveness. But much, especially of the social satire, is permanently true. Its peculiar irony is inimitable. Here are two more examples of it, quoted by Brandes:

  • “She was the widow of four husbands, a dreadful woman, suspected of everything except of having loved—consequently, honored and respected.”
  • “The law, in its majestic impartiality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
  • Since the Dreyfus case, Anatole France has been an active political worker, an effective speaker, and even a partisan socialist. He published two volumes of ‘Opinions sociales’ in 1902 (the second volume containing his most important writings on the famous “case”), and in 1906, three volumes of addresses entitled ‘Pour le Prolétariat.’ Another important volume in this field is ‘Vers les Temps meilleurs’ (1908). An especially successful bit of social propaganda is one of his stories, ‘Crainquebille’ (1903), later rewritten as a play. It tells how a worthy huckster, waiting in the street for his money from a customer, is ordered by a policeman to “move on.” Trying to explain, he is arrested for resisting authority and using an insulting phrase to the police. Under the blight of having been in prison, he goes rapidly down hill, until the only chance of saving himself from starvation and freezing is to get arrested again. But now, when from the gutter he deliberately throws at the nearest policeman the same insulting phrase he was accused of using before, the representative of law and order merely shrugs his shoulders and indifferently tells him to behave himself.

    As a play, ‘Crainquebille’ was successful through its bald simplicity and tragic force. Two other brief plays by Anatole France have proved available for the stage. ‘As Luck Will Have It’ (Au petit Bonheur), 1898, is a light and delicate trifle in the style of Musset’s ‘Proverbs,’ and perhaps the best thing of the kind since Musset, which is saying much. ‘The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife’ (La Comédie de celui qui épousa une femme muette) was first written merely to entertain the Society of Rabelaisian Studies for part of an evening at one of their meetings. But it succeeded so well that it was at once taken up by a regular theatre, the Porte-Saint-Martin, in the spring of 1912, and again at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in the autumn. As produced in English by Mr. Granville Barker, it ran through the seasons of 1915 and 1916 in America, and that of 1917 in London. Founded on Rabelais’s brief description of a mediæval play which is lost—or perhaps never existed—it reproduces perfectly the tone, spirit, and method of mediæval farce, though the substance of its satire is thoroughly up-to-date, dealing as it does with such subjects as the high cost of living, the servant problem, the tendency to extravagance, the fashions of to-day and to-morrow, the wisdom and the pretensions to wisdom of the medical profession, the loquacity of the ladies, and so on. It is remarkable how much he has got into the brief space of two short acts.

    At least two others must be mentioned among the sixty or seventy titles of his works. His ‘Life of Jeanne d’Arc’ (1908, two volumes) satisfied neither the religious nor the rationalistic conceptions of The Maid, and is perhaps all the better for that. It pictures her as neither inspired nor charlatan, but nobly deluded; as neither a great leader nor (as Monsieur Bergeret once called her) just a sort of military mascot; but very human, simple, and true—in short, such a simple paradoxical nature as Anatole France himself could best understand and picture. And in this case his work is that of a thorough historical student, carefully documented.

    At the beginning of the War, in 1914, Monsieur France, though past seventy years old, volunteered for active service at the front, and did his utmost to compel the Government to accept him, but without success. The Government of course was right—he has done better service in his own capacity as a writer. ‘The Path of Glory’ (Sur la Voie glorieuse), published in 1915, has not even a touch of his habitual irony, except in one clever passage where he adapts some fragments from Herodotus to the events of to-day. It is written throughout with conviction and with eloquence.

