Here to return to
M. ANATOLE FRANCE is a writer who is continually saying something. His thought is always breaking into bloom. He is not one of those who, on the ground of weightiness of matter, or other supposed excellence, have taken out a license to be dull. All his pages have light in them. His readers not only know in which direction they are going, — a great comfort, not always vouchsafed to such travelers, — but are made to enjoy the journey, having a thousand sights to look at by the way. It is an author’s business, he considers, to make his truth beautiful; and nothing is beautiful but what is easy. An artist who knows his trade will “not so much exact attention as surprise it.”
It sounds like a good creed; and the style of his writing answers to it. Its qualities are the classical French qualities, — neatness, precision, ease, moderation, lightness of touch, lucidity. In sum, it is such a style as comes of good breeding. He is clever without being smart, and pointed without emphasis. As for that dreadful something which goes by the name of rhetoric, you may search his twenty-odd volumes through without finding trace of it. His method is old-fashioned, his masters are the old masters. Brilliancy, surprise, felicities, originalities, — yes, indeed, he has all these and more, but he knows how to wear them They are all natural to him. “Elegant, facile, rapid,” he says; “there you have the perfect politeness of a writer.” Obscurity, difficulty, is to his way of thinking but a kind of bad manners.
He was born to enjoy beautiful things, one would say; elected before the cradle to a life of scholastic quietness and leisure: a dilettante and a saunterer, loving old streets, old shops, old books, the old literatures, fond of out-of-the-way and useless learning, the very type and pattern of an aimless reader and dreamer. And so, to take his word for it, he appears to have begun. Those were his best days. Then he was most himself. So, in certain moods, at least, it seems to him now. Of that time he is thinking when he says, “I lived happy years without writing. I led a contemplative and solitary life, the memory of which is still infinitely sweet to me. Then, as I studied nothing, I learned much. In fact, it is in strolling that one makes beautiful intellectual and moral discoveries.”
The old book-stalls on the Paris quays, — one wonders how many scores of times he has an affectionate word to say for them in his various books. Even in one of the earlier essays of “La Vie Littéraire” he apologizes for what is already becoming a frequent reference. “Let me tell you,” he breaks out, “that I can never pass over these quays without experiencing a trouble full of joy and sadness, because I was born here, because I spent my childhood here, and because the familiar faces that I saw here formerly are now forever vanished. I say this in spite of myself, from a habit of saying simply what I think, about that of which I think. One is never quite sincere without being a little wearisome. But I have a hope that, if I speak of myself, those who listen to me will think only of themselves; so that I shall please them while pleasing myself. I was brought up on this quay in the midst of books, by humble and simple people, of whose memory I am the only guardian. When I am gone they will be as if they had never been. My soul is all full of their relics.”
He runs a risk of being wearisome, he says. But that is merely a grace-note of French politeness, to be taken as it is meant, and answered after its kind. Indeed, he knows better. It was he who said of Renan that his most charming book was his little volume of youthful reminiscence, because he had put most of himself into it. And of M. Anatole France it is equally true that although he has an abundance of ideas, and loves not only his own past but the past of the world, — especially of all mystics, heretics, skeptics, enthusiasts, and saints, — yet he never comes quite so close to his reader as when his talk grows most intimate. It is what we who read are always after, the man behind the pen. If he will really tell us about himself, about his inner, true self, which we blindly feel must be somehow very like another self, more interesting still, with which we seldom succeed in coming face to face, although, according to the accepted theory of things, it is, or ought to be, our nearest neighbor, — if he will really tell us something, little matter what, that is actually true about himself, we will sit up till morning to listen to him. It seems an easy way to be interesting, does it not? And so indeed it is, for the right man; for the really fine things are always easy, — if one can do them at all.
There intrudes the doubt; for if success in personal reminiscence is easy, failure is ten times easier. Of course a man must have taste, an innate or well-bred sense of the fitness of things; and so a brook must have banks, to save it from degeneration and loss. But what if the stream itself be muddy, if it have no movement, no sparkle, no variety, if it do not by turns ripple over sunny shallows, loiter in comfortable eddies, and deepen and darken in dream-inviting pools? Or what if the banks be straight-cut and formal, till what should have been a brook is little better than a ditch? What if taste has become propriety, and propriety has hardened into primness, and the writing or the talk is without the breath of life? Yes, success is easy, and it is also impossible. As the art of man never made a mountain brook, so instruction never by itself made a writer. The rain must fall from heaven, and readability (and hearability likewise, since writing and talking are but two forms of the one thing) must come from the same source, or, as Emerson said, by nature.
If a man is to disclose himself, he must first have known something about himself, a pitch of intelligence by no means to be taken for granted; he must be one of the relatively few who are affectionately cognizant of their own feelings, who delight in their own view of things, who have felt, loved, suffered, and enjoyed, to whom life and the world have been inwardly real and interesting, for whom their own past especially is like a fair landscape, here in full sunshine, there flecked with shadows, but all a picture of loveliness and a thing to dream over.
