M. Anatole France

M. Anatole France

By Maurice Baring


"SOYONS des bibliophiles et lisons nos livres, mais ne les
prenons point de toutes mains ; soyons délicats, choisis-
sons, et comme le seigneur des comédies de Shakespeare, disons
à notre libraire : 'Je veux qu'ils soient bien reliés et qu'ils parlent

This piece of advice occurs in the preface of the first volume of
M. France's collected work : La vie littéraire. We are afraid
that it would be difficult to prove by statistics that the advice is
very largely taken.

The works of certain lady novelists are those which seem to
be mostly chosen by the reading public ; and they belong to that
class of which Charles Lamb spoke, when he said that some
books were not books, but wolves in books' clothing. There
is no reason why we should be disturbed by this. It has been
pointed out that the reading public has got nothing whatever to
do with books. " The reading public subscribes to Mudie, and
gets its intellectual like its lacteal subsistence in carts." Happily,
there is a little clan of writers who enable us to act upon the
advice quoted above. M. France's books are not carried about


264 M. Anatole France

in carts. They tempt us to choose—them all. They lead us
into committing follies at the bookbinders'. And if we are
bitterly thinking of the morrow when a bill will come in for
the " creamiest Oxford vellum " and " redolent crushed Levant,"
we may console ourselves by reflecting that we have been
fastidious and eclectic, that we have chosen.

M. France's books do not talk of love as much as do many other
modern works, yet we think the Shakespearean nobleman would
have chosen them to grace his library in preference to the
Heavenly Twins or the Yellow Aster, which handle the theme more
technically, perhaps, and certainly with greater exhaustiveness.


M. France has chosen a few charming themes, and played
them in different keys with many variations. Le Crime de
Sylvestre Bonnard is the contemplation of an old philosophical
bachelor ; Le livre de man ami is a child's garden of prose.
He has written stories about contemporaries of Solomon, of
pre-Evites even (La fills de Lilith), and stories about Anglo-
Florentines. He has charmed us with philosophy and with
fairy-tales, and diverted us with the adventures of poets, poli-
ticians, and madmen of every description. His criticism he has
defined in a famous phrase as "the adventures of his soul among
masterpieces." And his creative works are not so much the
observations of a mind among men as the subdued and delicate
dreams of a soul that has fallen asleep, tired out by its enchanting
adventures. He has himself confessed that he is not a keen

" L'observateur conduit sa vue, le spectateur se laisse prendre


By Maurice Baring 265

par les yeux." Thus it is that the phrase " adventures of the
soul " is singularly suited to him. In his whole work we trace
the phases and the development of a gentle admiration. In
the Livre de mon ami M. France tells the story of his child-

"Tout dans l'immuable nature
Est miracle aux petits enfants
Ils naissent et leur âme obscure
Eclôt dans des enchantements.

. . . . . . .

Leur tête légère et ravie
Songe tandisque nous pensons ;
Ils font de frissons en frissons
La découverte de la vie."

So he sings about children.

It is very rare that a man of letters can look back through the
prison-bars of middle-age with eyes undimmed by the mists of his
culture and philosophy, and see the ingenuous phases, the gradual
progress from thrill to thrill of awakening, that take place in the
soul of a child.

M. France has evoked these early "frissons" with a magic
wand. And the penetrating psychology with which childish
" états-d'àme " are revealed is no less striking than the charm
and poetry which animate them.

The very pulse of the machine is laid bare ; at the same
time, the book is as loveable and lovely as a child's poem by
Victor Hugo or Robert Louis Stevenson. The hero of the book
is Pierre Nosières, a dreamy little boy, fond of pictures and
colours ; and the story is written entirely from the point of view
of this child.

" Elle

266 M. Anatole France

" Elle était toute petite, ma vie ; mais c'était une vie, c'est-a-
dire le centre des choses, le milieu du monde."

The grown-up people who enter into Pierre's life are a child's
grown-up people ; that is, incomprehensible beings who might
play at soldiers all day, and yet do not do so. Strange creatures,
who will not get up from their easy-chair to look at the moon
when they are told she is to be seen.

