Concerning writers as concerning more obvious heroes, the legend often displaces reality. In this respect Byron and Voltaire are in no better case than a Charlemagne or a Napoleon. Nor has the twentieth century, with all its rationalizing, chosen to scatter the mists that have gathered around the heads of such persons as Proust and Anatole France. In the latter instance, some excuse for myth-making may be found both in the whimsicality of his temperament and in the fact that shortly after his death bales of printed misinformation were offered to an avid public. A little over ten years have elapsed since that death. The fierce attacks of les jeunes, the adulation of uncritical disciples, have alike receded into the distance. The pendulum no longer swings to such high extremes. If Anatole France will never again be honored as he was around 1895, let us hope that he will never again be spoken of in terms appropriate to the deliquescence of a Camembert cheese. As Sainte-Beuve said of another Enchanter, to wit, Chateaubriand: “II est temps que pour lui la vie critique commence.”
Regarding Anatole, the present writer has been led into some prolonged investigations. One would like to help clear away the aforesaid fogginess swathing so rare a head. For in its normal, clarified state, it was a very good head. What are, then, some of the constituents of the legend, some of the cruces around which the very multitude of witnesses has often darkened counsel? Here are a few minor examples of misstatements that may be simply negatived:—That Anatole “affected to ignore” the humble lineage from which he sprang. That he was a Jew by descent, which would account for his defence of Dreyfus. That during his last twenty years he was so obsessed by sex-mania that he could think of practically nothing else.
Such canards are tangential, and they can be refuted without great difficulty; but the legend has also agglutinated a more problematic and fundamental core, which must be closely scrutinized. It is currently believed by many that Anatole was formed not only as a social lion but as a writer by Madame Arman de Caillavet—the hard, brilliant salon-leader who did in fact become both his mistress and his Egeria. That under her tutelage he became more steadily productive and more soundly integrated. That in this vita nuova his mind could develop freely, could evolve through a series of spirals not trodden before 1890. In critically examining such problems we should consider the following points: France’s large journalistic production previous to the date mentioned; the trends of his general education—in the broadest sense of the word—extending through his forty-fifth year; we should observe what anticipations of his later works appeared before his rise to fame; and we must sift certain matters relative to his marriage and divorce. I may say that in what follows I have had regard not only to printed sources (some of them little used hitherto), but also to the oral testimony of those who really knew Anatole France both in his maturity and in his later phases.
It must be granted that, superficially, there are reasons for believing that the author of “Thai’s” once wielded an indolent or an intermittent pen. His father and his friends used to shake their heads over him. Anatole himself liked to pose as a supremely nonchalant writer, a quill-driver only by necessity. He politely thanked various people, Mme. de Caillavet or his editors, for aiding him to get himself together and to function with some regularity. He should rather have thanked his wife, or if one prefers, the circumstances of his marriage to Valerie Guerin in 1877. Before that date what had he actually turned out? A number of contributions to obscure technical journals, an essay on Alfred de Vigny, and two volumes of verse. But spurred on by the responsibilities of a menage, he produced no less than eight book-titles during the decade 1879-1890. These include, among lesser works, the revealing “Desirs de Jean Servien,” “Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard,” “Le Livre de mon ami”—and the sumptuous “Thais.” He had written an unpublished “Histoire de France.” He became a contributor to a dozen journals, most of them addressed to the larger public. Some of these contributions, in bulk as well as in biographical interest, loom very large. At least one half of what he wrote during this period has never been collected in volume form.
One such mine, notably, has remained almost unexplored. Few people know that beginning with 1883 Anatole conducted for many years a series of sprightly gossips with the readers of L’Univers illustr6, a sort of Harper’s Bazaar of that time. Above the pen-name of “Gerome,” he and others wrote a “Courrier de Paris,” for the casual reader’s entertainment. As a columnist here, or as a reviewer elsewhere, France announces several of the themes which were to become his lifelong preoccupations. Among them are his delight in the Parisian scene, its street-life and its monuments; his concern with bibliophily and old books; his artistic interests; his constant historical curiosity, already centering on what would become his two special fields: the Middle Ages and Joan of Arc, and the eighteenth century, mounting up to the Revolution. Nor does “Gerome” neglect the modern Parisienne and her haunts. Altogether, France wrote for L’Univers illustre two hundred of these chronicles before August, 1890. If collected, they would form the equivalent of four or five duodecimo volumes.
