Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2537
First published: Le crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, 1881 (English translation, 1890)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Domestic romance
Time of work: Nineteenth century
Sylvestre Bonnard, a bibliophile
Madame Jeanne, his ward
Mademoiselle Coccoz, later the Princess Trepof, his benefactress
Henri Prefere, a schoolteacher
Gelis, a student
Bonnard was a retiring philologist, a Member of the Institute, and a bachelor. Therese, his maid, looked after him firmly; she was the real mistress of his domestic arrangements. Bonnard, his mind stuffed with anti-quarian lore about the old abbeys of Paris, lived mostly in the past.
One day a sickly bookseller called and unsuccessfully showed him some cheap editions. Although he bought no books, Bonnard was moved by the thin, intense man. When he inquired of Therese, she told him that the bookseller, Monsieur Coccoz, lived up in the attic under a leaky roof with seldom even a fire, and his wife had just had a baby. Moved to pity, Bonnard sent up some logs for the indigent couple to burn.
Shortly afterward, he heard that the husband had died. Therese sniffed virtuously at the widow, who had far too many admirers. Bonnard saw the beautiful Madame Coccoz only once on the stairs. She showed him her healthy baby and remarked on his kindness in sending firewood.
Ten years later, Bonnard read in a catalog of a manuscript of the GOLDEN LEGEND, a work he wished very much to own. He finally tracked it down, discovering that it was owned by Signor Polizzi, who lived in Sicily. The Italian refused to lend the manuscript, but he invited Bonnard to come to Sicily to read it at his leisure. Although it was a long, hard trip for a shy man of letters, Bonnard set out for Sicily.
On the island he met Prince Trepof, a Russian, and his beautiful wife, whom Bonnard never associated with the young widow he had met once on the stairs years before. They were rich travelers who had nothing to do but to look for matchboxes for the prince’s collection. The princess gently decried her nomadic existence, but she adored her husband.
Signor Polizzi’s house was difficult to reach. Bonnard had to make the last part of the trip by mule litter. When he at last arrived, he found that Polizzi, a slippery jack-of-all-trades, had given the GOLDEN LEGEND to his son, who had opened a shop in Paris. While Bonnard was making the long trip to Sicily, the manuscript had all the time been in a bookshop not far from his apartment. Furious at the unkindness done him, Bonnard poured out his bitter story to the sympathetic princess.
Back in Paris, Bonnard went to the son’s shop; there was the manuscript. The son refused to quote a price on it because he was putting it up at auction. When the sale took place, Bonnard hopefully bid up to six thousand francs, but someone always outbid him. To his consternation, he found that it was Polizzi who had successfully bid on the manuscript. The dealer was acting as agent for a client who had instructed him to buy back the manuscript at any cost.
Back in his apartment, while Bonnard was gloomily thinking of his troubles, a young boy was shown in. The youngster gave him a package from his mother and disappeared, but not before Therese had seen the carriage. The package contained a make-believe log. Inside was a card from the Princess Trepof and a profusion of violets. Under the flowers, Bonnard found the manuscript. Just then, Therese lumbered in to ask what Madame Coccoz was doing in such a rich carriage and why she had stopped at their door.
Monsieur de Gabry invited Bonnard to come to his country estate to catalog the library he had inherited. Bonnard found the estate in run-down condition, but the library was extensive. He happily settled down to his long task.
In front of him on the desk was a tiny fairy who scolded him for his dry preoccupations and threw ink at him. Bonnard awoke with a start and found that a sudden wind had upset his ink bottle. Mme de Gabry listened to the story of his dream with much interest. A few days later, Bonnard came back from a walk to find his dream fairy perched on a console in the hall. As he stared in astonishment, Mme de Gabry came up to introduce Jeanne Alexandre.
Jeanne was a shy girl with red hands. After Mme de Gabry had described the fairy to her, she made a like statuette to surprise Bonnard. The old man was pleased by the gift, and when he heard something of Jeanne’s story, he was moved to emotions he had not felt for years. Jeanne was the granddaughter of Clementine, a girl whom he had loved long ago. Now Jeanne’s relatives were dead, and she was staying a few days with Mme de Gabry. Bonnard resolved to look after the girl for the sake of his dead Clementine.
