Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314
Anatole France was the kind of thoroughgoing professional man of letters who did almost every conceivable kind of writing in his time: in verse and in prose, works of the imagination and works of scholarship, journalism, polemical tracts, and autobiography. Fame of international proportions came late in his career—he had passed his fiftieth birthday by the time he was recognized as one of his country’s great writers—and its basis was certainly his work in fiction, both novels and short stories. His first publication, however, was a work of literary criticism, and he achieved recognition as one of the best and most widely read critics and book reviewers in France during the 1880’s and 1890’s. He published two volumes of not-very-distinguished verse in the 1870’s, and over a period of twenty-five years, he patiently compiled a controversial but well researched historical study of the life of Joan of Arc, published in 1908. His polemical writings, some of them the texts of speeches made at public meetings, were related to two major events of his lifetime—the Dreyfus affair and World War I; in the former, he was a leading pro-Dreyfus spokesman, and in the latter he defended a pacifist point of view. For a time he also wrote polemical articles for a socialist newspaper. He ventured only once into theatrical writing, with a comedy published in 1908, based on the medieval tale of the man who married a dumb wife. His autobiography is mildly fictionalized, although accurate in essentials, and runs to four volumes spread over a period of more than thirty years. For all the variety of his chosen forms, however, his most characteristic literary posture was that of the storyteller. Even his work as literary critic and historian emphasizes the anecdotal approach, and the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he won in 1921, certainly honored, above all else, the novelist and short-story writer.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 155
Anatole France occupies an unusual place in cultural history; he is an author who achieved great fame but who had neither disciples nor documented influence upon subsequent generations. The suddenness of the collapse of his reputation after his death in 1924 was dramatic. Moreover, the revival of his literary fame over the past few decades, while genuine, has been limited.
Anatole France’s writing is renowned for its combination of an inveterate skepticism with a celebrated style, a carefully crafted classical simplicity and subtle wit that is graceful yet elusive. Even without direct influence, Anatole France’s career left its mark on French letters, particularly in the domain of the short story. He was the most distinguished practitioner of the genre after Guy de Maupassant. The last decade of Anatole France’s life brought many literary honors. He was elected a member of the French Academy in 1896 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921.
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Of the twenty-five volumes that make up the standard French edition of the complete works of Anatole France (frahns), more than fifteen are given over to one form or another of prose fiction: ten novels (thirteen if one counts the tetralogy Contemporary History as four separate novels), ten collections of short stories, and four volumes of fictionalized autobiography. The remainder of the twenty-five-volume set exhibits a startling variety of literary forms: poetry, theater, biography, history, literary criticism, philosophy, journalism, and polemical writings.
France’s first publication was a book-length critical study of the French Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny (1868), after which he published two volumes of his own poetry, one containing lyric poems, the other a play in verse, and several long narrative poems. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, he wrote a regular weekly column, mostly about books and the literary world, for a prominent Paris newspaper, Le Temps. The best of those columns were republished in five volumes under the title La Vie littéraire (1888-1892; On Life and Letters, 1911-1914). His major venture into the writing of history was La Vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1908; The Life of Joan of Arc, 1908), published after a quarter of a century of research. That same year, he published his one original prose work for the theater, La Comédie de celui qui épousa une femme muette (1903; The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, 1915), a farce based on a well-known medieval fabliau.
France’s major speeches and occasional writings, on such issues of the times as the Dreyfus affair, socialism, and pacifism, were collected and published in several volumes under the title Vers les temps meilleurs (1906, 1949). Philosophical meditations on human nature and civilization can be found in a volume titled Le Jardin d’Épicure (1894; The Garden of Epicurus, 1908), consisting of pieces on general subjects originally written for his weekly newspaper column and not included in the volumes of On Life and Letters. One may say, in sum, that France was the complete man of letters, who tried his hand at just about every form of writing practiced in the literary world of his time. It is nevertheless accurate to say that the writing of fiction so dominated his output, throughout his career, that it constituted his true vocation.