In reminiscence, as in painting, the subject must be somewhat removed, loss of detail yielding a gain in beauty, since, in the one case, as in the other, what we seek is not an inventory, but a picture. This, or something like this, is what Renan had in mind when in beginning his “Souvenirs” he remarked that what a man says of himself is always poetry. For his own part, he declares, he has no thought of furnishing matter for post-mortem biographical sketches. He is going to tell the truth (mostly), but not the kind of truth of which biography is made. Biography and personal reminiscence are two things, and can never be written in the same tone. Many things, he tells us, have been put into his book on purpose to provoke a smile. If custom had permitted, he would more than once have written on the margin of the page: cum grano salis.
One thinks of Charles Lamb, though in general the two men had wonderfully little in common. How dearly he loved to talk of himself, hiding the while behind some modestly transparent veil of mystification! And how dearly we love to play the innocent game with him, seeing perfectly what is going on, but, as children do, making pretense of being deceived. Better than almost any one else he had the winsome gift of half-serious, tenderly humorous self-disclosure. As Renan said, it is all poetry, and always with something to smile at.
All this because of one of M. Anatole France’s many stray bits of gossipy reminiscence concerning the old quays of Paris and his boyish adventures among them! Such trifles are characteristic; they connote other qualities, and of themselves show us one side of the man and the writer. He loves his own life, especially his real life, the happy years that lie behind him. The power to see them is to him a matter of wonderment, a kind of miracle, a true fairy’s gift. If he could see the future with the same distinctness, the fact would be hardly more astonishing, and probably it would be much less beneficent. So he tells himself in one of those rare and precious moods when the soul seems preternaturally awake, and the commonest every-day objects wear a look of newness and mystery till we are taken with a kind of inward shivering as if we had been seeing ghosts.
For the more connected story of his youthful memories one must turn, of course, to the two volumes expressly devoted to them, “Le Livre de Mon Ami” and “Pierre Nozière.” That he should have written two such books is significant of the hold that his childhood still has upon him. But the two are none too many. How delicious they are! — full of tenderness and humor, every sentence true to the pitch, and the writing perfect. And how many pictures they leave with us! The woman in white and her lover with the black whiskers. The ragged street urchin, Alphonse, whom the well-fed, well-dressed houseboy envied and pitied by turns, till one day he (the good boy) pilfered a bunch of grapes from the sideboard, lowered them out of the window by a string, and called upon little Alphonse to take them; which the suspicious Alphonse proceeded to do with a sudden twitch at the cord (such rudeness!), after which, turning tip his face to the window, he thrust out his tongue, put his thumb to his nose, and ran off with the dainty. “My little friends had not accustomed me to such fashions,” the good boy confides to us. And then, to heighten his sense of disappointment (how commonly grown-up human benevolence is similarly disrewarded!), he bethought himself that he must tell his mother of his pious theft. She would chide him, he feared. And like a good mother she did, but with laughter in her eyes.
“‘We ought to give away our own good things, not those of another,’ she said; ‘and we must know how to give.’
“‘That is the secret of happiness,’ added my father, ‘and few know it.’
“He knew it, my father.”
The books are full of such pictures, seen first by the child, and now seen again, losing nothing of their color, through the eyes of the man of forty; full, too, of a boy’s dreams and ambitions. Now he will be a famous saint (like every boy, he is bound to be famous somehow), and instantly he sets about it with fastings, an improvised hair shirt, and even an attempt, ingloriously brought to nought by the strong arms of the housemaid, to play the rôle of Simeon Stylites in the kitchen. What with this muscular, unsympathetic maid, — who also tore his hair shirt from him, — and his father, equally unsympathetic, who pronounced him “stupid,” the boy had a bad day of it, and by night-fall, as he says, “recognized that it is very difficult to be a saint while living with one’s family. I understood why St. Anthony and St. Jerome went into the desert to dwell among lions and satyrs; and I resolved to retire the next day to a hermitage.” And so he did, choosing a labyrinth in the neighboring Jardin des Plantes.
A few years later, wiser now and more worldly-minded, he is determined to set up catalogues like his old friend Father Le Beau; and soon (joy on the top of joy, and audacity almost past confession) he determines that he will some day print them, and read the proofs! Beyond that he can conceive of no higher felicity (though he has since learned, through the confidences of a blasé literary acquaintance, that “one wearies of everything in this world, even of correcting proofs!”).
Needless to say, he did not become a cataloguer, more than he had become a saint; but good Father Le Beau, for all that, determined his boyish admirer’s vocation, inspiring him with “a love for the things of the mind and with a weakness for writing;” inspiring him, also, with a passion for the past and with “ingenious curiosities,” and, by the example of intellectual labor regularly performed without fatigue and without worry, filling him from childhood with a desire to work and instruct himself. “It is thanks to him,” he concludes, “that I have become in my own way a great reader, a zealous annotator of ancient texts, and a scribbler of memoirs that will never see the light.”