In Paris Mme de Gabry went with him to Clementine’s grave and there listened to his nostalgic tale. When Bonnard, a young man, had loved her, Clementine’s mother was dead, and she lived with her choleric father, who was a mapmaker. They were renting rooms temporarily from Bonnard’s father. Bonnard was afraid to disclose his love for Clementine, but she seemed to know how he felt. One evening a great quarrel arose between Clementine’s father, a Royalist, and Bonnard’s uncle, a Bonapartist. After the quarrel, Clementine was taken away, and Bonnard never saw her again.
After telling his story, Bonnard asked Mme de Gabry how he could best help the orphan Jeanne. She reminded him that Jeanne had a guardian, Maitre Mouche the notary, who would have to be consulted.
The honest bibliophile cared little for Maitre Mouche’s shifty ways, but the notary gave him permission to visit Jeanne each Thursday afternoon. Jeanne was in Mademoiselle Prefere’s select school, where at first Bonnard was received with suspicion. As soon as Mademoiselle Prefere learned, however, that Bonnard was a Member of the Institute, she was effusive. Immediately, Jeanne began to receive better treatment than she had as a charity student.
During the vacation period, Mlle Prefere frequently brought Jeanne to Bonnard’s apartment. The schoolmistress quickly made herself at home and soon had her favorite rocker and her shelf for her knitting. One afternoon, while Jeanne was in the kitchen, Mlle Prefere proposed marriage to Bonnard, who was thunderstruck at the idea.
The next time he went to the school to see Jeanne, Mlle Prefere received him coldly and forbade him to have anything to do with the girl. Bonnard complained to Maitre Mouche, who upheld Mlle Prefere. Then on a rainy day, Bonnard waited outside the school wall until he saw Jeanne and passed her through the gate by a ruse. Amazed at his own daring in kidnaping a minor, he took her to the de Gabry house.
M. de Gabry undertook to settle the affair with Maitre Mouche, but that worthy had disappeared after embezzling his clients’ funds. Bonnard was legally appointed Jeanne’s guardian and took her home with him.
A young student, Henri Gelis, called on Bonnard for help with his thesis. He soon had eyes only for Jeanne, and eventually he proposed to marry her, even though she had no dowry. Bonnard made arrangements to sell his library so that his ward could have a respectable financial start in her married life. One evening, just before the books were sold, he guiltily took a book and hid it. He would have one volume left, at any rate.
After Jeanne and Gelis were married, Bonnard went to live in Brolles, a small village. There Jeanne and her husband visited him twice each year, and there also he kept the cradle of little Sylvestre, their child who had died. Bonnard often reflected that the parents were young and healthy. There would be more family.
THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD was not only an immediate popular success, but it was also recognized by the French Academy. Now, however, the novel is seldom read in English and is virtually ignored by literary critics. The reason is a fundamental one: if the novel’s warm sentimentality is diverting, its failure to engage human experience in any complex way renders it superficial. Yet, THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD is a work of sensitivity. It contains a level of artistry that demands a less casual dismissal than “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” as one critic has defined it. The difficulty remains in identifying that artistry and assessing its merit.
The work defies successful classification. It is wholly the art of Anatole France and does not conform to any of the popular “schools” of literature, nor does it fit into any of the traditional categories. It is certainly not a novel of plot, for the plot is extremely tenuous, consisting of little more than a series of charming but loosely linked anecdotes, like bright beads threaded onto an unsubstantial chain. It is not a novel of incident or of manners. Nor is it a psychological or a sociological novel nor even a novel of characterization, which classification it most closely approaches. Neither is it a novel that is dependent on the French schools of Naturalism or Realism for its form. On the contrary, it elevates beauty, extolls the nobler instincts of man, and flirts briefly with the supernatural without being romantic. It is a work of feeling, of simple truth and touching honesty, which celebrates the humanity of the protagonist.
