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An essay by Robert Lynd

Anatole France

Title:     Anatole France
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

There does not at first glance seem to be any great similarity between Mr Thomas Hardy and M. Anatole France, the latter of whom has come to London to see how enthusiastically Englishmen can dine when they wish to express their feelings about literature. Yet both writers are extraordinarily alike. Each of them is an incarnation of the spirit of pity, of the spirit of irony. Mr Hardy may have more pity than irony and Anatole France may have more irony than pity. I might put it another way and say that Mr Hardy has the tragic spirit of pity while Anatole France has the comic spirit of pity. But each of them is, in his own way, the last word of the nineteenth century on the universe--the century that extinguished the noon of faith and gave us the little star of pity to light up the darkness instead. Each of them is, therefore, a pessimist--Mr Hardy typically British, Anatole France typically French, in his distress. It is as though Mr Hardy spoke out of a rain-cloud; Anatole France out of a cloud of irresponsible lightnings. There, perhaps, you have an eternal symbol of the difference between the Englishman, who takes his irreligion as seriously as his religion, and the Frenchman, who takes his irreligion as smilingly as his aperitif.

It is just because he sums up the end of the nineteenth century so well that Anatole France is already in some quarters a declining fashion. He is the victim of a reaction against his century, not of a reaction against his style. He is the last of the true mockers: the twentieth century demands that even its mockers shall be partisans of the coming race. Anatole France does not believe in the coming race. He is willing to join a society for bringing it into existence--he is even a Socialist--but his vision of the world shows him no prospect of Utopias. He is as sure as the writer of Ecclesiastes that every blessed--or, rather, cursed--thing is going to happen over and over again. Life is mainly a procession of absurdities in which lovers and theologians and philosophers and collectors of bric-a-brac are the most amusing figures. It is one of the happy paradoxes of human conduct that, in spite of this vision of futilities, Anatole France came forward at the Dreyfus crisis as a man of action, a man who believed that the procession of absurdities could be diverted into a juster road. "Suddenly," as Brandes has said, "he stripped himself of all his scepticism and stood forth, with Voltaire's old blade gleaming in his hand--like Voltaire irresistible by reason of his wit, like him the terrible enemy of the Church, like him the champion of innocence. But, taking a step in advance of Voltaire, France proclaimed himself the friend of the poor in the great political struggle." He even did his best to become a mob-orator for his faith. Since that time he has given his name willingly to the cause of every oppressed class and nation. It is as though he had no hope and only an intermittent spark of faith; but his heart is full of charity.

That somewhere or other a preacher lay hidden in Anatole France might have all along been suspected by observant readers of his works. He is a born fabulist. He drifts readily into fable in everything he writes. And, if his fables do not always walk straight to their moral in their Sunday clothes, that is not because he is not a very earnest moralist at heart, but because his wit and humour continually entice him down by-paths. It is sometimes as though he set out to serve morality and ended by telling an indecent story--as though he knelt down to pray and found himself addressing God in a series of blasphemies. This is the contradiction in his nature which makes him so ineffectual as a propagandist, so effectual as an artist. Ineffectual, one ought to say, perhaps, not as a propagandist so much as a partisan. For he does propagate with the most infectious charm his view of the animal called man, and the need for being tender and not too serious in dealing with him. If he has not preached the brotherhood of man with the missionary fervour of the idealists, he has at least, in accordance with an idealism of his own, preached a brotherhood of the beasts. He never lets himself savagely loose upon his brother-beasts as Swift does. Even in Penguin Island, with all its bitterness, he shakes his head rather than his stick at the vicious kennels of men. The truth is, Epicureanism is in his blood. If he could, he would watch the stream of circumstance, as it went by, with the appreciative indifference of the gods. It is only the preacher in his heart that prevents this. Like his own Abbe Coignard, he shares his loyalty between Epicurus and Christ. Henley once described Stevenson as something of the sensualist, and something of the Shorter Catechist. Translated into French, that might serve as a character-sketch of Anatole France.

Originality has been denied to him in some quarters, but, it seems to me, unjustly. One may find something very like this or that aspect of him in Sterne, or Voltaire, or Heine. But in none of them does one find the complete Anatole France, ironist, fabulist, critic, theologian, artist, connoisseur, politician, philosopher, and creator of character. As artist, he is at many points comparable to Sterne. He has the same sentimental background to his wit, the same tenderness in his ridicule, the same incapacity for keeping his jests from scrambling about the very altar, the same almost Christian sensuality. Sterne, of course, is the more innocent writer, because his intellect was not nearly so covetous of experience. Sterne, though in his humanitarianism he occasionally stood in a pulpit above his time, was content for the most part to work as an artist. He could do all the preaching he wanted on Sundays. On week-days my Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim were the only minor prophets he troubled about. Anatole France, on the other hand, is not a preacher by trade. He has no safety-valve of that kind for his moralisings. The consequence is that he has again and again felt himself compelled to ease his mind by adopting the part of the lay preacher we call the journalist. He is in much of his work a Sterne turned journalist--a Sterne flashingly interested in leaving the world better than he found it and other things that grieve the artistic. He might even be described as the greatest living journalist. The Bergeret series of novels are, apart from their artistic excellence, the most supremely delightful examples of modern European journalism. Similarly, when he turned for a too brief space to literary criticism, he proved himself the master of all living men in the art of the literary causerie. The four volumes of La Vie Litteraire will, I imagine, survive all but a few of the literary essays of the nineteenth century. They are in a sense only trifles, but what irresistible trifles!

But no criticism would be just which stopped short at the assertion that Anatole France is to some extent a journalist. So was Dickens for that matter, and so, no doubt, was Shakespeare. It is much more important to emphasise the fact that Anatole France is an artist--that he stands at the head of the artists of Europe, indeed, since Tolstoi died. His novels are not the issue of an impartial love of form, like Flaubert's. They are as freakish as the author's personality; they tell only the most interrupted of stories. They might be said in many cases to introduce the Montaigne method into fiction. They are essays portraying a personality rather than novels on a conventional model. They may have a setting amid early Christianity or early Mediaevalism; they may disguise themselves as realism or as fairy tales; but the secret passion of them all is the self-revelation of the author--the portraiture of the last of the mockers as he surveys this mouldy world of churches and courtesans. This portrait peeps round the corner at us in nearly every sentence. "Milesian romancers!" cried M. Bergeret. "O shrewd Petronius! O Noel du Fail! O forerunners of Jean de la Fontaine! What apostle was wiser or better than you, who are commonly called good-for-nothing rascals? O benefactors of humanity! You have taught us the true science of life, the kindly scorn of the human race!" There, by implication, you have the ideal portrait of Anatole France himself--the summary of his temper. The kindly scorn of the human race is the basis upon which the Francian Decalogue will be founded. In Penguin Island the scorn at times ceases to be entirely kindly. It ceases even to be scorn. It becomes utter despair. But in Thais, in Sur la Pierre Blanche, in Le Mannequin d'Osier, with what a comprehending sympathy he despises the human race! How amiably he impales the little creatures, too, and lectures us on the humours of amorousness and quarrelsomeness and heroism in the insect world! Even the French Revolution he sees in Les Dieux Ont Soif as a scuffle of insects to be regarded with amusement rather than amazement by the philosopher among his cardboard toys. Not really amusement, of course, but pity disguised as amusement--the pity, too, not of a philosopher in a garden, but of a philosopher always curiously hesitating between the garden and the street.

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Robert Lynd's essay: Anatole France