Approximately the same number of tomes could well be devoted to the unreprinted articles that he wrote for Le Temps from 1886 to 1893. About half of the material that he contributed to that stately newspaper has been collected and is appreciated by the general reader under the title of “La Vie litteraire.” Why has the other half been neglected? It maintains about the same level of interest, being neither more nor less ephemeral than the criticisms already republished. The genial, impressionistic nature of those criticisms is well-known. If the other half of the collection were added, the reader’s knowledge of Anatole’s range would be considerably increased; and it would be doubly apparent that he drove a busy pen for Le Temps, as he did in several other directions. Furthermore, his appointment on the staff of this paper, in 1886, gave him thus early a very respectable standing in literary Paris. His “career” may be said to date from that point.
In the meantime, his education—general, scholastic, mental, and sentimental—had progressed to the point where most of his lifelong trends were already discernible. In part, the evidence for this appears in the confessional “Desirs de Jean Servien.” In part, it emerges from the four semi-autobiographical volumes (nominally concerning “Little Pierre”), which run all the way from “Le Livre de mon ami,” in 1885, to “La Vie en fleur,” in 1922. These latter we may term the Gospels according to Anatole. What then had he learned of note during his first fifty years?
From his plain, lower bourgeois upbringing, he acquired that sympathy for humble life, the life of street and shop, which he never relinquished. His tender and merry mother taught him the charm that may be attached to a domestic interior, together with the art of simple story-telling. His father, who kept an old bookshop mainly devoted to the Revolution, oriented Anatole in the directions of an acute and “documented” sense of the past, as well as a general bookish-ness. These twin tastes were also fostered by the open-air stalls on the Quai Voltaire, while the antiquarians all around encouraged that penchant for bibelots which flourishes in France’s ultimate dilettantism. His eager curiosity, his sense of beauty, the volupte which he mingled with his growing pains, were developed by the widening circles of his acquaintance with Paris and all that the city has to offer.
There were several definite results from his training at the College Stanislas. Because of the clerical snobbery of his masters, the lad began to turn against the Church, its dogmas and its representatives. And the seeds of his revolt against social injustice were sown thus early. Partly at college, but more (he declares) outside its walls, he learned to savor the beauty and wisdom of antiquity, a bent which he carried over into the days when he wrote poetry with the rest of the Parnassian School. Together with a sure sense of form, these verses of his twenties likewise reveal a decided paganism and an interest in the early centuries that witnessed the clash between pagan and Christian ideals. Along lines indicated by Voltaire and by Renan, the mature Anatole was to continue recording this war of creeds. But more scientific masters were to assist in his formation: he participated in the enthusiastic reception of evolution a la Darwin, of determinism a la Taine. And, lest the unfolding of his ample humanism should be checked, he showed in his critical work a steady appreciation of Virgil and of Racine. France became, in fact, the last great humanist.
There were, in his adolescence, other currents that contributed to his later manifestations. A romantic infatuation for an actress found expression in certain unpublished verses and in “Les Desirs de Jean Servien.” An unorthodox predilection for saints’ lives, beginning in boyhood, is symptomatic of what is found in stories of his third period as well as in the “Vie de Jeanne d’Arc.” The byways of history, especially the picturesque paths of the Old Regime, prove permanently attractive. More generally, there are already heard a number of the motifs that make of Anatole not only a perpetual echo of himself but also of the many-sided culture of his own and preceding ages. And as an intellectual Epicurean, he has attained almost to his full stature.
In all this, we do not find that France shone widely as a social light, nor can this be predicated of what we may call his sentimental decade subsequent to his marriage. On the whole it seems that during the ‘eighties he passed the happiest years of his life. He was content with his wife, his home, his daughter, and his circle of friends. Jointly these influences rounded out and harmonized his personality. The age of angularity had gone; that of irony, radicalism, and nihilism had not yet come; and the glory of “Sylvestre Bonnard” was allied with the comfort of an increasing embonpoint.