The novel does suffer, nevertheless, from the manner of its genesis. It comprises two distinct pieces, each of which was written for the popular market. The first segment, “The Log,” appeared in two issues of a popular French magazine and constitutes a short story in the tradition later made famous by Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry. Under heavy pressure from his agent to fulfill his writing commitments, France completed the second and longer element a year later. The two pieces were then serialized in LA NOUVELLE REVUE. The stitching process is all too apparent. While the two segments share a central protagonist, they have with only one exception a different cast of minor characters. Furthermore, although the “journal” format would seem to serve to extend the work effectively, it also contains the potential trap of incremental extension by anecdote—a trap into which France fell.
The critical attention devoted to THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD in the last half century has been sparse. It has consisted chiefly of sporadic and curious examinations of the reasons for its survival. Some serious critics, however, have worried over the lean bone of its title and the stray scrap of the fairy incident. The consensus is that the crime referred to in the title is not, in fact, the crime of abduction of which Bonnard is guilty; but what crime the title does refer to is by no means a matter of common agreement. One critic, seduced perhaps by Bonnard’s own journal entry, states with more certainty than may be warranted that Bonnard’s crime is the retention of a few of his beloved books from auction, the proceeds of which he has pledged as a dowry for Jeanne. This conclusion overlooks several important factors, not the least of which is the characterization of Bonnard. First, it would be strange indeed for a man who held a lifelong passion for books to find himself able to part with all of his immense library except those few books which had been given him as souvenirs. Second, while Bonnard does feel guilt over Jeanne’s dowry, there is no suggestion that any of the books he retained were of significant monetary value. Third, it seems plain that Jeanne Alexandre has been denied nothing by Bonnard’s retention of them. Most important, however, this idea overlooks France’s intention. Surely the fact that an act designed to save Jeanne from mistreatment and exploitation can be called a crime in an ostensibly civilized society is a poignant irony. Bonnard’s “crime” is thus benevolence in a social order that is inherently malignant.
If the introduction of the fairy gives the ordinary reader more of a problem, it has provided critics with an opportunity for imaginative exegesis. One critic points out the myth behind the fairy. Certainly the curious and seemingly pointless introduction of the fairy demands explanation. Even if Bonnard were merely daydreaming, France’s use of the fairy must have some logical point. If it were intended to suggest encroaching dotage, it is an incomplete suggestion, for the fairy never reenters and Bonnard suffers no further daydreams or shows other signs of deterioration of his mental faculties, except for the more subtle and effective suggestion represented by the gradually increasing vagueness and confusion of the journal dates. If the fairy incident were intended to suggest a difficulty on Bonnard’s part in distinguishing between reality and illusion, it was a clumsy attempt at best and a further example of inconsistency. All these complex explanations notwithstanding, the truth seems to be painfully apparent: France needed a spokesman for his strong views on the creative process and the role of the artist. He discovered that in the character of a semirecluse he lacked a logical choice to serve this function. Hamilcar could not talk back, and certainly Therese was not appropriate to the purpose. The fantastic apparition of the fairy, which could be readily related to the books—as it could have been to almost anything—was a solution. It must be finally judged, however, a contrived and rather unimaginative device for a writer of France’s ability.
The reader is also tempted to look for a deeper meaning in Bonnard’s final activity. His new source of scholarship—insects and flowers—and the publication of a short book on a study of fertilization processes in flowers is strongly suggestive. Yet to proceed any further would be to go against France’s own aesthetics. He himself insisted that he wrote purely on the literal plane. More than once, he expressed a strong rejection of the Symbolists and was unable to pardon them for their “profound obscurity.” On the contrary, he extolled the Greek classical writers and their clarity. Believing that only the direct is beautiful, France thought he was past the age when one admires what he does not comprehend.
The chief deficiency of THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD, then, is that it offers no insight into the human condition, despite its remarkable portrait of the gentle bibliophile. The work continues to live primarily because it is a pleasant exploration of how to deal with life. It celebrates humanity with an amused tolerance of, and genial sympathy for, the pettiness to which men are all susceptible. It suggests, above all, a belief in the human heart, which can, if properly exercised, transcend that crime of which Bonnard was truly guilty—of which all of us are guilty—the crime of being human.