Wednesday, March 9, 2011

That artifice did not seem ingenious to me - Anatole France's Penguin Island

Anatole France’s Penguin Island is a satirical history of France, a highbrow counterpart to Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America or – what’s an English parallel?  1066 and All That?  The novel has, more or less, no characters and no plot, and spends a good part of its time satirizing long-forgotten political issues – it’s very much a statement of French anti-clericalism, for example.  It should be a deadly bore, and, occasionally, is.

France’s silliness works in his favor, though.  He does not stay in any one period too long, and is not afraid of a joke.  How funny any particular reader finds the jokes, I will not presume to predict.  The medieval “Marbodius” chapter is a parody of Dante, in which Virgil loudly and angrily denies that he was ever a Christian, or predicted the arrival of Christ in the fourth Eclogue, or ever led that rude and ignorant Etruscan through Hell, a place he, Virgil, had never visited and in which he did not believe.  He had met Dante, though, and was appalled by his rudeness, ignorance, vulgar dialect, and primitive versification:

My ears were more surprised than charmed as I heard him repeat the same sound three or four times at regular intervals in his efforts to mark the rhythm.  That artifice did not seem ingenious to me; but it is not for the dead to judge of novelties.  (III.6)

I’m just saying that I found a lot of it funny enough.

The origin myth of Penguin Island is on the cover of that Modern Library edition.  A wandering saint, nearly deaf, nearly blind, baptizes a colony of penguins.  Heaven forms an advisory committee.  St. Augustine argues that the penguins must be transformed into humans.  One is given the impression that Augustine always wins these theological arguments.  Regardless, the penguins become people, and join the ebb and flow of human history, much to their joy and sorrow.  That the episode occurs in the Arctic, and that it is thus clear that the ancestral penguins were, in fact, puffins, is merely an irony of history.

A long section near the end is a parodic recounting of the Dreyfus Affair.  France was a Dreyfusard himself, and Dreyfus had only been reinstated in his Army rank two years earlier, so this is in part a long, laughing gloat.  Perhaps one would be better off, reading Penguin Island, not even knowing about Dreyfus, and not wasting time looking for pointless correspondences – ooh, is that Zola?  Who cares.  The central situation – a man is falsely accused, and his case becomes political fodder for all sorts of other interests – is universal enough.

My single favorite paragraph in Penguin Island is from this section.  The government, having convicted “Pyrot” with no evidence at all, decides it must shore up its case retroactively by accumulating “proofs” of his guilt.  They overdo it a bit:

Six months later the proofs against Pyrot filled two storeys of the Ministry of War.  The ceiling fell in beneath the weight of the bundles, and the avalanche of falling documents crushed two head clerks, fourteen second clerks, and sixty copying clerks, who were at work upon the ground floor arranging a change in fashion of the cavalry gaiters.  The walls of the huge edifice had to be propped.  Passers-by saw with amazement enormous beams and monstrous stanchions which reared themselves obliquely against the noble front of the building, now tottering and disjointed, and blocked up the streets, stopped the carriages, and presented to the motor-omnibuses an obstacle against which they dashed with their loads of passengers. (VI.10)

France is not so far, here, from Evelyn Waugh or Bohumil Hrabal, or dare I say it, Schulz and Kafka.  The corruption and idiocy of the government is embodied in a single action, a single image.

Such are the pleasures of Penguin Island.  If only they were more abundant.

That woodcut cover can be found at this Modern Library book collecting site.  I read a 1933 ML edition.  No mention of a translator.


  1. Having had a comment on one of your Erewhonian posts eaten up by Blogger last week, I shall try again here. I actually like the Dante/Virgil joke. Also liked your lament about the lack of more abundant pleasures in Penguin Island. In short, thanks for reading (and writing about) it so I don't have to (ditto)!

  2. Hi AR:

    I really like the Virgil/Dante joke. In my WIP I have a section where my characters go into Dante’s literary hell and Virgil is off that day and Catullus gives the tour of hell. And I have Catullus taking jabs at Dante. I am more interested in literature before Dante than afterwards. I will have to read this book.

    I just love it when the books you talk about are available for free for the Kindle. I just downloaded “Penguin Island”.

    BTW: I had Augustinian nuns in 5th grade and their habits were the classic ‘penguin’ half-black and half-white. I just wonder if this was also the case when France was alive.


  3. It's useful to know Penguin Island is about French history etc. I started reading it, knowing nothing about it, but gave up after about 20 pages since I couldn't make head or tail of it.

    My editions of both Penguin Island and Thais are from The Bodley Head series, translated in 1909 (the actual editions are from the late 20s) by A.W.Evans and Robert B. Douglas respectively.

  4. As I don't have immediate plans to read Penguin Island I'm glad you did and are sharing the good bits- the Virgil joke is great, and the exuberant exaggeration of the government department compiling evidence is as good as Dickens' the circumlocution office!

  5. The Dante parody is really pretty good. Sometimes France's anti-clericalism can seem kind of cheap, received, but other times his jokes score some good hits.

    Vince - that's excellent - Catullus would give a quite different tour! You'll find a number of medieval episodes in the novel - parodies of saints' legends, grotesqueries about he origins of kings and laws. Medieval history fans will enjoy themselves. Patient ones, at least.

    obooki - those are the translations on, I think. They're close to what I read, but not the same.

    Richard, Sarah, everyone - such are the ups and down of the second tier of literature. How the people who spend all their time with the third, fourth, etc. tiers can stand it is beyond me.

  6. Stephen Jay Gould argued that they were not puffins but auks.

  7. I see. He argues from linguistic grounds.

    penguin = manchot
    auk = pingouin
    puffin = macareux

    Most amusing! But now we're stuck with the known mistranslation of the title.