Storytelling, which was the heart of Anatole France’s literary career, was an art he mastered only after a very long apprenticeship. He began that apprenticeship in the traditional way, with a thinly disguised novel about his own youthful growing pains. It was the kind of personal novel of sensibility which had been the fashionable first composition for aspiring novelists since François René de Chateaubriand’s René (1802), but he himself found the result so muddled and pointless that he put the manuscript away in a drawer in 1872 without offering it for publication. A decade later, he revised the manuscript extensively and published it as Les Désirs de Jean Servien (1882; The Aspirations of Jean Servien, 1912), but it went unnoticed, deservedly, by both critics and public. His sense of failure in 1872 kept him away from fiction for seven years thereafter. He tried again with two relatively long short stories which he published together as a small volume in 1879, but they attracted no attention, and their author understood that neither story had the coherence and focus necessary to hold a reader’s interest. He persevered in fiction nevertheless and was rewarded when another small volume, this time containing two stories held together by a common central figure, came out in 1881 to considerable critical acclaim and respectable sales. Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (1881; The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, 1890) was labeled a novel, although it was in reality two separate tales, and it gave Anatole France his first taste of success in fiction, at the age of thirty-seven. He was encouraged to believe that fiction was his talent, and that the amusing and gentle irony that had succeeded in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard was his true creative vein. Yet he would spend the entire decade of the 1880’s struggling still with the techniques of fiction writing, searching for the appropriate form for his talent as a storyteller.
After nearly a decade of experimentation and slow, painfully won progress, Anatole France published his first important collection of short stories in 1889, giving the entire volume the title of its best tale, Balthasar. What he had chiefly mastered by means of his experimentation was the art of concentration: choosing a central point or idea for each story and curbing his digressive tendencies so as to move the narrative unequivocally forward to its central point without confusing the reader with subplots and side issues. It was a difficult discipline for him to learn, since it went against his open curiosity, and, although he was not wholly successful in Balthasar, he had visibly come a long way in it, even since the modest success of The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard eight years before.
The title story, for example, focuses on one of the three wise kings who, according to the Bible, followed a star to the birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The object of the story is to recount the circumstances which led Balthasar to decide to follow the wondrous star. The mocking imitation of biblical diction instructs the reader from the start to expect an ironic tale, undercutting the simple piety of the traditional Christmas legend. Balthasar is depicted as a naïve youth who receives a painful sentimental education at the hands of the cruelly capricious Queen of Sheba, Balkis, with whom he falls in love. It is the experience of being cast aside by Balkis when she is tired of him that turns Balthasar to the study of the stars, for consolation, and that places the journey to Bethlehem in an ironic light as the gesture of a despairing lover rather than a pilgrimage of pious devotion. The central idea of the story is thus clear, and kept in sharp focus for the reader by the carefully controlled narrative style which parodies and mocks its biblical model. It is only on the last page that the story falters: At the moment of choosing between Balkis and the star, Balthasar is described, with no hint of irony, as undergoing a spiritual transformation, and in a few rapid sentences the reader is told of Balthasar’s meeting with the other two kings and his arrival in Bethlehem. The sudden change of tone is disconcerting, for it casts doubt on all that has preceded, as though the author had not quite been able to follow his own idea to its logical conclusion. Except for the ending, however, the story is well constructed, coherent, and skillful.
Another story in the same collection, “M. Pigeonneau,” exhibits the same virtues and the same defect in the ending; It is a delightful tale of a solemn pedant led into a farcical adventure by a hypnotist. The particular audacity of this tale is that the narrator is the title character, who recounts his own ridiculous experiences in the solemn prose of the scholar, unaware that he is himself the butt of the joke. The premise of the story, however, that the pedant never realizes what he is revealing about himself, forces the author to leave the story unfinished, trailing off while M. Pigeonneau is still under the hypnotic spell. Until the disappointing...
(The entire section is 2120 words.)