Good Father Le Beau! How plainly we can see him at his pleasant task, and the small boy beside him taking his lesson! And if any be ready to smile at the childish story, as if it were nothing but a childish story, — well, there is difference in readers. To some, let us hope, the simple adventures of a boy’s mind, dreaming on things to come, will seem quite as entertaining, and even quite as instructive and morally profitable, as some more highly seasoned adventures of a man who covets his neighbor’s wife, or a woman who covets her neighbor’s husband.
Of books recounting the pleasures and miseries of illicit passion modern literature surely suffers no lack; and truth to tell, M. Anatole France himself (the more ‘s the pity) has contributed to an already full stock two or three examples not easily to be outdone in piquancy of situation or freedom of speech. Concerning these no account is to be taken here. Enough to say that they are unspeakable, — in English, — though, not to do them injustice, it should be added that neither “Le Lys Rouge,” nor even “Histoire Comique,” for all its misleading, pleasant-sounding title, makes the path to the everlasting bonfire look in the remotest degree alluring. The old truth, old as man, that “to be carnally minded is death,” is nowhere more convincingly set forth than in the modern French novel, whether it be Balzac’s, Flaubert’s, Maupassant’s, Bourget’s, or Anatole France’s.
It is unfortunate, we must think, for our author’s reputation and vogue outside of his own country, that not only the two of his books just now named, but at least three others, though in a less degree, are unfitted for full translation into English, or even to be left in their original tongue upon the open shelves of public libraries or on the family table. But what then? They were not written virginibus puerisque, their author would say, and even their freest parts treat of nothing worse than every newspaper is obliged somehow to chronicle, however it may veil its language, and nothing worse, perhaps, than is readily allowed in the English classics, especially in the books of the Bible and the writings of Shakespeare. Wonderful is the effect of time and distance! We gaze upon nude statues of the old Greeks and Romans without a shiver, but the representation of an American President bare only to the waist — as one may see, in all kinds of weather, poor unhappy-looking George Washington sitting in front of the national capitol affects us with a painful sense of discomfort, not to say of positive indecency.
M. Anatole France, as has been said, seems by birth and early predilection to have been devoted to a career of studious leisure. He would always be contented, one would have thought, to be a looker-on at the game of life, sitting by the wayside, book in hand, and watching the world go past; taking it all as a show; never so much as considering the possibility of entering for any of the prizes that more ambitious men run for, nor concerned very much as to who should win or who lose; hardly so much as an observer; a spectator rather, as he said himself; “in love,” as he said again, “with the eternal illusion that wraps us round,” but only as an illusion; cultivating his own garden, — like M. Bergeret, who delighted to cut the leaves of books, esteeming it wise to make for one’s self pleasures appropriate to one’s profession; at the most a collector of old books, and a teller of old tales; a lover of Virgil, a disciple of Epicurus, a friend of quietness, and a worshiper of the Graces.
Such we imagine M. Anatole France to have been when he wrote his earlier volumes, including the one which the majority of readers would probably name as the most beautiful of them all, “Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard.” The dear old savant tells his own story, talking now to his cat, now to his friendly despot of a housekeeper, now to good Madame de Gabry, now, best of all, to himself. The whole story is, as it were, overheard by the reader, and surely there never was, nor ever will be, a prettier revelation of an old man’s soul.
Like Renan, and like M. Anatole France, Sylvestre Bonnard, Member of the Institute, has a natural sense of humor, and if he does not put into his narrative things on purpose to make us smile, it is only because he is in no way thinking of us. He smiles often enough himself, his own oddities and blunders as an absent-minded scholar — since, like Cowper’s Mr. Bull, he “has too much genius to have a good memory” — providing him with abundant occasion; and we smile with him. We love him for his goodness, and we listen delighted to all his philosophy. If he is not — a saint, he is something better, — or if not better, more interesting and lovable, — a man so humanly sweet, so simple-hearted, so pure-minded, so bright in his talk, so admirable in his kindness, so adorable a confesser of his own foibles, that there is no resisting him. Dear old celibate! — who had loved a pair of blue eyes in his youth, and had been true to their memory ever since! Verily, he had his reward. Never man awaited the sunset with a better grace.