Mr. Stevenson tells a story of how one day, when he was
groaning aloud in physical agony, a little boy came up and asked
him if he had seen his cross-bow, ignoring altogether his groans
and his contortions. It is exactly what little Pierre would have
done. The wall-paper of the drawing-room where Pierre lived
had a pattern of dainty rose-buds which were all exactly alike.
" Un jour, dans le petit salon, laissant sa broderie, ma mère me
souleva dans ses bras ; puis, me montrant une des fleurs du papier,
elle me dit : je te donne cette rose—et, pour la reconnaître elle
la marqua d'une croix avec son poinçon à broder. Jamais présent
ne me rendit plus heureux."

Another time Pierre is fired with ambition ; he desires to
leave the world brighter for his name. Finding that military
glory is for the time being out of his reach, and inspired by
the " Lives of the Saints," which his mother is in the habit
of reading aloud, he decides to go down to posterity as a saint.
Reluctantly setting aside martyrdom and missionary work as
impracticable, he confines himself to austerities, and commences
by leaving his déjeuner untouched, which leads his mother to
believe that he is unwell. Then, in emulation of St. Simon
Stylites, he begins a life of self-denial on the top of the kitchen
pump ; but his nurse puts an abrupt end to this mode of existence.
St. Nicholas of Patras is the next holy man he tries to imitate.
St. Nicholas gave all he had to the poor ; Pierre throws his toys


By Maurice Baring 267

out of the window. Pierre's father, who is looking on, calls him a
stupid little boy. Pierre is amazed and ashamed, but he soon
consoles himself: " Je considérai que mon père n'était pas un Saint
comme moi et ne partagerait pas avec moi la gloire des bien-

The next thing he thinks of is a hair-shirt, which he makes by
pulling out the horse-hair from an arm-chair. Here again he fails
more signally than ever. His nurse, Julie, not apprehending the
inward significance of the action, is conscious merely of the
outward and visible arm-chair, which is quite spoilt. So she
whips Pierre. This opens his eyes to the insurmountable difficulty
of being a saint in the family circle, and he understands why St.
Antony withdrew to a desert place. He resolves to seclude himself
in the maze at the "Jardin des Plantes," and he tells his mother
of his plan. She asks what put the idea into his head. He con-
fesses to a desire to be famous and to have " Ermite et Saint du
Calendrier " printed on his visiting-cards, just as his father had
" Lauréat de l'académie de médecine, etc." on his.

Here his experiments in practical holiness cease. To the
young stoic :

"Lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn,"

although he has often hankered since that day, he confesses, for
a life of seclusion in the maze of the Jardin des Plantes.

Not unlike Shelley, who some one has said was perpetually in
the frame of mind of saying : " Give me my cabbage and a glass
of water, and let me go into the next room."

Little Pierre passes through many phases and becomes very
clever, very cultured, and very subtle ; but the child in him
endures and he keeps alive a flame of wistful wonder—wonder at


The Yellow Book—Vol. V. Q

268 M. Anatole France

the varicoloured world and the white stars—which is perhaps the
greatest charm of M. France's books.

It is true that he frequently laments the absence of the old
simple faith which could discern

" The guardian sprites of wood and rill."

We are no doubt a faithless and prosaic generation, yet if M.
France told us that he had heard old Triton blow his wreathëd
horn, we should believe him : we should say, at any rate, borrowing
one of his own phrases, that the statement was true precisely
because it was imaginary.

Before altogether leaving M. France's writings about children,
I must mention another supreme achievement in this province :
his fairy tale Abeille, which is to be found in a collection of short
stories called Balthazar. Mr. Lang hit the right nail on the
head when he said that people do not write good fairy stories now,
partly because they do not believe in their own stories, partly
because they try to be wittier than it has pleased heaven to
make them. M. France believes in Abeille ; one has only to read
the story to be convinced of the fact. As for being wittier than
God has pleased to make him, M. France is far too sensible to
attempt an almost impossible task.