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The election of Anatole France to the French Academy in 1896 and his winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 were the major public landmarks of the great success and recognition he achieved during his career as a writer, first in his own country and then in the international arena. At the height of his fame, in the early years of the twentieth century, he was widely regarded as France’s greatest living author, celebrated for his wit, his wisdom, and his humanitarian vision. The paradoxes of that fame, however, were multiple and heavy with irony: The fame had been an unusually long time in coming (he was nearly fifty years old before he had his first significant success with the public), it was based largely on his association with public events rather than on his genuine but esoteric literary talent, and it lasted only briefly. Indeed, the greatest paradox of his fame was its bewilderingly rapid eclipse after his death. His reputation would not regain the luster of his glory years, around the turn of the twentieth century.
France himself lived long enough to be the saddened witness of a major erosion of his fame in a storm of bitter controversy, which made him an object of both worship and hatred but for purely nonliterary reasons. The truth is that the great fame he enjoyed, during a brief period of his life, was of the public sort, only indirectly occasioned by his writings, which, even at their most popular, appealed to a rather narrowly circumscribed audience. One must separate his fame from his achievements as a writer—which is not to say that his achievements were minor, but only that they were literary and aesthetic, hence accessible to relatively few at any time.
As a novelist and short-story writer, France made his mark in the fiction of ideas, and as a literary critic, he established, by personal example, the validity of subjective impressionism as a method. Those are the two major achievements of his career in letters, the accomplishments that have affected literary history. To those literary achievements, one should add a more personal achievement: the creation of a highly distinctive, instantly identifiable style of classic purity and elegance, with subtle rhythms and limpid clarity, which perfectly translated the skeptical and gently ironic view he held of the human condition.
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Anatole François Thibault was the son of François Noël Thibault, a devoutly Roman Catholic and politically conservative bookseller. Anatole grew to adolescence surrounded by the cultural heritage of France and quickly acquired a keen appreciation of its worth. To begin with, he took aboard his father’s religious and political beliefs in a meekly obedient fashion, with the result that his childhood was untroubled by conflict. He remembered it as a comfortable and happy time that he revisited nostalgically throughout his writing life, evoking aspects of it in Le Livre de mon ami (1885; My Friend’s Book, 1913), Pierre Nozière (1899; English translation, 1916), Le Petit Pierre (1919; Little Pierre, 1920) and his final novel, Le Vie en fleur (1922; The Bloom of Life, 1923). A portrait painted when he was six shows him with a serious expression, a Cupid’s-bow mouth and a narrow chin (which he was to conceal throughout adult life with a luxuriant beard and mustache).
The young Anatole became a devoted scholar, although he left the Collège Stanislas in 1862 without qualifications for reasons that his biographers have been unable to clarify. He refused to take over his father’s business—which the elder Thibault then liquidated—and set out to make a living from his pen using the pseudonym Anatole France. He began to frequent the salon of the Parnassian poet Charles Leconte de Lisle in 1867 but supported himself in the field of academic journalism, which was unusually lucrative in nineteenth century France by virtue of the rapid postrevolutionary establishment of universal literacy and an attendant hunger for education. His subjects ranged from such writers of ancient Greece and Rome as Lucius Apuleius and Terence to such contemporaries as Paul Bourget and Émile Zola. The classical philosophy of Epicurus and the social upheavals of revolutionary France became particularly fascinating for Anatole. The Catholic faith and Monarchist sympathies that Anatole had inherited from his father were ameliorated by polite Epicurean skepticism and an idealistic commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Early manhood proved to be a more troubling period of his life. A passionate infatuation with Élise Devoyod in 1865-1866 was unreciprocated. He married Marie-Valérie Guérin de Sauville in 1877, but the marriage was disrupted by a hectic love affair with a married woman, Léontine Arman de Caillavet, which turned his gradual retreat from moral orthodoxy into a headlong rush in the late 1880’s. His marriage was dissolved in 1893, shortly before his involvement with the celebrated case of Alfred Dreyfus—a Jewish army officer wrongly convicted of selling military secrets—presented his newfound radicalism a cause that he could pursue in the public arena.