The man who drew this character was surely at peace with the world and with himself. Life had so far been to him mostly a fair-weather stroll in a pleasant country. And the same may be said, with some grains of qualification, of the man who wrote the weekly articles that went to the making of the four volumes of “La Vie Littéraire.” These are not things to last, it may be, like “Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard,” which, if one may be so simple as to prophesy, can hardly fail to become a classic; but for the present they must afford to many readers, if not a keener, yet a more various, delight. They are books of extraordinary interest, in whatever light one may view them. As we turn them over, remarking here and there the pages that at different times have especially pleased us, we find ourselves saying again and again, Oh, that we had such books in English, and on English subjects! If there were in Great Britain or in the United States a writer who could, week by week, furnish one of our newspapers with pieces of literary criticism or bookish causerie of this enchanting quality; so light, so graceful, so original, so suggestive, so full of happy surprises, so bright with humor and philosophy, so perfect in form and temper, and so satisfying in substance! Yes, if there were! How quickly we would all subscribe for that newspaper! The articles might deal, as M. Anatole France’s often do, with books that we have never read and have no thought of reading; it would not greatly matter. If the subject in hand were nothing but a text-book or an encyclopædia, a letter from an inquisitive correspondent, or a play of marionettes, the talk about it would be literature. And real literature, served to us fresh every Sunday morning! The very thought is an exhilaration. We are not to be understood as implying that excellent literary criticism is not more or less often written in English, and on both sides of the water. The question is not of moderately sound, reasonably instructive, workmanlike articles, proper enough to be read and forgotten, but of essays full of charm, full of genius, full of poetry, — essays in which, to adapt a saying of Thoreau, we do not miss the hue of the mind, essays that of themselves are in the truest sense little masterpieces of the literary art.
He had never thought of doing such things. His old publisher, Calmann Lévy, “rather friend than publisher,” who had welcomed him in his obscurity, and smiled at his first humble successes, had for years been chiding his indolence and dunning him for another book. But he was in love with his idle ways and distrustful of his capacity. He was then living those “happy years without writing,” of which we have seen him cherishing so fond a remembrance. But now came the manager of “Le Temps,” a man accustomed to have his way, and behold, the dreamer’s pen is again covering paper. “I believe you have a talisman,” the new critic says to the editor, in dedicating to him the first of the four resulting volumes. “You do whatever you will. You have made of me a periodical and regular writer. You have triumphed over my indolence. You have utilized my reveries and coined my wits into gold. I hold you for an incomparable economist.”
Such are the services of journalism to literature! A man never writes better, or more easily, than when regular work — not too pressing — keeps his hand in play. So Sir Walter Scott, hag-ridden by debt, if he finished a novel in the morning began another in the afternoon, because, as he explained, it was less difficult to keep the machine running than to start it again after a rest.
In this same dedicatory epistle to M. Hébrard are to be found some of the brightest and most characteristic things that M. Anatole France has ever written about his own nature and habits, as well as about his ideas of critics and criticism. For talking about himself, as we have before said, and as the reader must have discovered even from our few quotations, he has the prettiest kind of talent. “You are very easy to live with,” he tells M. Hébrard. “You never find fault with me. But I do not flatter myself. You saw at once that nothing great was to be expected, and that it was best not to torment me. For that reason you left me to say what I pleased. One day you remarked of me to a common friend, —
“‘He is a mocking Benedictine.’
“We understand ourselves very imperfectly, but I think your definition is a good one. I seem to myself to be a philosophical monk. At heart I belong to an abbaye de Thélème, where the rule is comfortable and obedience easy, where one has no great degree of faith, perhaps, but is sure to be very pious.”
There is nobody like a skeptic, he continues (he is echoing Montaigne), for always observing the moralities and being a good citizen. “A skeptic never rebels against existing laws, because he has no expectation that any power will be able to make good ones. He knows that much must be pardoned to the Republic;” that rulers at the best count for little; that, as Montaigne said, most things in this world do themselves, the Fates finding the way. Still he advises his manager never to confide his political columns to any Thelemite. The gentle spirit of melancholy that he would spread over everything would be a discouragement to honest readers. Ministers are not to be sustained by philosophy. “As for myself,” he adds, “I maintain a suitable modesty and restrict myself to criticism.”
And then, in two sentences, one of which has attained almost to the rank of a familiar quotation, he defines criticism and the critic.
“As I understand it, and as you allow me to practice it, criticism, like philosophy and history, is a sort of romance, and all romance, rightly taken, is an autobiography. The good critic is he who narrates the adventures of his own mind in its intercourse with masterpieces.”
To be quite frank, he declares, the critic should begin his discourse by saying: “Gentlemen, I am going to speak about myself apropos of Shakespeare, apropos of Racine, or of Pascal, or of Goethe. It is a fine occasion.”
And here, of course, the battle is joined between the two schools of critics: the subjective, or impressionistic, so called, on one side, and the objective, or scientific, so called, on the other.
