1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/France, Anatole
FRANCE, ANATOLE (1844– ), French critic, essayist and novelist (whose real name was Jacques Anatole Thibault), was born in Paris on the 16th of April 1844. His father was a bookseller, one of the last of the booksellers, if we are to believe the Goncourts, into whose establishment men came, not merely to order and buy, but to dip, and turn over pages and discuss. As a child he used to listen to the nightly talks on literary subjects which took place in his father’s shop. Nurtured in an atmosphere so essentially bookish, he turned naturally to literature. In 1868 his first work appeared, a study of Alfred de Vigny, followed in 1873 by a volume of verse, Les Poëmes dorés, dedicated to Leconte de Lisle, and, as such a dedication suggests, an outcome of the “Parnassian” movement; and yet another volume of verse appeared in 1876, Les Noces corinthiennes. But the poems in these volumes, though unmistakably the work of a man of great literary skill and cultured taste, are scarcely the poems of a man with whom verse is the highest form of expression.
He was to find his richest vein in prose. He himself, avowing his preference for a simple, or seemingly simple, style as compared with the artistic style, vaunted by the Goncourts—a style compounded of neologisms and “rare” epithets, and startling forms of expression—observes: “A simple style is like white light. It is complex, but not to outward seeming. In language, a beautiful and desirable simplicity is but an appearance, and results only from the good order and sovereign economy of the various parts of speech.” And thus one may say of his own style that its beautiful translucency is the result of many qualities—felicity, grace, the harmonious grouping of words, a perfect measure. Anatole France is a sceptic. The essence of his philosophy, if a spirit so light; evanescent, elusive, can be said to have a philosophy, is doubt. He is a doubter in religion, metaphysics, morals, politics, aesthetics, science—a most genial and kindly doubter, and not at all without doubts even as to his own negative conclusions. Sometimes his doubts are expressed in his own person—as in the Jardin d’épicure (1894) from which the above extracts are taken, or Le Livre de mon ami (1885), which may be accepted, perhaps, as partly autobiographical; sometimes, as in La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque (1893) and Les Opinions de M. Jérôme Coignard (1893), or L’Orme du mail (1897), Le Mannequin d’osier (1897), L’Anneau d’améthyste (1899), and M. Bergeret à Paris (1901), he entrusts the expression of his opinions, dramatically, to some fictitious character—the abbé Coignard, for instance, projecting, as it were, from the 18th century some very effective criticisms on the popular political theories of contemporary France—or the M. Bergeret of the four last-named novels, which were published with the collective title of Histoire contemporaine. This series deals with some modern problems, and particularly, in L’Anneau d’améthyste and M. Bergeret à Paris, with the humours and follies of the anti-Dreyfusards. All this makes a piquant combination. Neither should reference be omitted to his Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (1881), crowned by the Institute, nor to works more distinctly of fancy, such as Balthasar (1889), the story of one of the Magi or Thaïs (1890), the story of an actress and courtesan of Alexandria, whom a hermit converts, but with the loss of his own soul. His ironic comedy, Crainquebille (Renaissance theatre, 1903), was founded on his novel (1902) of the same year. His more recent work includes his anti-clerical Vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1908); his pungent satire the Île des penguins (1908); and a volume of stories, Les Sept Femmes de la Barbe-Bleue (1909). Lightly as he bears his erudition, it is very real and extensive, and is notably shown in his utilization of modern archaeological and historical research in his fiction (as in the stories in Sur une pierre blanche). As a critic—see the Vie littéraire (1888–1892), reprinted mainly from Le Temps—he is graceful and appreciative. Academic in the best sense, he found a place in the French Academy, taking the seat vacated by Lesseps, and was received into that body on the 24th of December 1896. In the affaire Dreyfus he sided with M. Zola.
For studies of M. Anatole France’s talent see Maurice Bàrrès, Anatole France (1885); Jules Lemaître, Les Contemporains (2nd series, 1886); and G. Brandes, Anatole France (1908). In 1908 Frederic Chapman began an edition of The works of Anatole France in an English translation (John Lane).