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France’s first full-length work, issued in 1868, was a study of the poet Alfred de Vigny. He published a poetry collection of his own in 1873 and a poetic drama, Les Noces corinthiennes, in 1876, but the latter was not performed until he had become famous; it was first produced at the Odéon in 1902. His first book of prose, Jocasta et le chat maigre (1879; Jocasta and the Famished Cat, 1912), consisted of two novellas, but his breakthrough to popular success was Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (1881; The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, 1890), a novel about an unworldly booklover’s struggle to cope with the vicissitudes of everyday life. This was followed in 1883 by the long, moralistic fairy tale “L’Abeille,” variously known in English as “Honey-Bee,” “Bee” and “The Kingdom of the Dwarfs,” which became the longest item in the story collection Balthasar (1889; English translation, 1909).
France wrote two novels dramatizing his feelings for Léontine Arman de Caillavet. The first, written while he was still married, was Thaïs (1890; English translation, 1891), based on a legend that he had already recapitulated in a poem written in 1867. Paphnuce, a hermit living in the same locale as Saint Anthony (whose oft-illustrated temptations had been vividly described in an extravagant novel by Gustave Flaubert), persuades a famous Alexandrian courtesan to repent her wicked ways and become a nun but is then driven mad by the erotic feelings she has awakened in him. The second novel, set in the city of Florence, which he and Madame Arman de Caillavet visited while touring Italy in the wake of his divorce, was the infinitely more relaxed and sentimental love story Le Lys rouge (1894; The Red Lily, 1898).
The resentment against Christian asceticism embodied in Thaïs was further extended in the stories in L’Étui de nacre (1892; Tales from a Mother of Pearl Casket, 1896), which opens with the notorious “Le procurateur de Judea” (“The Procurator of Judea”), in which an aged Pontius Pilate, reminiscing about old times, reveals that he has no memory whatsoever of his brief encounter with Christ, although he remembers Mary Magdalene very well. The collection also includes further ironic pastiches of the legends of the saints in the same vein as Thaïs. The trend continued in Le Puits de Sainte-Claire (1895; The Well of Santa Clara, 1909), which included a fine tale of a satyr saint that summarized France’s arguments about the tragedy of the Church’s rejection of the pagan heritage and the novella “L’humaine tragédie” (“The Human Tragedy”), in which a medieval holy man discovers that the Church has become the enemy of true Christian ideals and that the rebellious spirit of its traditional enemy—Satan—better embraces the traditional ideals of hope and charity.
Other works elaborating France’s new spirit of dissent included the Rabelaisian satire La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque (1893; At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, 1912) and Les Opinions de M. Jérome Coignard (1893; The Opinions of Jerome Coignard, 1913), but his work changed direction markedly in 1897 when he began a four-volume series of novels set in contemporary France. This consisted of L’Orme du mail (1897; The Elm Tree on the Mall, 1910), Le Mannequin d’osier (1897; The Wicker Work Woman, 1910), L’Anneau d’améthyste (1899; The Amethyst Ring, 1919), and the semiautobiographical Monsieur Bergeret à Paris (1901; Monsieur Bergeret in Paris, 1922). The last book features a hero whose decision to remain aloof from politics is overturned by outrage at the refusal of the French military authorities to admit that Captain Dreyfus had been wrongly convicted and at the consequent continuation of Dreyfus’ imprisonment on Devil’s Island. France’s own sense of outrage broadened to include other social injustices, some of which were scathingly chronicled in the sarcastic tales collected in Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet et plusieurs autres récits profitables (1904; Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and Other Profitable Tales, 1915). The Dreyfus affair formed the basis for the final sequence of his hugely successful satire L’Île des pingouins (1908; Penguin Island, 1914), in which a population of accidentally baptized penguins reproduce all the errors and follies of human social evolution.