Into this controversy (which, like many another, may yet turn out to be concerned with words rather than with things) we feel no call to enter. Like our author himself, we desire to maintain the modesty that is fitting to us. We content ourselves, therefore, with some random comments upon “La Vie Littéraire,” which to our taste is one of the most delightfully readable books of recent times. Having read it and reread it, we are (somewhat ignorantly, to be sure, having nothing like an exhaustive acquaintance with universal current literature) very much of Mr. Edmund Gosse’s opinion when he says of M. Anatole France that he is perhaps “the most interesting intelligence at this moment working in the field of letters.” The word “perhaps,” it will be noticed, is outside the double commas. A genuinely modest man likes to make a show of his modesty even in his use of quotations.
Whether criticism in general, as critics in general write it, ought to be of one school or another, subject to personal impression or subject to rule, one thing is beyond dispute: the singular charm, one feels almost like saying the incomparable charm, of “La Vie Littéraire” lies in its intimate, individual quality. It is not a set of formulas, nor even a thesaurus of literary opinions and estimates. It is the voice of a man, speaking as a man. As you listen, you see his mind at work; you know what he thinks about, and how he thinks about it; what he enjoys best and oftenest, what trains his reveries naturally fall into; how the world looks to him, past, present, and future. He does not set himself to reveal himself; when men do that, they mostly fail; his mind plays before you. Above all things, he is an ironist. There is nothing, least of all anything in himself or concerning himself, that he cannot smile at, though there may be tears in his eyes at the same moment. He admires, and can perfectly express his admiration; and when he despises, he is no more at a loss. The more he knows, the more he is ignorant, — and the more he wonders. He is full of modern knowledge, and he loves of all things a fairy tale. Shakespeare delights him, and he cannot say well enough nor times enough how greatly he enjoys the marionettes.
It can hardly have been an accident (and yet, for aught we know, it may have been, since accident often seems to be no more foolish than the rest of us) that his first “Times” essay was concerned with a representation of “Hamlet,” and the second with the latest story of M. Jules Lemaître. Both the Danish prince and the martyr Sérénus were men oppressed and finally overcome by a sense of the mystery of things, having ideas, almost in excess, and being so skillful in debate that they could never come to a conclusion. Like horses and politicians, they needed blinders, and for lack of them could not keep a straight course.
Both make a lively appeal to our critic’s sympathy. In his own way he is sufficiently like them. And so what ought, on one theory, to have been a dissertation upon Shakespeare’s conception of Hamlet’s character, runs of its own will into an address to the Dane himself. He is so real to the Frenchman that the two go home together, as it were, after the play, and the Frenchman, having sat silent so long, finds his heart full and his tongue suddenly unloosed.
First he must apologize to Hamlet for the audience, some part of which, as he may have noticed, seemed a trifle inattentive and light. Hamlet must not lay this to heart. “It was an audience of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen,” he should remember. “You were not in evening dress, you had no amorous intrigue in the world of high finance, and you wore no flower in your buttonhole. For that reason the ladies coughed a little in their boxes while eating candied fruits. Your adventures could not interest them. They were not worldly adventures; they were only human adventures. Besides, you force people to think, and that is an offense which will never be pardoned to you here.”
Still there were a few among the spectators who were profoundly moved, a few by whom the melancholy Dane is preferred before all other beings ever created by the breath of genius. The critic himself, by a happy chance, sat near one such, M. Auguste Dorchain. “He understands you, my prince, as he understands Racine, because he is himself a poet.”
And then, after a little, he concludes by confiding to Hamlet what a mystery and contradiction the world continues to find him, though he is the universal man, the man of all times and all countries, though he is exactly like the rest of us, “a man living in the midst of universal evil.” It is just because he is like the rest of us, indeed, that we find his character a thing so impossible to grasp. It is because we do not understand ourselves that we cannot understand him. His very inconsistencies and contradictions are the sign of his profound humanity. “You are prompt and slow, audacious and timid, benevolent and cruel; you believe and you doubt; you are wise, and above everything else you are insane. In a word, you live. Who of us does not resemble you in something? Who of us thinks without contradiction, and acts without inconsistency? Who of us is not insane? Who of us but says to you with a mixture of pity, of sympathy, of admiration, and of horror, ‘Goodnight, sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’”
This may not be great Shakespearean criticism; certainly it bears no very striking resemblance to the ordinary German article that walks abroad under that name; but at least it is good reading, and so far as may be possible in a few sentences, it may be thought to go somewhat near to the heart of the matter.
As for the Sérénus of M. Jules Lemaître, he, too, is a thinker and dreamer set to live in difficult conditions. He, too, is caught in contradictory currents, and finds it impossible to make the shore. For him, as for Hamlet, death is the only way out. His creator, of whom M. Anatole France loves to talk, is himself a born skeptic, always asking, under one ingenious form and another, the question of the old Roman functionary, “What is truth?” and never getting an answer. Like his friend and critic, “he loves believers and believes not.” It may have been he of whom it is remarked, somewhere, that he has “a mind full of ironic curiosity.” We have been turning the volumes over in search of the phrase. We did not find it, but we found ourselves repeating the word with which we began: “M. Anatole France is a writer who is continually saying something.” It seems to us truer than ever; and it seems a considerable merit.
