Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2120
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 conclusion, however, the story is an artfully sustained satire.
It was the following year, 1890, that saw publication of Anatole France’s first genuine success, satisfactory in both content and form, and lauded both by the public and the critics. This was the remarkable novel Thaïs (1890; English translation, 1891), which told the story of the saint who would save the sinner only to fall into sin himself when he succeeded. The theme of ironic reversal gave the story a form which won immediate admiration and announced that Anatole France had, at last, mastered the art of fiction. Not by accident was the author’s first draft of Thaïs cast in the form of a short story, for that was the literary form which he had been most insistently trying to solve for more than a decade. The success of Thaïs was almost immediately followed by his first true and acclaimed success in the short-story form, the collection suggestively titled Tales from a Mother of Pearl Casket. The most famous “jewel” in the box was the story called “Le Procurateur de Judée” (“The Procurator of Judea”), still a model of short-story form, and one of the most widely anthologized short stories ever written.
“The Procurator of Judea”
The principal narrative device in the story is to introduce the reader at the outset to Pontius Pilate in his old age, thus setting up the reader’s natural expectation that the story will concern Jesus at some point. The reader receives, instead, a fascinating account of events in Judea as Pilate viewed them, in his office as Procurator, hence the representative of Rome, and the reader is drawn all the way to the end of the story before Jesus is even mentioned. The last line, in which Pilate reveals that he does not remember any Judean named Jesus of Nazareth, is no mere surprise or trick ending but the inevitable consequence of all that has gone before, and the sudden retrospective revelation of the story’s import. The reader of the last line does not feel “taken in,” but rather enlightened, recognizing that historical truth has been communicated from an unexpected angle of vision. The story thus resonates in the reader’s mind long afterward, compelling ironic meditation about the paradoxes and complexities of the past and the probable distortions of official history. At the base of the story, in other words, is a profound idea about history, which has intricate ramifications; and the effect of the story is to make the reader think about those ramifications. Anatole France had, at last, found both a technique and a form which could yield the best he had to offer in the medium of the short story.
“The Juggler of Our Lady”
The magisterial quality of “The Procurator of Judea” has tended to cast the other stories of the collection into limbo, for they suffer by comparison; but many of them are fine compositions in their own right and demonstrate how fully and consciously Anatole France had arrived at mastery of the genre by 1892. One might consider, as a typical example, the story “Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame” (“The Juggler of Our Lady”), which utilizes a medieval legend about a mountebank’s gesture of piety, using the only skill he possessed to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary. In Anatole France’s hands, however, the touching naïveté of the tale takes on a subtle suggestion of irony, simply by being addressed to a sophisticated modern audience. A tinge of parody of the narrative style of the Middle Ages haunts every line; although it is barely perceptible in any one sentence, the tinge of parody is so pervasive and cumulative in its effect that the reader is led to a detached and amused view of the tale, from which the sentimental religiosity has been drained.
After 1892, Anatole France regularly produced new collections of short stories intermingled with novels and other kinds of writing, thus displaying a faithfulness to the genre that attested to his sense of its importance and its value. Five collections of stories appeared after Tales from a Mother of Pearl Casket, each with at least one or two memorable stories, exploiting the hard-won mastery of the form which he had by then achieved. Probably the best of the collections is the one which appeared in 1904, containing several noteworthy masterpieces, among them the celebrated story of Crainquebille, the humble pushcart merchant who suffered a traumatic encounter with the law. Because “Crainquebille” recounts a case of a man unjustly convicted of breaking the law, and because it first appeared while the Dreyfus affair still raged, it has always been read as a specific satire of that event. Time, however, has provided a better perspective, and one can see that a subtler idea animates the story, namely, that the awesome machinery of the law can by itself make a mockery of justice. Crainquebille is not condemned (as was Dreyfus) by a conscious conspiracy designed to protect a traitor, but simply because the judge, preoccupied with the proper forms of judicial process, never really listened to Crainquebille’s case, and Crainquebille never understood a word of what transpired in court. The man and the institution never established contact with each other, and judicial error became inevitable. The story is a masterpiece of social criticism, beautifully conceived, and executed with disciplined control and unfailingly sharp focus on the central idea.
In the same collection appeared another delightful social satire called “Putois,” in which Anatole France managed to invent an example of how a myth is created in a society. The story begins when a fictitious gardener is invented one day to give substance to a “white lie.” The gardener soon becomes so useful socially that he is endowed with the name Putois and assigned certain attributes. Eventually the townspeople, accepting the invention, become convinced that they know him and have seen him. Soon a whole history of deeds and misdeeds accumulates around his name; Putois becomes a “presence” in the town, and even the inventor of the character forgets his origin and begins to think of him as a real person. The tale is in the author’s best comic vein, a good illustration of the kind of gentle mockery which critics call “Francian” and which amuses while provoking serious thought.
The Francian short story is, more than anything else, a fiction of ideas, and it is that characteristic which sets his work apart from other short-story writers in the nineteenth century. Anatole France had little power of invention and not much interest in observation or in character. Books and ideas alone nourished his creative imagination, almost as though the external world did not exist for him. On that basis, he created a body of short fiction in which the pleasures were those of the mind and in which skepticism and irony were the presiding deities. At their best, his stories have the effect of opening up perceptions and lines of thought which reverberate in the reader’s mind long after the last word has been read. At their worst, they can be trivial—when founded upon an idea of insufficient power, for example, or when based upon an inconsequential anecdote. In such a voluminous production, such embarrassments do occur, but of both the best and the worst, it can always be said that the style remains polished, classically pure, and a cause for rejoicing even when the content is less than compelling. Anatole France was one of the master storytellers of French literature and a master stylist as well.
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