France offered more earnest accounts of his philosophical development in his reconstruction of debates in Le Jardin d’Épicure (1894; The Garden of Epicurus, 1908) and a novel examining the difficulties of predicting the future, Sur le pierre blanche (1905; The White Stone, 1909), whose attempted description of a future Marxist utopia reflected the author’s increasing attachment to socialism. He eventually joined the Communist Party, but only briefly; he found its narrow faith as stultifying as the one he had deserted in adolescence. He always preferred to develop his ideas satirically and relatively light-heartedly, as in Contes de Jacques Tournebroche (1908; The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche, 1910), which contained stories in the same slightly bawdy mock-medieval vein as Honoré de Balzac’s Droll Tales, and Les Sept Femmes de la Barbe-Bleue et autres contes merveilleux (1909; The Seven Wives of Bluebeard and Other Marvellous Tales, 1920), a collection of ironic fairy tales that concludes with a long exercise in moral symbolism in which emissaries of an unhappy king search in vain for the shirt of a happy man with which to redeem the king’s melancholy spirit. France had been much troubled himself by the controversial remarriage of his divorced daughter Suzanne in 1908; he refused to speak to her thereafter, and the estrangement continued until her death in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
The ultimate satirical product of France’s conversion to radicalism was his literary masterpiece, La Révolte des anges (1914; The Revolt of the Angels, 1914), written on the eve of World War I. The story tells how a guardian angel is converted to free thought by De rerum natura (Lucretius’ summary of Epicurean philosophy) and sends out a new call to arms to the fallen angels, most of whom have become teachers and artists. He offers the commanding role to Satan, who is working as a humble gardener and who politely declines on the grounds that liberation from divine tyranny must be won within the hearts and minds of men, not on the field of battle. The carefully considered rejection of violent means was carried forward from Les Dieux ont soif (1912; The Gods Are Athirst, 1913), his heartfelt historical novel analyzing the French Revolution of 1789 and the consequent Reign of Terror. He had turned to that subject in the wake of the death, in 1910, of his longtime companion Madame Arman de Caillavet. He did marry again in 1920, and in 1921 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of seventy-six. He was still working despite his age, and his last few published works, although slight, showed that he had lost none of his clarity of mind.
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Axelrad, Jacob, Anatole France: A Life Without Illusions. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944. In this eminently readable biography, Axelrad focuses on Anatole France’s impact as a social critic and partisan of justice. While the research is carefully undertaken and generally accurate, the point of view is overly sentimental, unabashedly admiring, and insufficiently critical and analytical.
Chevalier, Haakon M. The Ironic Temper: Anatole France and His Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 1932. Although dated, this book is insightful and engagingly written. Its purpose is to study a character, not to evaluate the artistic achievement of its subject. It sets an excellent analysis of Anatole France’s ironic view of the world against a detailed portrait of the political climate in which he lived and wrote. Includes photos and a bibliography.
Hamilton, James F. “Terrorizing the ‘Feminine’ in Hugo, Dickens, and France.” Symposium 48 (Fall, 1994): 204-215. Argues that these authors repress the feminine side in their depiction of the Terror by cold mechanical reasoning; argues the reign of such reason oppresses the feminine and creates a self-defeating force of violence.
Jefferson, Carter. Anatole France: The Politics of Skepticism New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965. This work emphasizes the historical and political, as opposed to the literary, ideas of Anatole France and is especially informative with respect to the complex and shifting political positions he assumed in the last two decades of his life. The book’s five chapters cover the conservative, anarchist, crusader, socialist, and “bolshevik” stages of Anatole France’s thought. Contains a bibliography.
Sachs, Murray. Anatole France: The Short Stories. London: Edward Arnold, 1974. This brief but penetrating analysis focuses on Anatole France’s career as a writer of short fiction. The primary aim of the study is to define and evaluate his distinctive contribution to the evolution of the short story as a literary form.
Stableford, Brian M. “Anatole France.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, 1: Apuleius to May Sinclair, edited by Everett Franklin Bleiler. New York: Scribner’s, 1985. Brief introduction to France’s treatment of the Christian myth and his fantastic fiction; discusses individual works.
Virtanen, Reino. Anatole France. New York: Twayne, 1968. Intended as a general introduction to the author’s work, this insightful volume is accurate and sound in its evaluation of Anatole France’s life and career. It is also of use to the general reader in its detailed analysis of Anatole France’s most significant literary works.