In the course of our search we fell anew upon the essay dealing with that amazing book, the “Journal” of the Goncourt brothers. It is no very enlivening subject, one would say, but the essay is of the brightest, sparkling from end to end with those “good things” concerning which the scientific critic may say what he will, so long as the impressionistic critic will be kind enough to furnish them for our delectation. As plain untheoretical readers, we are thankful to be interested.
Of all books, as we know already, M. Anatole France believes in personal memoirs. In his opinion writers are seldom so likely to be well inspired as when they speak of themselves. La Fontaine’s pigeon had good reason to say:
“Mon voyage dépeint
Vous sera d’un plaisir extrême.
Je dirai: ‘J’étais là; telle chose m’avint:’
Vous y croirez être vous-même.”
Even a cold writer like Marmontel gets a hold upon us “as soon as he begins to tell about a little Limousin who read the Georgics in a garden where the bees were murmuring,” — because he was the boy, and the bees were those whose honey he ate, the same which he saw his aunt warming in the hollow of her hand, and refreshing with a drop of wine, when the cold had benumbed them. As for St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” so called, our essayist has no very exalted opinion of them. The great doctor, he thinks, hardly confesses enough. Worse yet, he hates his sins; and, in the way of literature, “nothing spoils a confession like repentance.”
But Rousseau, “poor great Jean-Jacques,” “whose soul held so many miseries and grandeurs,” — he surely made no half-hearted confession. “He acknowledged his own faults and those of other people with marvelous facility. It cost him nothing to tell the truth. However vile and ignoble it might be, he knew that he could render it touching and beautiful. He had secrets for that, the secrets of genius, which, like fire, purifies everything.”
But we must be done with quotation, though the matter that offers itself is fairly without end. Especially one would be glad to cite some of the essayist’s reminiscences of the men he has known: some of them famous, like Flaubert, “a pessimist full of enthusiasm,” who “had the good part of the things of this world, in that he could admire;” Jules Sandeau, whom the critic, when a child, used to meet on the quays of Paris, which are “the adopted country of all men of thought and taste;” and dear old Barbey d’Aurévilly, so queerly dressed, so profane a believer, “so frightfully Satanic and so adorably childish;” and others, — and these among the best, — two or three priests, in particular, — never heard of except in our author’s pages.
One would like, also, to speak of his favorite heterodox theory touching the fallible nature of posterity as a judge of works of art; of the fun that he pokes so effectively at the new school of symbolists and decadents (small wonder they do not love him); of his ideas upon language, upon history, upon the grossness of Zola, — with which he as an artist has no patience, — upon the exalted rank of the critical essay, upon the educational value of the humanities. These and many other things have their place in the four volumes, and every one is touched with grace and something of originality. Everywhere the personal note makes itself heard. It is a voice, not the scratching of a pen, that we listen to, the voice of a man who never forgets that he was once a child. He has lived in Eden. We all begin, he tells himself, where Adam began. “In those blessed hours,” he says, “I have seen thistles springing up amid heaps of stones in little sunny streets where birds were singing; and I tell you the truth, it was Paradise.”
The two or three years during which he was contributing weekly articles to “Le Temps” were not quite of this heavenly quality, we may safely presume; in the inevitable course of things the gates of Eden must for some time have been already closed against him; but if one is to judge by his books of the period, meaning to include among them “La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque,” “Les Opinions de M. Jérôme Coignard,” and “Le Jardin d’Épicure,” three of the best and most characteristic, though the two first named are not for readers afflicted with what a French critic calls pudeur livresque, — they were still years of quietness and a reasonably full content. He was writing and studying more than formerly, to be sure, and of course, by his own showing, was learning so much the less; but, taking everything into account, he and the world, for all its badness, were pulling pretty well together.
Since then, somehow, we cannot profess to know exactly how or why, a change appears to have come over him; a change not altogether for the worse, nor altogether for the better. Life, in his eyes, is no longer so bright as it was. He is more serious, more satirical, less disposed to mind his rhyme and let the river run under the bridge; a little out of conceit with his old rôle of saunterer and looker-on. He seems to have heard a drum-beat, and if there is to be a fight, he will, after a rather independent fashion of his own, bear a hand in it. Perhaps this is the manlier part. At all events, there is no quarreling with it, and the evil days on which Anatole France has fallen (“le perfide Anatole France,” as we are told that his political enemies — a strange word for use in connection with the author of “Sylvestre Bonnard” and “Le Jardin d’Épicure” — are accustomed to call him) have borne their full share of fruit.
His second manner, to call it so, is like his first in this regard, that its most successful creation is an old scholar. M. Bergeret is Sylvestre Bonnard with a difference, as the present Anatole France is the old Anatole France with a difference. It strikes us as almost a pleasantry of Fate that these two leading characters should stand thus as representatives of their creator’s two selves, or, if one prefers to express it so, of their creator’s one self in his two periods of calm and storm.
