Thursday, March 10, 2011

Her tone was ironical. Riquet did not understand irony - an Anatole France masterpiece

It finally occurred to me to hop over to and do my basic French writer status check – what do Anatole France’s Pléiade editions look like?  The Pléiade volumes are standardized texts, with masses of annotations and who knows what else.  France has a three volume Pléiade, compiling a dozen novels and amounting to 4,200 pages.  Status: not so shabby.  I once calculate that Balzac fills about 18,000 Pléiade pages.

The fact that only a few France books have had much presence in English is not necessarily the fault of the poor author.  Reading France, it was easy enough to see how sections – sometimes long sections – of Penguin Island and Thaïs have lost their savor, but also easy to find passages of high interest.  Overall, though, I can hardly make an emphatically positive recommendation.  If what I have mentioned sounds good, it is; if it sounds painful, it is.

If you are, for some reason, planning to “read the Nobels,” I urge you to rethink that entire project, but until then, what should you do with Anatole France?  Obooki, commenting back here, had the solution.  Wend your way to Google Books, download the PDF of Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet, and other profitable tales, jump to page 79, and read the eight little pages of the edifying saga of Riquet.

Riquet is a dog; the story is told from his perspective.  It is a terrible day in his life – moving day.  Strangers invade the house, order is destroyed, the “domestic gods” (“arm-chairs, carpets, cushions”) vanish.

He could not believe that so great a disaster would ever be repaired.  And sorrow filled his heart to overflowing.  Fortunately, Riquet’s heart resembled human hearts in being easily distracted and quick to forget its misfortunes. (81)

There’s a passage a few pages later, describing the furniture on the sidewalk, awaiting the mover’s cart, that is in itself a little masterpiece.

“Riquet” is not actually a short story, it seems, but Chapter II of a novel, Monsieur Bergeret à Paris (1901), which is now most tempting.  The chapter is printed separately in this collection as the necessary introduction to the ridiculous and sublime “Meditations of Riquet,” twenty of the dog’s aphorisms.  Riquet is, it seems, a philosopher, a profound thinker about the most difficult problems of existence:

I am in the centre of all things; men, beasts and things, friendly and adverse, are ranged about me.

Although, as I think about it, Riquet cannot be right, because I am at the center of all things.  A paradox.

Riquet is a keen observer of the world, but also adept at generalizations:

Men possess the divine power of opening all doors.  I by myself am only able to open a few.  Doors are great fetishes which do not readily obey dogs.

I will leave the rest of his wisdom, including his prayer and other religious ideas, to the interested reader, of whom there are, I assume, many.  That was certainly not my assumption about Thaïs and Penguin Island!

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