Far more than for most writers, for Anatole France (born Jacques Anatole François Thibault) the world of the book was the central arena of his life. He was the son of a well-known Paris bookseller, and he grew up and was largely educated in the atmosphere created by the bookshop and its customers. His first employment was as researcher for reference works in preparation, and as editor in a publishing house. For some years he worked in the library of the French Senate, and much of the journalism he did while getting established as a writer took the form of book criticism. The subject matter of most of his novels and short stories either was derived from books or, not infrequently, was about writers and intellectuals. The immersion in the book world was so complete that his life apart from books had little substance, even in those years when he seemed actively involved in public events such as the Dreyfus affair. Most of the “events” of his eighty years were publications; nothing else in his life really mattered.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of his biography is that, although he never seems to have contemplated any vocation other than that of man of letters, it took him a very long time to become securely established as a writer. He was twenty-four years old when his first publication appeared; it was a critical study of the recently decreased poet, Alfred de Vigny. He was almost thirty when the traditional first volume of verse appeared, inaugurating his career as a writer; and he was nearly forty when he attracted his first critical attention with a novel—not a popular success by any means, but it did gain some recognition. It was not until 1890, when he was forty-six, that he published a book which won both critical acclaim and popular success, enabling him to resign his library position and his weekly journalistic commitments. Thereafter, he enjoyed the fruits of a growing fame, writing the masterpieces on which his reputation still rests and becoming drawn into certain public controversies because he was a celebrity. The public arena, however, never held his attention for long. He was uncomfortable as an orator or polemicist and preferred the solitude of his study, where he could give free rein to his skeptical mind. Thus, he spent his approximately thirty years of fame as an aging sage, occasionally in public view for some cause but mostly alone in his study, meditating and writing. When he died in 1924, he was given a public, national funeral—a final irony, for he had always been, fundamentally, a very private man, a dweller in the world of books.
Anatole France, born Jacques-Anatole-François Thibault in 1844, was the only child of a well-established Parisian bookdealer and was seemingly predestined to the world of books. His father, Noël-François Thibault, ran the sort of bookshop that was also a gathering place of the literati, who would come as not only customers but also friends. They would sit and talk with the owner, whom they called by the familiar diminutive France, an abbreviation of François. Once the son was old enough to help in the shop and participate in the daily conversations, he was naturally called le jeune France, a custom that suggested to young Anatole the pen name he would choose when he began to write.
Shy and unassertive by nature and unprepossessing physically, France matured into an unworldly and bookish young man, easily intimidated by the “real” world and much given to periods of solitude and quiet reverie. In his twenties, he did occasional research and editing chores for the publishers of dictionaries and encyclopedias, having definitely decided against following in his father’s footsteps as a bookseller. Eventually, he became a reader of manuscripts for a publisher, wrote articles for ephemeral journals, and took a civil servant’s position, working in the senate library, all the while using his leisure moments to learn the craft of writing. He was thirty-three years old,...
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