There is no striving after modernity in Abeille; it is neither
paradoxical nor elaborate, but a real fairy tale, where there are
stately grandes dames, trusty squires, perfidious water-nymphs,
industrious dwarfs, and disobedient children. It is a genuine
fairy tale, told with the sorcery that baffles analysis, which only
the elect who believe in fairies can feel and appreciate, whether
they find it in The Odyssey or in Hans Andersen. Here is a little
bit of description which I will quote, just to give an idea of the
beauty of M. France's sentences. It is the description of the


By Maurice Baring 269

magic lake : " Le sentier descendait en pente douce jusqu'au bord
du lac, qui apparut aux deux enfants dans sa languissante et silen-
cieuse beauté. Des saules arrondissaient sur les bords leur feuillage
tendre. Des roseaux balançaient sur les eaux leurs glaives souples
et leurs délicats panaches ; ils formaient des îles frissonnantes
autour desquelles les nénuphars étalaient leurs grandes feuilles
en cœur et leurs fleurs à la chair blanche. Sur ces îles fleuries
les demoiselles, au corsage d'éméraude ou de saphir et aux ailes de
flammes, traçaient d'un vol strident des courbes brusquement


M. France began his career as a member of the Parnassian
Cénacle, of which Paul Verlaine, François Coppée, and Catulle
Mendes were members. In a delightful essay on Paul Verlaine
(La vie Littéraire, vol. iii.) M. France recalls some memories of
that irresponsible period. " Le bon temps," he calls it, " où nous
n'avions pas le sens commun." It was at that time that M. France,
in the first fine rapture of a Hellenic revival, wrote " Les Noces
Corinthiennes," a fine and interesting poem, dealing with the
melancholy sunset of Paganism and the troubled moonrise of
Christianity. It is a period of which he is very fond ; and he has
made it the subject of one of his most important books—Thais.

No one has written about that age with more understanding,
for M. France has " une âme riche et complètement humaine . . .
païenne et chrétienne à la fois." In a beautiful short story, Lœta
Acilia (Balthazar), he tells how Mary Magdalen tries to convert
Lœta Acilia, a patrician Roman lady. Lœta Acilia promises to
serve the new deity if he send her a son, for although she has been
married for five years she is without children. Mary prays that


270 M. Anatole France

this may happen, and her prayer is granted. Six months afterwards,
one day when Lœta is lying languorous and happy on a couch in
the court of her home, Mary comes to her and tells her the story
of her own conversion. She tells Lœta how the seven devils
were cast out of her, and recounts all the ecstasy of her life of
love and faith as a disciple, and the wonderful story of her Saviour's
death and resurrection. Lœta Acilia's serenity is profoundly
disturbed by the tale ; reviewing her own existence, she finds it
monotonous indeed, compared with the life of this woman, who had
loved a God. Her days were occupied with needlework, the quiet
practice of her religion, and the companionship of her husband,
Helvius, the knight. Her daily round was varied only by the days
she went to the circus, or ate cakes with her friends. Bitter
jealousy and dark regrets rise in her heart, and bursting into tears
she calls on the Jewess to leave the house.

" Méchante femme," she cries, " tu voulais me donner le
dégoût de la bonne vie que j'ai menée . . . Je ne veux pas
connaître ton Dieu . . . il faut pour lui plaire se prosterner
échevelée à ses pieds . . . Je ne veux pas d'une religion qui
dérange les coiffures . . . Je n'ai pas été possédée de sept
démons, je n'ai pas erré par les chemins ; je suis une femme
respectable. Va-t'-en ! "

Thais also is the story of a conversion in the early Christian
times. Thais, the beautiful convert, is less pious and serene than
Lœta Acilia, but the conversion is more serious.

The contrast between the end of Paganism and the beginning
of Christianity, between the sceptical and brilliant world of
Alexandria and the savage life of the Anchorites, is drawn with
consummate art. It is a thoughtful story, exquisitely told,
containing some of M. France's most brilliant pages and some of
his finest touches of irony.


By Maurice Baring 271

Books of this kind, Thais, Balthazar, L'Etui de Nacre, a
collection of little masterpieces in a genre which M. France has
made his own, and Le Puits de Sainte Clarie (his latest published
book) is what M. France has done by the way, so to speak.
In these we do not trace the growth of his mind so much as in
his other books. But as far as perfection of form and delicacy of
touch go, they are perhaps the most finished things he has
done. Were he to republish the series under one name, we
should recommend—

" Marguerites pour les pourceaux."


