The real name of the subject of this preface is Jacques-Anatole Thibault. He was born in Paris, April 16, 1844, the son of a bookseller of the Quai Malaquais, in the shadow of the Institute. He was educated at the College Stanislas and published in 1868 an essay upon Alfred de Vigny. This was followed by two volumes of poetry: ‘Les Poemes Dores’ (1873), and ‘Les Noces Corinthiennes’ (1876). With the last mentioned book his reputation became established.
Anatole France belongs to the class of poets known as “Les Parnassiens.” Yet a book like ‘Les Noces Corinthiennes’ ought to be classified among a group of earlier lyrics, inasmuch as it shows to a large degree the influence of Andre Chenier and Alfred de Vigny. France was, and is, also a diligent contributor to many journals and reviews, among others, ‘Le Globe, Les Debats, Le Journal Officiel, L’Echo de Paris, La Revue de Famille, and Le Temps’. On the last mentioned journal he succeeded Jules Claretie. He is likewise Librarian to the Senate, and has been a member of the French Academy since 1896.
The above mentioned two volumes of poetry were followed by many works in prose, which we shall notice. France’s critical writings are collected in four volumes, under the title, ‘La Vie Litteraire’ (1888-1892); his political articles in ‘Opinions Sociales’ (2 vols., 1902). He combines in his style traces of Racine, Voltaire, Flaubert, and Renan, and, indeed, some of his novels, especially ‘Thais’ (1890), ‘Jerome Coignard’ (1893), and Lys Rouge (1894), which was crowned by the Academy, are romances of the first rank.
Criticism appears to Anatole France the most recent and possibly the ultimate evolution of literary expression, “admirably suited to a highly civilized society, rich in souvenirs and old traditions. . . . It proceeds,” in his opinion, “from philosophy and history, and demands for its development an absolute intellectual liberty. . . . . It is the last in date of all literary forms, and it will end by absorbing them all . . . . To be perfectly frank the critic should say: ‘Gentlemen, I propose to enlarge upon my own thoughts concerning Shakespeare, Racine, Pascal, Goethe, or any other writer.’”
It is hardly necessary to say much concerning a critic with such pronounced ideas as Anatole France. He gives us, indeed, the full flower of critical Renanism, but so individualized as to become perfection in grace, the extreme flowering of the Latin genius. It is not too much to say that the critical writings of Anatole France recall the Causeries du Lundi, the golden age of Sainte-Beuve!
As a writer of fiction, Anatole France made his debut in 1879 with ‘Jocaste’, and ‘Le Chat Maigre’. Success in this field was yet decidedly doubtful when ‘Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard’ appeared in 1881. It at once established his reputation; ‘Sylvestre Bonnard’, as ‘Le Lys Rouge’ later, was crowned by the French Academy. These novels are replete with fine irony, benevolent scepticism and piquant turns, and will survive the greater part of romances now read in France. The list of Anatole France’s works in fiction is a large one. The titles of nearly all of them, arranged in chronological order, are as follows: ‘Les Desirs de Jean Seyvien (1882); Abeille (1883); Le Livre de mon Ami (1885); Nos Enfants (1886); Balthazar (1889); Thais (1890); L’Etui de Naire (1892); Jerome Coignard, and La Rotisserie de la Reine Pedanque (1893); and Histoire Contemporaine (1897-1900), the latter consisting of four separate works: ‘L’Orme du Mail, Le Mannequin d’Osier, L’Anneau d’Amethyste, and Monsieur Bergeret a Paris’. All of his writings show his delicately critical analysis of passion, at first playfully tender in its irony, but later, under the influence of his critical antagonism to Brunetiere, growing keener, stronger, and more bitter. In ‘Thais’ he has undertaken to show the bond of sympathy that unites the pessimistic sceptic to the Christian ascetic, since both despise the world. In ‘Lys Rouge’, his greatest novel, he traces the perilously narrow line that separates love from hate; in ‘Opinions de M. l’Abbe Jerome Coignard’ he has given us the most radical breviary of scepticism that has appeared since Montaigne. ‘Le Livre de mon Ami’ is mostly autobiographical; ‘Clio’ (1900) contains historical sketches.
To represent Anatole France as one of the undying names in literature would hardly be extravagant. Not that I would endow Ariel with the stature and sinews of a Titan; this were to miss his distinctive qualities: delicacy, elegance, charm. He belongs to a category of writers who are more read and probably will ever exercise greater influence than some of greater name. The latter show us life as a whole; but life as a whole is too vast and too remote to excite in most of us more than a somewhat languid curiosity. France confines himself to themes of the keenest personal interest, the life of the world we live in. It is herein that he excels! His knowledge is wide, his sympathies are many-sided, his power of exposition is unsurpassed. No one has set before us the mind of our time, with its half-lights, its shadowy vistas, its indefiniteness, its haze on the horizon, so vividly as he.
In Octave Mirbeau’s notorious novel, a novel which it would be complimentary to describe as naturalistic, the heroine is warned by her director against the works of Anatole France, “Ne lisez jamais du Voltaire . . . C’est un peche mortel . . . ni de Renan . . . ni de l’Anatole France. Voila qui est dangereux.” The names are appropriately united; a real, if not precisely an apostolic, succession exists between the three writers.
de l’Academie Francais
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