The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, by Anatole France


“LET us love the books which please us,” observes that excellent French critic, Jules Lemaitre “and cease to trouble ourselves about classifications and schools of literature.” This generous exhortation seems especially appropriate in the case of Anatole France. 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.

If by Realism we mean Truth, which alone gives value to any study of human nature, we have in Anatole France a very dainty realist; if by Romanticism we understand that unconscious tendency of the artist to elevate truth itself beyond the range of the familiar, and into the emotional realm of aspiration, then Anatole France is betimes a romantic. And, nevertheless, as a literary figure he stands alone: neither by his distinctly Parisian refinement of method, nor yet by any definite characteristic of style, can he be successfully attached to any special group of writers. He is essentially of Paris, indeed; his literary training could have been acquired in no other atmosphere: his light grace of emotional analysis, his artistic epicureanism, the vividness and quickness of his sensations, are French as his name. But he has followed no school traditions; and the charm of his art, at once so impersonal and sympathetic, is wholly his own. How marvellously well the author has succeeded in disguising himself! It is extremely difficult to believe that the diary of Sylvestre Bonnard could have been written by a younger man; yet the delightful octogenarian is certainly a young man’s dream.

M. Anatole France belongs to a period of change, a period in which a new science and a new philosophy have transfigured the world of ideas with unprecedented suddenness. All the arts have been more or less influenced by new modes of thought, reflecting the exaggerated materialism of an era of transition. The reaction is now setting in; the creative work of fine minds already reveals that the Art of the Future must be that which appeals to the higher emotions alone. Material Nature has already begun to lure less, and human nature to gladden more; the knowledge of Spiritual Evolution follows luminously upon our recognition of Physical Evolution; and the horizon of human fellowship expands for us with each fresh acquisition of knowledge, as the sky-circle expands to those who climb a height. The works of fiction that will live are not the creations of men who have blasphemed the human heart, but of men who, like Anatoie France, have risen above the literary tendencies of their generation, never doubting humanity, and keeping their pages irreproachably pure. In the art of Anatoie France there is no sensuousness: his study is altogether of the nobler emotions. “What the pessimistic coarseness of self — called “Naturalism” has proven itself totally unable to feel, he paints for us truthfully, simply, and touchingly, the charm of age, in all its gentleness, lovableness, and indulgent wisdom. The dear old man who talks about his books to his cat, who has remained for fifty years true to the memory of the girl he could not win, and who, in spite of his world-wide reputation for scholarship, finds himself so totally helpless in all business matters, and so completely at the mercy of his own generous impulses, may be, indeed, as the most detestable Mademoiselle Prefere observes, “ a child “; but his childishness is only the delightful freshness of a pure and simple heart which could never become aged. His artless surprise at the malevolence of evil minds, his tolerations of juvenile impertinence, his beautiful comprehension of the value of life and the sweetness of youth, his self-disparagements and delightful compunctions of conscience, his absolute unselfishness and incapacity to nourish a resentment, his fine gentle irony which never wounds and always amuses: these, and many other traits, combine to make him one of the most intensely living figures created in modern French literature. It is quite impossible to imagine him as unreal; and, indeed, we feel to him as to some old friend unexpectedly met with after years of absence, whose face and voice are perfectly familiar, but whose name will not be remembered until he repeats it himself. “We might even imagine ourselves justified in doubting the statement of M. Lemaitre that Anatole France was not an old bachelor, but a comparatively young man, and a married man, when he imagined Sylvestre Bonnard; we might, in short, refuse to believe the book not strictly autobiographical, but for the reflection that its other personages live with the same vividness for us as does the Member of the Institute. Therese, the grim old housekeeper, so simple and faithful; Madame and Monsieur de Gabry, those delightful friends; the glorious, brutal, heroic Uncle Victor; the perfectly lovable Jeanne: these figures are not less sympathetic in their several roles.

But it is not because M. Anatole France has rare power to create original characters, or to reflect for us something of the more recondite literary life of Paris, that his charming story will live. It is because of his far rarer power to deal with what is older than any art, and withal more young, and incomparably more precious: the beauty of what is beautiful in human emotion. And that writer who touches the spring of generous tears by some simple story of gratitude, of natural kindness, of gentle self-sacrifice, is surely more entitled to our love than the sculptor who shapes for us a dream of merely animal grace, or the painter who images for us, however richly, the young bloom of that form which is only the husk of Being!

L. H.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54