Let us pick out the main threads in the pattern of those times. The marriage of Anatole Thibault, “dit France,” to Val6rie Guerin has often been misdated; it actually took place in April, 1877. It was an “arranged” marriage: the bride brought with her a dowry and a distinguished name. There are signs that later she presumed on both of these advantages. For some years Anatole was bewitched by this lovely blonde, so much younger than himself. Their happiness was completed by the advent of Suzanne, the daughter whose winsomeness was celebrated not only in sections of “Le Livre de mon ami,” but in half a dozen obscurer places. One such article, called “Vacances sentimentales,” deals joyously with an excursion of the little family into Alsace; this document was later suppressed or ignored by France, because of the changes in feeling which circumstances had brought about.
Soon after their marriage the couple acquired with Valerie’s dowry a small but attractive home on the Rue Chalgrin in the Etoile quarter. Here the master of the house, in slippered ease, was proud to show off his wife, his work-shop, his tiny garden. Visitors came—and lingered. It is plain that for long this domestic interior formed the setting of a normal and cheerful existence. Survivors of those days declare that as a personality Anatole reached then his highwater mark, a degree of integration attained neither before nor afterwards. France himself, believing in his “star,” rejoiced in a prolongation of his honeymoon. He celebrated the blisses of home in the prologue to “Le Livre de mon ami,” where to the refrain of “Sleep, my dear ones, sleep,” the author represents himself as hovering in spirit over the slumbers of mother and child.
There is evidence that the slowly maturing Anatole had ripened into a choice thinker and an incomparable causeur. He tells us that before he became well known be had devoted long lovely years to “silent orgies of meditation.” Even in the Parnassian period, Bourget has borne witness to the intellectual prestige exercised by France among his comrades. Now to the home on the Rue Chalgrin came friends who lingered beneath his spell. The profundity and brilliancy of his conversation, his ability as a raconteur, have remained, within a small group, a living tradition. These qualities had not yet reached the world of the salons. But they were fundamentally there and needed only suitable occasions for their display and efflorescence. Furthermore, may we not suppose, as so often in French literature, that good talk would become the foundation of great works? And that the repartee of the home circle would naturally widen out into that of the salon and find repercussions in later masterpieces, where the dialogue-form is so prominent? France’s gifts of clairvoyance and persuasive expression were already quite manifest. And he had already developed the style usually characteristic of his best prose, a manner compact of a delicate wit and an enveloping charm.
Thus, we seem warranted in believing that France the man was at his apogee during his middle years. He could then feel and respond to his experiences more normally than at any other point in his career. He was kind and gentle: his inclinations were still conservative rather than iconoclastic; the corrosions of his scepticism had not yet affected the “impulsion of his heart towards the true, the beautiful, and the good.” Altogether, Anatole’s age, his environment, and circumstances made for him then a stratum of relative serenity. Above all, he realized that, as Stevenson says, the artist “lives for a frame of mind.” His frame of mind was in tune with the more smiling aspects of life. One need hardly emphasize how all this appears in the delightful prose of “Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard” and “Le Livre de mon ami.” The fact that the elderly France turned from and almost abjured such treasures of his earlier moods and memories is a reflection upon him rather than upon them.
No one would attempt to deny that under Mme. de Cail-lavet’s reign France partly shifted his attitude, invaded fresh realms, established a social and political critique, and wrote notable masterpieces. Yet a certain number of these had been half prepared and in some cases all but written long before their actual publication. This can be best shown if we view some outstanding titles in terms of historical epochs.