After the dreamy childhood of little Pierre comes the feverish
period of youth ; there is an agitated violence about M. France's
work of that time which completely disappears later on.

Les Désirs de Jean Servian, a study of youthful, ineffectual
passion, is rather crude and unsatisfactory ; M. France has not
yet found his medium. Jocaste is a violent piece of melodrama, set
in an atmosphere of hard pessimism. Le Chat Maigre is merely an
interlude, a caprice of fancy. Yet here M. France has a subject
after his own heart, and he is completely successful. It is the
story of a youth who comes from Haiti to pass his baccalauréat ;
he lives in a cénacle of madmen, and so vague and irresponsible is
he himself, that it never occurs to him that they are mad.
M. France's love of madmen, of the fantoches of humanity, is
one of his most decided characteristics. He draws a distinction
between madness and insanity. Madness, he says, is only a kind
of intellectual originality. Insanity is the loss of the intellectual


272 M. Anatole France

faculties. M. France leavens all his books with mad characters,
introducing us like this to the most quaint and amusing types.

In these early books M. France was giving vent to the various
phases of his youth. The restless preludes played on the tremulous
reeds were soon to be merged into the broad music of the mellow
diapasons. This is satisfactory ; because although in the crisis
of youth Moses often becomes Aaron, and expression wells from
the hard rock, it less frequently happens that Hamlet becomes

Again it often happens that Prospero is not only deserted by
Ariel, but he is left, as Mr. Arthur Benson says,

" Pent in the circle of a rugged isle . . .

. . . . . . . .

Without his large philosophy, without
Miranda, and alone with Caliban."

In M. France's case the shifting restlessness of youth has only
helped to make middle-age more tolerant, as we note in Le Crime
de Sylvestre Bonnard.

Le Jardin d'Epicure, M. France's penultimate book, is a
garden fit for Prospero, a Prospero who has not perhaps forgotten

" Old agitations of myrtles and roses."

A garden where there is a somewhat more voluptuous fragrance

" A rosemary odour comingled with pansies,
With rue and the beautiful Puritan pansies."

Let us now examine M. France's riper works more closely.

Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard is M. France's masterpiece or
one of his masterpieces. It consists of two stories : La Bûche


By Maurice Baring 273

and Le Crime proper. The story of each is simplicity itself. In
the one case M. Bonnard hankers after a rare MS., which is at
last presented to him by a Russian princess whom he had once
helped, when she was poor, by sending her a bûche. Another time,
M. Bonnard rescues an orphan girl from a school where she is
unhappy and contracts a happy marriage for her : that is his crime.
M. Bonnard is a member of the Institute, a bachelor and a
bibliophile, seventy years old, with a large nose that betrays his
feelings. He is afraid of his housekeeper, and rather fond of
dainty cooking and old wine. He overflows with bavardage and
entertains his cat with suggestive philosophy, beautifully expressed.
Kindness, tolerance, and irony are his chief characteristics ; his
sole prejudice being the pretension of having no prejudices.
" Cette prétention," says M. France (or does M. Bonnard say
it about some one else ?), "était à elle seule un gros préjugé. Il
détestait le fanatisme, mais il avait celui de la tolérance." It
applies to M. Bonnard in any case. M. Bonnard is a child at
heart, and his tenderness is exquisite. Delightful, too, is his
pedantry, which leads him to handle romantic subjects and ideas
with the most elegant precision and unfaltering exactitude. As
for his language, it is the purest and most distinguished French ;
it is needless to say more. We will confine ourselves to quoting
one sentence. " Etoiles qui avez lui sur la tête legère ou pesante
de tous mes ancêtres oubliés, c'est à votre clarté que je sens s'éveiller
en moi un regret douloureux. Je voudrais un fils qui vous voie
encore quand je ne serai plus."

The complement of Sylvestre Bonnard is the Abbé Jérome
Coignard, the hero of La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque. M.
Coignard, who lived and died in the last century, was a priest
"abondant en riants propos et en belles manières." Erudite and
scholar though he was, he sought for happiness in other places


274 M. Anatole France

besides in angello. He culled other flowers besides the " bloomless
buds " which grow in the garden of the goddess who is " crowned
with calm leaves," which would certainly have been Sylvestre
Bonnard's favourite garden. The difference is that L'Abbé Coig-
nard is an eighteenth-century priest, and " behaves as such."
The Abbé considers that the maxims of philosophers who seek to
establish a natural morality are but " lubies et billevesées."

