Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

0111200553-France.jpg Anatole France (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.

Early Life

(19th-Century Biographies)

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...

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Life’s Work

(19th-Century Biographies)

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...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 403 words.)