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...
(The entire section is 1185 words.)