The three ages of the Christian era which Anatole knew best were the fourth, the fifteenth, and the eighteenth centuries. And he knew them all intimately before 1890. In that year appeared the novel “Thais,” which may be considered as transitional in his development. The stages of its composition are illustrative of my contention that France’s themes often underwent a long incubation before attaining final form. His first concern with the courtesan of Alexandria was in a juvenile poem (1867) called “La Legende de Sainte Thais, comedienne.” The fundamentals of the legend are recounted here. The poem is more occupied with the conversion of the actress, the novel with the corruption of the monk. But the dislike of Christian asceticism there displayed has been anticipated by other passages in Anatole’s early work. The several manuscript versions (dating from 1888-89) of the novel are significant. There is, for instance, a condensed version which makes it apparent that the grotto-scene is the kernel of the whole treatment. Nothing, incidentally, could be more revealing of the way in which France composed than the complete original manuscript of this novel with its interlinear alterations and transpositions. It is evident that he is a maitre-mosaiste, an assorter of pieces rather than a spontaneous improviser or, in fact, a genuinely creative artist. . . . This case, then, may be taken as a sample of Anatole’s long gestations. Other juxtapositions of early Christianity versus paganism are found in the famous “Procurateur de Judee” and in “Sur la Pierre Blanche.” These were written after 1890. But as already suggested, the maintenance of the pagan viewpoint is implicit in the author’s work of the ‘seventies; for example, in “Les Noces corinthiennes.”
His chief testament regarding the Middle Ages was the “Vie de Jeanne d’Arc,” which was the occasion of much controversy at the time of its appearance in 1908. But the processes of rationalization and humanizing to which France subjects the Maid date from far back. Twenty years earlier, when reviewing books on Joan, he had spoken as one having authority. For various periodicals he had written, mainly during the ‘eighties, a dozen or fifteen articles, the substance of which was presently incorporated in his monumental “Vie.” The same system was applied to his life of Rabelais, which appeared posthumously and therefore permitted on even greater gap between the original scaffolding and the final product. In either instance, then, the groundwork was done by 1890, considerably before the completed lives of these personages reached the general public.
One usually thinks of the eighteenth century as associated with our author’s Voltairean phase and with his sceptical evolution down the ‘nineties. In general this is true, and in particular the statement applies to that delightful bit of devergondage called “La Rotisserie de la Reine Pedauque” (1893). But could anyone suppose that he had waited until then to form his notions of eighteenth-century life and manners? Such notions, often adorned with the picturesque touches that occur in “La Rotisserie,” are found by the dozen in articles written for L’Univers illustre and Le Temps. Doubtless they often date still farther back to material scanned in the elder France’s bookshop or on the Quais. Another volume, half of which is devoted to tales of the same period, offers more direct testimony. In “L’Etui de nacre” (1892) there are five tales about the Revolution; these derive to a greater or less extent from a preceding serial novel on that epoch; this had appeared in the Journal des D6bats in 1884, but was never reprinted in book form. The same serial, called “Les Autels de la peur,” also furnished details, atmospheric background, a fanatical hero, for that great novel of the Revolution, “Les Dieux ont soif” (1912). An-atole’s knowledge of the period and his attitude towards the Terror would hark back to his experiences during the Commune.
There are other probable correspondences between our author’s treatments of French history as a whole. In 1882 he turned over to a publisher the manuscript of two volumes called “Histoire de France.” This little-known work—it was for adequate reasons never published—may well have supplied some material for the burlesque history of his country which Anatole sets forth in “L’lle des Pingouins” (1908). Also, seyeral modern themes elaborated in his later periods find counterparts or originals in tales written during the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. Such is the story of “Leslie Wood,” first narrated as an actual event in the pages of L’Univers illustre. Such is “La Signora Chiara,” reworked from “Une Cure du Docteur Hardel,” which had seen the light in La Jeune France. In fact, one can hardly open such a volume as “L’Orme du mail” or “La Revolte des anges” without being reminded of previous motifs, the preoccupations and interests of our long-memoried polygraph. In all these respects, the child was father to the man, who in turn begat a succession of coordinated works.
There is, then, no profound schism in the continuity of France’s writings. But, as the palmists would say, there is a definite break in his life-line and in the development of his personality. As we shall presently see, this was bound to have certain repercussions upon his ideas.