Sylvestre Bonnard’s life ran an even course. Its incidents were no more than the windings and falls of a quiet brook, — just enough to keep it wholesomely alive and give it a desirable diversity and picturesqueness. The world was good to him; and he thanked it. If he did not marry the girl with the pair of blue eyes, — the eyes de pervenche, — he was happier in his bachelorhood than the majority of men are in their married condition, and doubly happy toward the last, when time and chance (with more or less of human assistance) brought him his heart’s desire in the opportunity to care for his lost Clementine’s grandchild. His professional successes were according to his taste: he was a member of the Institute, an authority upon ancient texts, and in his old age the happy author of a book upon a new hobby.
Such was the life of a savant as M. Anatole France conceived it before the world was too much with him, before “Nationalists” and “Royalists” had begun to look askance upon him, and call him traitor.
M. Bergeret, like M. Bonnard, is a man of kindly nature, a scholar, and a lover of peace, but life to him, as to Shelley, has been “dealt in another measure;” a disloyal wife, uncongenial daughters, squalor in his house, disappointment in his calling, lack of favor with his colleagues and superiors, and, to fill his cup, the Dreyfus controversy, which makes him a target for stoning.
And in the midst of it all, notwithstanding it all, what a dear old soul, and what an interesting talker! — so amiably philosophical, so keen in his thrusts, so sly in his humor, so fond of good company, his own and his dog’s included, and, in spite of his weaknesses, so equal to the occasion! If he is irreligious, according to his neighbors’ standards, it is at least “with decency and good taste.”
The four volumes in which he figures (“Histoire Contemporaine,” they are jointly called), like all the works of their author, are crammed with clever sayings. There is no great story, of course, though some of the incidents are many shades too lively to be set in modest English type; but the characterization and the dialogue are of the best, — in the good Yankee sense of the word, “complete.”
For its full appreciation the book — it is really one, in spite of its four titles — demands a more familiar acquaintance with the ins and outs of current French politics than the average American reader is likely to bring to it. There are so many wheels within wheels, and the intrigues are made, of set purpose on the author’s part, to turn upon desires and considerations so almost incredibly sordid and petty! It is a comedy; we are bound to laugh; but it is also a horror, and is meant to be. Satire was never more biting. The game of provincial politics, bishop-making and all, is played with merciless particularity before the reader’s eyes; and if he fails to follow some of the moves with perfect intelligence, he sees only too well the smallness and baseness and cruelty of the whole; a game in which a matron’s honor is no more than a pawn upon the chessboard, to be given and taken without so much as an extra pulse-beat, even an extra pulse-beat of her own.. If it be true, or within a thousand miles of true, — well, to repeat the saying of one of old, a critic accounted wise in his day, “man hath no preëminence above a beast!”
Poor M. Bergeret! He ought to have been so happy! Like his human creator, he was born for life in a cloister, some Abbaye de Thélème, where he should have had nothing to do but to read his books, say his prayers, mind a few cabbages, perhaps, and be quiet; and instead of that, here he is passing his days in such a turmoil that he experiences a kind of joy on finding himself in the street, the one place where he gets a taste of “that sweetest of good things, philosophical liberty.” And with all the rest of his tribulations there falls upon him that dreadful nightmare of the Dreyfus case. Neither he nor his neighbors can let it alone. It is like the bitterness of aloes in all their conversation.
One resource he still has; one neighbor, better still, one housemate, with whom he can discuss anything, even the “Affaire,” with no risk of being stoned or misunderstood. His dog Riquet, though he “does not understand irony” (a congenital deficiency, it must have been, with such opportunities), is to our Maitre de Conférences á la Faculté des Lettres a true friend in need. For that matter, indeed, M. Bergeret is probably not the only man who has found it one of the best points in a dog’s favor that you can say to him anything you please. If your human neighbor stands in perishing need of wholesome truth, or if you stand in sore need of expressing it to him, and if there happens to be some not unnatural unwillingness on his part, or some momentary lack of courage on yours, why, you have only to deliver your message to him vicariously, as it were, to the sensible relief of your own mind, if not to the edification of his.
“Riquet,” said M. Bergeret, after a vain endeavor to make one of his brother provincials submit himself to reason, “Riquet, your velvety ears hear not him who speaks best, but him who speaks loudest.” And Riquet, well used to his master’s conversational eccentricities, took the compliment in good part; in much better part, at all events, than any human interlocutor would have been likely to take it. For really, unless one actually lost one’s temper, one could not say just that to a neighbor and equal, especially if it happened to be true.
