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Re-Enter Anatole France

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

Anatole France, 1844-1896. By Edwin Preston Dargan. New York: Oxford University Press. $5.00.

LON GUM aevi spatium! Born in 1844 under Louis Philippe, “King of the French,” Anatole France died in 1924 when Raymond Poincare was premier. The man who rubbed elbows with Leconte de Lisle prefaced, fifty years later, one of the early books of Marcel Proust. France came of age when Napoleon III inaugurated his so-called “liberal” empire. The son of a royalist, he went into the opposition and paraded as a Republican. (“How fine the Republic was under the Empire”!) During the Franco-Prussian War he showed himself a rather unheroic “chocolate soldier,” although, and soon after, he supported militarism. Then came the red scare of the Commune. France, the Communist of a great many years later, followed the example of most French literati and became a reactionary for a certain period, on whose length recent biographers do not agree. The contention that he remained a staunch conservative for twenty years (1870-1890) is advanced by Edwin P. Dargan, in “Anatole France, 1844-1896,” but is difficult to accept since it leaves unexplained his break with the French traditionalists around 1890. Of this more later.

From his coming of age, in the eighteen-sixties, to the time of his full maturity, Anatole France shared in all the major literary experiments tried in France, although he remained alien, until much later, to realism and especially to Zola’s naturalism. He was born in the romantic twilight and, for a long while, it seemed that he could never come out of dreamland. His pet philosophy was a philosophy of illusion in support of a wholly imaginary world, and this is what gave his childhood reminiscences their charm, from “Le Livre de mon ami” to “La Vie en fleur.” Not only was he a precocious and obstinate dreamer but he had been, so to say, born on a book shelf. Everybody remembers his ramblings along the Seine in search of old tomes and the poetic horizons which they offered to him. From this first phase came the ghost of Sylvestre Bonnard, that absent-minded scholar and bibliophile, so naive and childish and at the same time so old, the first avatar of France before we meet Jerome Coignard and M. Bergeret. France was also a poet in the Parnassian brotherhood, a worshiper of beauty and of art for art’s sake. Parnassianism left an indelible imprint on him and, even in his most modern period, he remained passionately tied to the hellenistic ideals of that famous school. Parnassianism and classicism cannot be separated in his life and works. Enamoured with artistic perfection, and an enthusiastic art collector, his famous residence and art-gallery, Villa Said, illustrated once more his passion for the appropriation of the past in plastic forms. The seventeenth-century authors for models of style, the eighteenth-century philosophers for sources of thought: these were, in his maturity, France’s foundations.

The above faithfully sums up the first half of Professor Dargan’s book. He has checked and verified for us with admirable patience, and in the best method of factual research, every item of Francian lore. Scholars eager to reconstruct France’s artistic and mental progress will all be indebted to him for all the facts he has courageously and somewhat monotonously compiled. The portrait that, painstakingly and in many scattered fragments, comes out of this study does not look new and it is not, perhaps, as pleasant as it appeared half a century ago, but it needs few, if any, retouches. It cannot be said that France’s story, up to the eighteen-nineties, was very exciting; and Professor Dargan himself charitably warns his readers against a certain tediousness in his book, a tediousness that is not entirely the biographer’s fault. That “lazzarone” of French letters, as a critic called France, that easy-going and unheroic loafer in the field of formal beauty and easy wisdom, has ceased to be the delight and admiration of the present-day generation and the tedi-ousness in question largely accounts for it.

To find a dramatic climax in France’s career we have to wait until the fateful eighteen-nineties. Then, in the last third of Professor Dargan’s book, interest at last revives, and we only regret to part company with both the painter and his model, in 1896, when the climax becomes still more dramatic and the real Anatole France is born in the last five or six chapters. Since his death, as is well known, France has fallen into almost complete and, as it seems, unfair oblivion. A better knowledge of his critical period would, I am firmly convinced, help to reconcile him with our times. It seems evident, from the present survey and from other books, like “Anatole France’s Secret,” by Charles Braibant, which Professor Dargan discusses, that France lived a sort of double life which historians have not taken sufficiently into account. It looks very much as if he kept for his margins some of his most personal and revolutionary thoughts. From as early as 1883 he was very active as a journalist, not only in the field of literary criticism but of politics and current events. The reviewer would readily agree with Braibant versus Dargan that France’s shift to the militant left was foreshadowed much earlier than is commonly accepted. After 1880 he took a very vivid and direct interest in his country’s political strife, and long before the Dreyfus trial he fought for justice and progress. Around 1890 his interests became decidedly socialistic, all his doubts and recantations notwithstanding, since the latter must be largely credited to the artificial world in which he lived, a world that made him unduly but not unnaturally pessimistic on left and right. His intimate knowledge of France’s private affairs has perhaps made Professor Dargan lose sight too much of the broader currents around him. His excellent chapter, however, on France’s famous Egeria, Mme. de Caillavet, who took him in hand in his fateful period, is very welcome for its “debunking” of the legend of her complete ascendancy over her “lion.” In the last analysis France owed her only what Mr. Dargan very ably calls “the mask” that he was forced to wear. Very far from saving him, it appears, at safe distance, that French society made a nihilist and a complete cynic of him. The cynicism of “Le Jardin d’Epicure” and the dynamite in “Les Opinions de Jerome Coignard” did not grow or explode in the void. They were the definite signs and products of their author’s revolt.

Anatole France’s pathetic story does not end in 1896 with Professor Dargan’s volume. One may say that it just begins then. Let us hope that either Professor Dargan or some other valiant scholar goaded by his example will follow the clue and bring France’s drama to its denouement. A drama it was, with the first rumblings of the World War, the internecine conflicts between the peace and war forces in France, the German onslaught and unhappy Anatole torn between his dreams of social justice and the tragic reality, the fight between Caliban and Prospero, the irresistible advance of Demos, the Nobel prize and the problem of how France would spend it, old age, the assaults and indiscretions of secretaries and interviewers, the tragic efforts to find the last word of wisdom, death, the burial under the red flags, the contempt of the “lost generation” and the still uncertain attitude of a posterity wondering if France has really been a great man and a great writer. Many things remain unsaid; and if we know well, thanks to Professor Dargan, the minute details of France’s biography, somebody must come to tell us more about his relations to his times in religion, philosophy, and the social field. The time has come, it seems, to try to place him where he exactly belongs in the history or, as some maintain, in the decadence of nineteenth-century ideals which he helped just as much to destroy as to upbuild.


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