As an irresolute, impractical person, Anatole was usually guided, from the cradle almost to the grave, by a succession of women—his mother, his first wife, Mme. de Caillavet, et al. In some respects he was “spoiled”; but he was also harangued and harassed and sent about his business. In every case the latter process seems to have promoted within him a certain deviousness accompanied by a slow wrath, not easily appeased. Something of the kind contributed to the rupture with Valerie nee Guerin, between whom and her spouse there was an increasing incompatibility. This began to appear at least by 1888. Five years later a decree of absolute divorce was pronounced.
“It is our roof-tree,” said Anatole himself, “that encloses our destiny.” Under her own roof-tree, Valerie Thibault was domineering and deadly practical. She scolded her timid husband. She had no great appreciation of his talent. She asserted her conjugal rights in the matter of house-furnishings—a question of taste that led to a violent quarrel. Also, like Tennyson’s conception of Freedom, her figure “slowly broadened down” with the weight of the years. On the other hand, what with his elderly ways and his inability to look out for himself, Anatole must have been an irritating house-mate for the “petite bourgeoise.” Whether at home or in company, they were inharmonious. It came to be what onlookers called a “detestable” menage.
Mme. de Caillavet, sharply eying “les France,” came to her own conclusions. This clear-sighted, downright woman needed a lion for her own salon, which was just getting under way; and she was never slow about taking what she wanted. For some time she thought that the awkward, retiring Anatole would not do. Then she changed her mind. With proper shaping, he might do, but the narrow-minded Valerie, never! The rift between these twain was already perceptible. Could it not be allowed to widen? Could not one wait and see?
Even in 1888, it was noticed that Anatole sometimes neglected his roof-tree. Soon he set up a bachelor establishment in the Rue de Sontay (across the Avenue du Bois), where he entertained Mme. de Caillavet. He became the great man of her salon; he became her lover; their open liaison wounded the susceptibilities of Valerie, who now rarely went out with her husband. As for what may have happened on the Rue Chalgrin—who today knows the whole story? There are a few hints from bystanders and there are the suggestions, factual or fictional, emanating from Ana-tole’s own pen. For one thing, extracts from L’Univers illustre would show that as early as 1884 thoughts about incompatibility and possible readjustments were running through his mind.
Furthermore, the account, in the earlier volumes of the “Histoire contemporaine,” of the relationship between the Bergeret couple has doubtless some personal foundation. A few years later, when out walking with his secretary, Anatole is said to have paused before the house on the Rue Chalgrin and to have remarked, “That is an historical mansion: it was the scene of the ‘Mannequin d’Osier.’” What are the analogies between the story and the true domestic situation? There really was a dressmaker’s model, a “wicker-work woman,” which in each case drove the master of the house to the point of exasperation. That state of mind was in each case prolonged by the fact that the spouse often boasted of her superior family. Whether as Thibault or as Bergeret, the husband, after the rupture, took his revenge by a policy of continued silence. There are other minor resemblances, but amid them we discern one essential difference: no evidence exists pointing to an actual infidelity on the part of Valerie France.
Here are the stages of the break as nearly as they can now be discovered. Probably in 1891, France and his wife had a difference of opinion about the hanging of some Genoese velvet, unfortunately presented by Mme. de Caillavet. Valerie locked her husband and the upholsterer in the study, not without vituperative language. During this temporary imprisonment, Anatole peacefully continued his writing. But on another occasion, about a year later, the language became such that he walked out of the house in his dressing-gown, carrying a half-written article in his hands. He soon repaired to the Rue de Sontay; and he never returned home. For some months he was in an unsettled and depressed frame of mind. A preliminary separation was contrived, and steps were taken to make this final. The whole affair came before the Tribunal of the Seine in August, 1893. I believe that what now follows is entirely fresh information; it is also authentic. I shall give here merely the essentials regarding the lawsuit, reserving the development and documentation for the proper time and place. That so little has hitherto been known on this subject is partly due to the fact that in France newspaper publicity about marital disagreements is frowned upon.