For a heretic living among the orthodox there is nothing like keeping a dog. So we were ready to say and leave it; but we bethink ourselves in season that there is a more excellent way. Keep a dog, if you will, but keep also the pen of a novelist. Then all your beliefs and half beliefs and unbeliefs, all your benevolently contemptuous opinions of men and of men’s institutions, all your treasures of irony and satire, dear as these ever are to the man who possesses them, instead of being wasted upon a pair of velvety ears, may be trumpeted to the world at large through the lips of a third party, a “character,” so called, some M. Bergeret, if you can invent him, or an Abbé Coignard.
It is one of the best reasons for reading fiction, by the way, provided it is written by a man of insight and force, that he is so much more likely to tell us what he thinks when he is not compelled to speak in his own person.
A happy lot is the novelist’s. Such a more than angelic liberty as he enjoys, so comfortably irresponsible and blameless as he is, whatever happens! One thinks again of Jérome Coignard, concerning whom too little is finding its way into this paper. That grand old Christian and reprobate, as we know, could live pretty much as he listed, and hold pretty much such “opinions” as pleased him, at ease all the while in the assurance that somewhere in a deep inner closet, fast under lock and key, he preserved a faith in the Christian mysteries so perfect and unsoiled — never having been subjected to any earthly contact — that the good St. Peter, when the inevitable time should come, would be sure to pass its possessor into the good place without a question.
Yet it will never do for us to intimate that M. Anatole France has sought to save either comfort or reputation by talking through a mask. His theological, political, and socialistic heresies, if you call them such, this being matter of opinion, have been too openly expounded, and have brought him, as has already been told, too many enemies and reproaches. The most that we started to say under this head was that the storms into which the currents of the world have drifted him are reflected in his “Histoire Contemporaine,” especially in the difference between his M. Bergeret and his M. Bonnard.
Of the two, M. Bergeret has the greater philosophic interest for us, as well as the greater number of rememberable things to say to us. If the reader wishes to see him in two highly contrasted situations, let him turn to the wonderful chapter describing his sensations and behavior immediately after detecting his wife’s infidelity, and the beautiful one in which he and his more practical sister visit together the old Paris mansion in which they had passed some portion of their childhood. They were house-hunting at the time, and the Master, falling into one of his far-away, philosophical moods, remarked, apropos of something or nothing: “Time is a pure idea, and space is no more real than time.” “That may be so,” answered his matter-of-fact, executive-minded sister, “but it costs more in Paris.”
Doctor Johnson called himself “an old struggler,” and the words come unbidden into our minds as we review M. Bergeret’s story. To us, we must confess, the old Latin professor seems almost as real a personage as the Great Cham of literature himself. We hope he is happy in his new post of honor at the Sorbonne. It was time, surely, that some of the quails and the manna should be found in his basket.
And now it is pleasant to add, by way of ending, that the latest book of M. Anatole France seems to indicate that he also, as well as the man of his creation, has come out into a larger place. His mood is quieter and less satirical, though he is still many degrees more serious than in the old days of “Thaïs” and “Sylvestre Bonnard.” “Sur la Pierre Blanche” is a work of the rarest distinction; not a book for the casual reader to hurry over in pursuit of a story (in a loose way of speaking it may be characterized as a volume of imaginary conversations), but one to be cherished and dwelt upon by such as love the perfection of art and are not averse to knowing what kind of thoughts visit a freethinking, humanity-loving man, of a philosophical, half-conservative, half-radical turn of mind, in these days of social and political unrest, as he looks back upon the origins of Christianity and forward into those new and presumably brighter eras which we who live now may dream of, but never see.
The motto of the book explains the significance of its title: “You seem to have slept upon the white stone amongst the people of dreams.” Toleration, the spread of peace, imperialism, the socialistic evolution (following hard upon the capitalistic evolution, now at its height, or passing), the yellow peril, so called, the white peril, the future of Africa, — these are some of the larger and timelier questions considered. In general, the thoughts of the book are those of a scholar whose face is turned toward practical issues. The author is not concerned with any Utopia, — absolute justice, by his theory, being not a thing to be so much as hoped for, — but with some quite possible amelioration of the existing order, and some gradual, natural, irresistible approaches (irresistible because they are the work of Nature herself) toward a state of society less unequal, not to say less unendurable, than the present.
Let those scoff who will; for ourselves we rejoice to see the man, like the boy, “dreaming on things to come.”
At the same time, we should not be sorry to believe that, in the heat of writing, and out of the love, natural to all of us, of making facts conform to theory, we may have laid a thought too much of emphasis upon the alterations through which his mind has passed. His days, we suspect, have, after all, been pretty closely bound each to each by natural piety. We recall his fine saying about Renan, brought up in the Roman Church and dying an unbeliever, that he changed little. “He was like his native land, where clouds float across the sky, but the soil is of granite, and oaks are deeply rooted.”
Changed or unchanged, in his first manner or his second, Republican or Nationalist, socialist, anti-imperialist, “intellectual,” or what not, who will refuse to read a writer who can express himself after such a fashion?