    Some critics, notably Brandes, have found in the career of Anatole France a complete transformation, beginning with the Dreyfus case, from a skeptical poseur and egotist, to the passionate advocate of a cause. I doubt if this is the true explanation of those contradictions which seem so prominent in his work. The contradictions are there; but they are there throughout his career. He is from the beginning a sincere worshiper of art and beauty, and even of the religious idealism hidden under theological and ecclesiastical systems. He has always been a devotee of the French national genius and its most characteristic manifestations in literature and art and life, though not always an admirer of the nation’s politicians, or its army leaders, or its accepted church. Always there has been present the charity in his skepticism, the pity in his irony, the humanity in his satire. His own works have been just what he calls ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Candide,’ in a striking passage in ‘The Garden of Epicurus’—“Manuals of indulgence and pity, Bibles of good will.” His religion of humanity develops steadily throughout his life, as he grows to know men better; which is perhaps something to the credit of one who sees with steadily increasing clearness the errors and weakness and pettiness of mankind. And of his two latest works, published within a year of each other, one is the most skeptical and ironical of them all, ‘The Revolt of the Angels,’ and the other, ‘The Path of Glory,’ carries the least of irony and the most of conviction.

    Perhaps after all the mystery of the contradictions is not so great, and the solution is his simple and complete self-expression. He has a skeptical intellect and a believing heart; joyous senses and an active will. He refuses to mutilate himself by lopping off any part of his being; he even refuses to subordinate any part, like lesser men, for the sake of consistency. Nothing could be more simple, or more sincere. And he has an ironic smile, or sometimes a hearty laugh, at the critics who try so hard to explain his complexities, reconcile his contradictions, and pluck out the heart of his deep-hidden mystery. He said in the Preface to his first volume of criticism: “You will find ih my work perfect sincerity, plentiful charity, and a natural liking for the beautiful and the good”; and in the Preface to the second volume (written in 1889):

  • “They tell me that after having proclaimed the principle of philosophic doubt, at the very next minute I abandon the sublime detachment of the philosopher, to cast myself into the vortex of joy and pain, of love and hate…. But you must allow to poor weak man the privilege of not always bringing his principles and his feelings into perfect accord. You must let everyone have at least two or three philosophies. For unless you have created it yourself, there is no reason for thinking that any one is the only true one…. What people have cared for in me is no doubt my sincerity. Anyone can win interest and liking, on the condition of being absolutely genuine. It is by giving myself completely that I have won unknown friends.”
  • Anatole France has always, when convinced, had the courage of his convictions. He has also, on occasion, had the courage of his lack of convictions, and this, because it is rarer and more difficult, has made a much more vivid impression during most of his career. He has been called, rightly enough, a master in disillusion. But he is also a master in illusion, and in conviction.

    BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—The best translations of Anatole France in English are all published by the John Lane Co., in a series of about thirty volumes which now includes practically all of his important works. Notable among these is a translation of ‘The Crime of Sylvester Bonnard,’ an early work by Lafcadio Hearn done while he was in America.

    There are essays on Anatole France by A. Thorold, in ‘Six Masters of Disillusion,’ Dutton, 1909; Winifred Stephens, ‘French Novelists of To-day,’ Lane, 1908; James Huneker, ‘Egoists,’ Scribners, 1909; Brander Matthews, ‘Gateways to Literature,’ 1912; and Bradford Torrey, ‘Friends on the Shelf,’ Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1906. There are two volumes on his work available in English: George Brandes, Anatole France, McClure, ‘Contemporary Men of Letters Series,’ 1908; W. L. George, Anatole France, Henry Holt & Co., ‘Writers of To-day,’ 1915. Both of these are hardly more than extended essays, but excellent. The most important full studies are: G. Michaut, ‘Anatole France, étude psychologique,’ Paris, 1913; and a volume by Professor L. Piaget Shanks of the University of Pennsylvania, (1919).

    See also: C. H. C. Wright ‘History of French Literature’; Stapfer, ‘Humour et Humoristes,’ Paris, 1916; Andrew Lang, in the Fortnightly Review, June, 1908 (on the ‘Life of Joan of Arc’); Professor H. S. Canby, in the Dial, December 16th, 1910; Professor S. P. Sherman, in the Nation, July 29th, 1909; and F. T. Cooper, in the Forum, September, 1908.