Much uncertainty has been evinced concerning which party sought the decree for absolute divorce. On this point doubt is no longer possible. It was sought by Madame Thi-bault (“dite Anatole France”), and it was pronounced in her favor. The grounds were her husband’s abandonment of the domicile and his refusal to return there when duly summonsed. This in French law constitutes an “injure grave.” No other grounds of complaint were officially recognized. The marriage was dissolved and along with it the regime of joint property holdings, under which system the Thibaults had been married. A notary was appointed to liquidate the separate interests involved. To the ex-wife was awarded the child, Suzanne, together with a small allowance for maintenance; Anatole also had to pay certain costs. Presently, there was a rupture between father and daughter; they were never reconciled. As for Val6rie Thi-bault, she resumed her maiden name and was soon re-married to a M. Dussaud. She died in 1921, three years after the death of her daughter.
In his later years, France became quite chary of allusions to his married life. But he once admitted to a friend, “I behaved very badly.”
Even before the divorce was made absolute, France had left with his Egeria on a voyage of discovery. Together they visited Florence and absorbed background for “Le Lys Rouge”—that mosaic of combined beauty and passion which she encouraged him to write. The fact that the worldly-wise lady propelled Anatole to this fresh departure, in depicting contemporary amorality, is symptomatic. From now on, she often put the pen in his hand; but it is not true that she actually guided or controlled that instrument. Since Mme. de Caillavet’s influence over France continued until her death in 1910, we should distinguish between the spheres of its activity. In general, she made of him a personage; she brought forward, but she did not create, his talent. The formation of that gift has, I hope, been demonstrated in the preceding sections. To be sure, she aided considerably in the deepening of old interests or in the acquisition of new ones—for example, those due to travel, to a closer knowledge of society, and probably to the political attitude which he took in the Dreyfus Affair. But she had the sense to subordinate herself to his ability as a writer proper, and she even achieved, on occasion, a certain mimicry of his style.
Yet the flowing tributes of France himself to his mistress make it plain that she stimulated him to the kind of increasing productiveness that was bound to make its mark. From the early years of their friendship he sends her frequent reports of what he has done or what he proposes to do. The itemized character of these reports suggests the correspondence of R. L. Stevenson or of Balzac. Later in their liaison Mme. de Caillavet would urge, not without remonstrances from the victim, that his afternoons should be given to industry rather than to siestas. Partly as a result of that urging, there appeared a series of masterpieces—”La Rotis-serie,” “Le Lys,” “Le Jardin d’Epicure”—which opened to him the doors of the Academy. Anatole’s election and installation there, in 1896, constituted a veritable triumph for Leontine de Caillavet. Out of the hundreds of congratulatory missives which were showered on the new Immortal she composed a souvenir-album which may still be seen at the Bibliotheque Nationale.
Certainly she made of him a personage; and also she converted him into a Mask. This is evident from a semi-official photograph taken about 1894. The scholar’s visage of former days has vanished, together with the irregularities of his beard. Oiled and curled and imposing, the Mask enters. It is formidable, it is point-device, it is boulevardier to the last glossy hair on its imperial. It can adorn the amphitheater of the Academy or figure in the drawing-rooms of the great. Suitably posed and presented by Egeria, the Mask can monologue admirably on everything from Nineveh to Napoleon. To the ladies it can murmur voluptuous phrases, with Monseigneur the Archbishop it can exchange sharp but veiled repartee. Is the Mask ever removed; does the underlying mutable Anatole ever appear? Yes, in the mornings, when the Master holds intimate levees at the Villa Said, a domicile which he is turning into a museum. But in the afternoons, silk must be worn, the bouquet for his hostess must be bought, and the Mask wends his way to the familiar mansion on the Avenue Hoche, where the stage is set for his entrance.
As one consequence of all this, France became famous. With his genius as her lode-star, Mme. de Caillavet could see to it that Tout-Paris became properly magnetized. She caused him to be appreciated by many as the incarnation of his country’s culture. She even launched him on the road to that international ranking which became his toward the turn of the century and from which he never descended. Protecting him, harassing him, stimulating him even to the point of revolt, Egeria remained faithful to the end to her recalcitrant lover and to her ideal of his glory.
