Monday, March 7, 2011

A hodgepodge of factual matter and unsupported opinion about Anatole France

For some reason, I want to spend a good part of the week on a couple of novels by Anatole France, Thaïs (1890) and Penguin Island (1908).  These were once famous books; France was once a famous writer – he won the Nobel Prize in 1921, at the age of 78, and his reputation has been in decline ever since.  His banquet speech is worth a glance.  The first sentence is hilarious.

In some sense, I mean his reputation in English, but I am not convinced that his status in French is much higher.  I paged through a couple of recent histories of French literature (e.g., A Short History of French Literature, Sarah Kay, 2003, Oxford UP) and France was always mentioned, but not for any of his books.  He has been reduced to a pro-Dreyfusard and a friend of Zola.

Penguin Island actually has a long episode that is a satirical revision of the Dreyfus Affair.  It’s poor stuff compared to the sophisticated use of the episode in Proust’s work, but France’s writing has an entirely different tone and purpose, and contains one brilliant bit I want to write about later.  I wonder if Proust has come to fill the literary niche France once occupied.

I invoked the dread word – satire.  No doubt France, in his dozens of books, had more than one mode, but in both of the novels I read he could not be clearer about his pedigree.  In tone, style, ideology, he is a disciple of Voltaire and other eighteenth century rationalists.  Thaïs evokes Zadig (1747); Penguin Island covers all of French history, and thus moves through time rather than space, but has a kinship with Candide (1759), and even ends with the cultivation of a garden, sort of – more of a meadow, really.

The garden is atop the ruins of Paris, disguised “Penguin” Paris, which has been dynamited by anarchists.  Yes, another demolished city!  I didn’t know it was there, honest.  The novel actually ends with another city built over the garden built on the old city.  You can retreat from the world and cultivate your garden, but only up to a point.

Thaïs is the basis of the third most performed Jules Massenet opera.  The librettist of course eviscerates his source, but the opera is nevertheless excellent, at least when performed, as I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears, by Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson – but when is that not true?

Penguin Classics has a single France novel in print, The Gods Will Have Blood, a historical novel of the French Revolution.  The French title is better - Les Dieux ont soif, The Gods Have Thirst – someone, please fix my French – because of the sinister ambiguity.  Thirst for what?  Oh no, for blood!  Anyone read it?

obooki read a couple of early France novellas last year (down near the bottom).  He gave Jocasta a 3 (of 10) and The Famished Cat a 4, which on his scale, where almost every book ever published is a zero, is pretty good.

Such a hodgepodge.  What have I learned?  Voltaire, in decline, Massenet, Dreyfus Affair, thirsty gods.  I might return to Massenet, but otherwise, the rest of the week, I’ll ignore all of this, and just write about the Anatole France I actually read.  Attention, focused; throat, cleared.


  1. Hi A.R.

    Years ago I read a quote, supposedly by Anatole France, which I cannot find any attribution for now. It was:

    "The first six revisions anyone could have written but the seventh, that’s Anatole France.

    I just love this quote but I can’t find the source. Have you ever heard this quote?


  2. I started reading France's The Gods Will Have Blood (sometimes also, The Gods Are Athirst) when you mentioned you were doing AF this week. It's ok so far, but I fear it's descending into long philosophical speeches about politics.

    Here are some ideas about why he's unpopular now:

    a) Gide said of him that he lacked the "inquietude" that is characteristic of c20th man.

    b) Valery, in his inaugural address to the Ac Francaise supposedly in praise of his predecessor France commented on "the repetitiveness, the mechanical neatness of form ... the digressive nature of much of his work which tends to turn some of his novels into abstract discussions about God, democracy, justice..."

    I think he fell down the same manhole as Shaw.

    I'm not wholly sold on him; I gave up on Thais: - but I keep persevering, perhaps because the first thing I read of his was a book of short stories, Crainquebille, which contains a marvellous 10-page story, Riquet, about a dog whose world is shattered when his family move house. A little moment of genius can last me a long time.

  3. I have never read France, but I must mention two things after reading this post...
    The first: all the translations seen here seem strangely inflated... An example: 'avoir soif' is the most common expression for being thirsty, bar none. I really see no reason no to translate it simply as The Gods Are Thirsty. Similarly, his first banquet sentence, full of clichés as it is even in French, is at least pretty straightforward in the original, and uses mostly "lesser words"... So I have to wonder if the reasons evoked by obooki are not compounded by dated translations, at least as far as English readers go?
    The second thing I wanted to mention, about Proust filling France's niche--that made me smile, because I have been taught that France was the probably model for Bergotte in La Recherche: the great writer who wrote for a century past, and whom the narrator had to replace to become, well, Proust.

  4. Outstandingly helpful stuff.

    Vince - no, I had not heard that quote. What a line! France was once a giant! I had thought about calling him "a Voltaire who had read Flaubert" - that quote suggests why.

    Charlotte - stuffy old translations could well be impediments. The old version of Penguin Island I used was lively, but that might not be the normal case.

    I'm glad you caught my little Proust inside joke. Although I meant it, too (the niche being "literature about the Dreyfus Affair"). Shaw is a good comparison - another giant, once. What happened?

    The older writers who lived across the cusp, who survived to see Modernism, were all targets for the young punks. Bennett for Woolf; France for Valéry. France was only four years younger than Zola - he was six years older than Maupassant! He was the same age as Paul Verlaine! But only France survived long enough to collect a Nobel, and to become a representative of the old order.

    Woolf, Gide, Proust, and Valéry are almost the same age, too. Gide received his Nobel at almost exactly the same age as France.

    obooki - I will read "Riquet" soon, this week, why not. I hate to tell you this, but the best part of Thaïs - I'm tempted to say, the only good part - is about 2/3 of the way in.

  5. In my quest to read as much by those big ol' Nobel prize winners, I downloaded Penguin Island from Gutenberg a few years ago. Though I still haven't gotten around to it (isn't this my excuse for everything by now...?), I did recently notice that when I tried to find a suitable "cover" for my eBook, none was readily available.

    Though it is clear to me that these were once more famous, I'm not certain they ever necessarily fared better in English. Look at Nobel prize winners today. Do they all enjoy Anglo-centric fame upon receiving the prize? Hardly.

    And as usual, off I go to the shame-list, gazing at all the book titles I always say I'll get around to reading but for some odd reason, never read...

  6. I am unconvinced by the results of the ebook cover experiment.

    You want this cover, which is unbeatable. I'm reading that Modern Library book, but in an older edition, with a generic cover, swathed in old library tape.

    Now, this one (about a quarter of the way down - search for "Anatole"), a Bantam Classic from 1958, is strong evidence for France's high status in English. That was the imprint for the canon, for books used in classrooms.

    My understanding is that France was well-known internationally long before he won the Nobel.

    I don't want to defend the importance of the Nobel - that's not a curse word at Wuthering Expectations, but it's much of an honor here, either.

  7. Alas, it would appear Google Images has failed me yet again... Thanks for the links! Maybe I should rethink my cover-finding approach...?