" La raison des bonnes mœurs ne se trouve point dans la
nature qui est, par elle-même, indifferente, ignorant le mal comme
le bien. Elle est dans la parole divine qu'il ne faut pas trans-
gresser, à moins de s'en repentir ensuite convenablement."

The laws of men, he says, are founded on utility, a fallacious
utility, since no one knows what in reality befits men and is
useful to them. For this reason he breaks them, and is ready to
do it again and again.

" Les plus grands saints sont des pénitents, et comme le
repentir se proportionne à la faute, c'est dans les plus grands
pécheurs que se trouve l'étoffe des plus grands saints." The Abbé
Coignard's pupil, the simple-minded Jaques Tournebroche, ex-
presses his fear lest this doctrine, in practice, should lead men
into wild licence :

" Ce que vous appelez désordres," rejoins the Abbé, " n'est tel
en effet que dans l'opinions des juges tant civils qu'écclésiastiques,
et par rapport aux lois humaines, qui sont arbitraires et transi-
toires, et qu'en un mot se conduire selon ces lois est le fait d'une
âme moutonnière.

" Un homme d'esprit ne se pique pas d'agir selon les règles en
usage au chàtelet et chez l'official. Il s'inquiète de faire son salut et
il ne se croit pas déshonoré pour aller au ciel par les voies détournées
que suivirent les plus grands saints."

It is, therefore, by the primrose path that M. l'Abbé seeks


By Maurice Baring 275

his salvation, relying on the cleansing dews of repentance. He
is the most subtle and entertaining arguer conceivable, but his
voyage to salvation by a " voie detournée " is nevertheless
brought to an abrupt end. In abetting the elopement of a lovely
Jewess with a young marquis, he is pursued by the Jewess's
angry father, who takes him to be his daughter's seducer, and
murders him on the Lyons road. He died at the age of fifty-
eight, after receiving the last sacraments, in an odour of repentance
and sanctity, and earnestly urging his young pupil to disregard
his old advice and forget his philosophy :

" N'écoute point ceux, qui comme moi, subtilesent sur le
bien et le mal . . . Le royaume de Dieu ne consiste pas dans
les paroles mais dans la vertu."

These were his last words, and in dying he made it possible for
his pupil to obey him. Fortunately we are still able to be led
astray by the subtlety of his discourses. They almost make us
doubt whether the Kingdom of Heaven does not sometimes
consist in words. We may add that " Les opinions de Jérome
Coignard " is perhaps a more edifying book than "La Rôtisserie
de la Reine Pédauque," where his discourses are blent with a record
of his deeds.

We have now considered almost all M. France's works, with
the exception of Le Lys Rouge, which stands apart as his sole effort
in the province of the modern analytic novel. The book is not
very characteristic of M. France, although it contains some
brilliant writing, notably a dialogue, near the beginning, on
Napoleon, and a fine study of an artist's jealousy ; the Florentine
atmosphere also is successfully rendered ; but we would willingly
give up the romantic part of the book for one of the Abbé
Coignard's discourses or Sylvestre Bonnard's reveries.

" L'artiste

276 M. Anatole France


" L'artiste doit aimer la vie et nous montrer qu'elle est belle.
Sans lui nous en douterions."

M. France has accomplished the task beautifully. Nevertheless,
the shadows of irony which temper the colour of his dream let us
more than suspect that "even while singing the song of the
Sirens, he still hearkens to the barking of the Sphinx." Like Mr.
Stevenson, he has struck sombre and eloquent chords on the
theme of pulvis et umbra. He loves to remind us that a time
will come when our descendants, diminishing fast on an icy and
barren earth, will be as brutal and brainless as our cave-dwelling

Mr. Andrew Lang thinks that the last man will read the poems
of Shelley in his cavern by the light of a little oil, in order to see
once more the glory of sunset and sunrise, and the " hues of
earthquake and eclipse." This is hopeful ; but we are afraid M.
France's theory is the more probable. The last man will be too
stupid and too cold to read Shelley in a cave.