Anatole became recalcitrant because after all there were things that he liked better than being a Mask. He liked at times to feel at ease in his clothes, his manners, and his morals. He was still fond of prowling around the bookshops, the quays, the daughters of joy. Deep within his uncertain self, he wanted to drift along with eddying and whimsical currents. For after all, the Mask is not to be taken as a symbol of stability or of an achieved integration within the ho-munculus. The time for that had come and gone. The tabernacle of belief was shattered. Henceforth a penetrating mind would tower over the wrecks of things. Call him what you will—Socialist, Communist, Nihilist—the man himself becomes profoundly indifferent to such labels, and the artist is occupied mainly with giving consummate form to disbelief of all kinds. “I have spent my later life,” he once said, “in putting dynamite into curl-papers.” Dynamite, but not direct action. Contemporary strife aroused him only once, at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, to take a militant stand for ideals of justice. Otherwise, in a long series of works, he voices for the most part an unconstructive scepticism.
For the milk of sentiment has curdled within him. The hitherto amiable Epicurean is evolving into something more sensual and more bitter. He had already professed that Irony and Pity are the two “counsellors,” the twin keys to the human heart. In this tragic ambivalence, Irony comes gradually to predominate. I would not deny that in the flush of worldly glory the voice of Pity still is heard. There is the tolerant kindness of the Abbe Coignard in “La Rotis-serie.” There is the sympathy for the downtrodden like “Crainquebille” and for such vagabonds as Pied d’Alouette in the “Histoire contemporaine.” Indeed, much of that series is given over to a defence of another victim of society— Captain Dreyfus. But in none of these cases do we find. France en rapport with the actual order of things and persons. His sympathies are reserved for les humbles—the sort of people whom he knew best in his youth. Only in such encounters does the Mask fall and the satirist become his old self. But more usually, in hundreds of passages, one finds persistent mockery and desolation of spirit.
The beginnings of this appear shortly after the great rupture in his life and were, I maintain, among its immediate effects. “La Rotisserie de la Reine Pedauque,” with all its audacious charm, contains much eighteenth-century “dynamite.” Anatole’s mouthpiece, Coignard, is a professor of orthodoxy; but fundamentally he is a relativist, a voluptuary, an iconoclast, who leaves little standing save the “double concupiscence” of Hunger and Love. When he turns his gaze on modern affairs (in “Les Opinions de Jerome Coignard”), a basic scorn of human beings underlies the chapters on ministries and the army, on the administration of justice and the art of history. “Le Jardin d’Epicure,” in its measured beauty, expresses the deeper philosophy of pessimism. Clinging to his old compensations of illusions and revery, Anatole yet demonstrates the frequency in the actual world of evil, misery, and ignorance. Again, practical illustrations of such a creed are forthcoming in the acrid pages of the “Histoire contemporaine.” M. Bergeret speaks for Anatole and “passes the sponge of universal raillery” over the established classes and hierarchies of all sorts. “L’lle des Pingouins” indicts and burlesques the whole course of French civilization.
Yet even in the thick of Parisian thoroughfares Anatole could still find isles of refuge and shrines of ancient taste, commemorated in a faultless style. Unforgettable and delightful still are certain pages and incidents: the kneeling loveliness of Madame Gromance; the affecting death of the Abbe” Coignard; vistas of Greece, of Cleopatra, of the far galaxies of stars; the actress in the “Histoire comique,” gravely reciting Moliere in her nudity; the first clothing of the Penguins; the mellow philosophy of Brotteaux des Ilettes in “Les Dieux ont soif.”
All these and more are like the very veils that the Penguins donned: remove them and beneath you find an uneasy nakedness, a sad barrenness. So the complex brain of France evolves, with occasional humanitarian promptings, occasional patriotism as at the outbreak of the Great War, until at long last he finds a serener vision. Where does he find it? In the memories of his youth, once again, in the two final Gospels consecrated to the dear days when Little Pierre was a happy innocent. The wheel has gone full circle. Anatole France, full of years and honors, dies with the name “Maman” upon his lips.