At the same time, although M. France is fond of telling us
that man can save nothing—

"On the sands of life, in the straits of time,
Who swims in front of a great third wave,
That never a swimmer may cross or climb "—

he is yet of opinion that the pastimes of the beach are pleasant,
and can be peacefully enjoyed, in spite of the billows that may be
looming in the distance. He defends the follies of the book-
collector with warmth and elegance on that score :


By Maurice Baring 277

" Il faudrait plutôt les envier puisqu'ils ont orné leur vie
d'une longue et paisible volupté . . . Que peut-on faire de plus
honnête que de mettre des livres dans une armoire ? Cela rappelle
beaucoup à la vérité la tâche que se donne les enfants, quand ils
font des tas de sable au bord de la mer. . . . La mer emporte
les tas de sable, le commissaire-priseur disperse les collections. Et
pourtant on n'a rien de mieux à faire que des tas de sable à dix ans
et des collection à soixante."

M. France is neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but both ;
since he feels that the world is neither good nor bad, but good and

" Le mal," he says " est l'unique raison du bien. Que serait le
courage loin du péril et la pitié sans la douleur ? "

Had he made the world, he tells us, he would have made man
in the image of an insect :

" J'aurais voulu que l'homme . . . accomplit d'abord, à l'état
de larve, les travaux dégoutants par lesquels il se nourrit. En
cette phase, il n'y aurait point eu de sens, et la faim n'aurait
point avili l'amour. Puis j'aurais fait de sorte que, dans une
transformation dernière, l'homme et la femme, deployant des ailes
étincelantes, vécussent de rosée et de désir et mourussent dans un
baiser." As, however, we are made on a somewhat different
plan, M. France puts his faith in two goddesses—Irony and
Pity :

" L'une en souriant nous rend la vie aimable, l'autre qui pleure,
nous la rend sacrée. L'ironie que j'invoque n'est point cruelle.
Elle ne raille ni l'amour ni la beauté . . . son rire calme la colère
et c'est elle qui nous enseigne à nous moquer des méchants et des
sots, que nous pourrions, sans elle, avoir la faiblesse de haïr."

The burden and keynote of M. France's works may be found in
the most blessed words of the blessed saint : " Everywhere I have


278 M. Anatole France

sought for happiness and found it nowhere, save in a corner with
a book."


To sum up, we have in M. Anatole France a fastidious and
distinguished artist in prose ; an inventor of fantastic and
delightful characters ; a thinker whose ingenious and suggestive
philosophy is based on the solid foundations of thorough scholar-
ship. His stories are as delicate as thin shells, and their subtle
echo evokes the music of the wide seas. On the other hand, his
critical essays are so graceful that they read like fairy tales. The
lightness and grace of his work have made serious people shake
their heads. They forget that a graceful use of the snaffle is
more masterly than an ostentatious control of the curb.

" A good style," M. France says, " is like a ray of sunlight,
which owes its luminous purity to the combination of the seven
colours of which it is composed."

M. France's style has precisely this luminous and complicated
simplicity. But a reader unacquainted as yet with M. France's
work must not expect too much. M. France's talent is subdued
and limited. He is not an inventor of wonderful romance ; he
has never peered into the depths of the human soul ; neither has
his work the concise and masculine strength of a writer like Guy
de Maupassant. He contemplates life from the Garden of
Epicurus, smiling in plaintive tranquillity at the grotesque and
tragic masks of the human comedy.

" L'ambition, l'amour, égaux en leur délire,
Et l'inutile encens brulé sur les autels."

What the reader must expect to find in his books is an exquisite


By Maurice Baring 279

puppet-show, where fanciful comedies and fairy interludes are
interpreted by adorable marionnettes. M. France is not a player
of the thunderous organ or the divine violin ; his instrument is
rather a pensive pianoforte, on which with an incomparable touch
he plays delicate preludes and wistful nocturnes.

MLA citation: Baring, Maurice. "M. Anatole France." The Yellow Book 5 (Apr. 1895): 263-79. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV5_baring_anatole.html