History of Literature

Anatole France


Anatole France



Anatole France

(1844-1924) - pseudonym for Jacques Anatole Francois Thibault

Writer, critic, one of the major figures of French literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anatole France was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921. In the 1920 France's writings were put on the Index of Forbidden Books of the Roman Catholic Church. His skepticism appears already in his early works, but later the hostility toward bourgeois values led him to support French Communist Party.

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
(from The Red Lily, 1894)

Anatole France was born Jacques Anatole François Thibault in Paris. At early age France acquired a love for books and reading. His father was a bookseller, who called his shop the 'Librarie de France' – from this the future writer took his surname. France was educated at the Collége Stanislaus, where he was a mediocre student. During this period France adopted his lifelong anti-clericalism and later constantly mocked the church and religious doctrines in his books. On the whole France's early years, which he depicted in My Friend's Book (1885), were happy. After failing his baccalaureate examination several times, France finally passed it at the age of twenty. In the 1860s he was for a time an assistant to his father, then he was a cataloguer and publisher's assistant at Bacheline-Deflorenne and at Lemerre. He also worked as a teacher.

When his father retired, France took a series of jobs as an editorial assistant. He became member of the Parnassian group of poets, Gautier, Catulle, Mendes and others, and built himself a high reputation in the literature circles. During the Franco-Prussian War, France served briefly in the army, and witnessed the bloodbath at the Paris Commune in 1871.

In 1875 the newspaper Le Temps commissioned France to write a series of critical articles on contemporary writers. The next year he started his weekly column, which were published until 1892 and collected in four volumes under the title LA VIE LITTÉRAIRE. In 1876 France was appointed with the help of the leading Parnassian poet Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) an assistant librarian for the French Senate, a post he held fourteen years. Leconte de Lisle encouraged France to publish his first collection of poems, LES POÉMES DORÉS (1873). France's first collection of stories appeared in 1879.

As a novelist France made his breakthrough with The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881). Like his other works, it looked back to the 18th century as a golden age. Its protagonist, skeptical old scholar Sylvester Bonnard, was the first of series of fictional characters, who embody France's own personality. The novel was praised for its elegant prose and irony and won the author a prize from the French Academy.

In 1877 France married Valérie Guérin de Sauville. The marriage ended in divorce in 1893, several years after France's liaison with Mme Arman de Caillavet (Leontine Lippmann), a patron of arts and the great love of the author. This period inspired France's Christian fantasy about beauty and wisdom, THAÏS (1890), closely related to Gustave Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony. LES LYS ROUGE (1894), a roman à clef dealing with the relationship, gained a huge success.

Between the years 1897 and 1901 France wrote four novels under the title Contemporary History, a fictional account of Belle Epoque. The first volume introduced an other important France persona, monsieur Bergeret, a provisional schoolteacher. The Queen Pédauque (1893) introduced Jerome Coignard, whom France used as his vehicle for moral ponderings and advocate for tolerance in The Opinions of Mr. Jerome Coignard (1893). During the 1890s and early 1900s France argued for social reforms and attacked the shortcomings of contemporary society and the church. In 1888 he was appointed literary critic of the importrant newspaper Le Temps.

France participated in the famous Dreyfus case with other writers, in front of them Émile Zola with his famous article J'Accuse (1898). France discussed the affair in the fourth volume of Contemporary History, entitled Monsieur Bergeret in Paris (1901). He was the first to sign Émile Zola's manifesto, condemning the false indictment for treason of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, which had been made to protect high army officials from the scandal of exposed corruption. After the Dreyfus case in the mid-1890s France's ironic views of contemporary society became even more poignant and disillusioned.

France resigned his library job at the Senate in 1890, and was elected to the Académie Française in 1896. He presided at the salon of Armand de Caillavet until her death in 1910. The last fifteen years of France's life were shadowed by personal difficulties, some of which he created himself. His daughter Suzanne died in 1917, his mistress Mme Arman, whom he started to deceive with other women as early as 1904, became seriously ill and died in 1910. He deceived his housekeeper, Emma Laprevotte, whom he later married, and an American woman whom he had deserted, killed herself in 1911.

Among Frace's major later works is Penquin Island (1908), in which humanity's evolutionary course and the history of France is allegorized satirically through the transformation of penguins into humans – after the animals have been baptized in error by the nearsighted Abbot Mael. The two-volume biography, The Life of Joan of Arc (1908), was poorly received - Catholics criticized its realistic portrayal of Joan and historians had much to say about its historical accuracy. The Gods Are Athirst (1912) was a historical novel about the French Revolution. In The Revolt of Angels (1914) France used the familiar theme of religious conflict from Milton's Paradise Lost. The revolt of fallen angels breaks out again, when a guardian angel, Arcade, is converted to free thought by Lucretius' summary of Epicurean philosophy De rerum natura. The work, a strong protest against violence and tyranny, was the author's last interesting novel.

France died on October 12, 1924, in Tours, where he had moved ten years earlier. His funeral was attended by the highest ranking members of the French government. The poet Paul Valéry succeeded to Anatole France's chair and delivered an unconventional address upon his predecessor. In stead of the usual complimentary obituary, he made an attack: "He perfected the art of brushing lightly over the most serious ideas and problems. Nothing in his books gives the least difficulty unless it be the wonder itself of encountering none."

"Anatole France was essentially a rationalist: he did not deny the incongruities and incoherences of experience, but he attempted to write about them, at least, in a simple, logical and harmonious style. Paul Valéry has set himself, on the contrary, the task of reproducing by his very language all the complexities and confusions of our interacting sensations and ideas. The phenomena with which France usually deals are the events of life as it is lived in the world; with Valéry the object of interest is the iolated or ideal human mind, brooding on its own contradictions or admiring its own flights."
(Edmund Wilson in Axel's Castle, 1931)



Type of work: Novel
Author: Anatole France (Jacques-Anatole-Frangois Thibault, 1844-1924)
Type of plot: Fantasy
Time of plot: Ancient times to the present
Locale: Mythical Alca
First published: L'lle des pingouins, 1908 (English translation, 1914)


Penguin Island, a satiric and ironic burlesque of history, is doubly amusing to those who are familiar with the history of France, although the universality of the themes presented makes the satire recognizable to any reader. Using as his starting point the story of a blinded monk who mistakenly baptizes a group of penguins, whom God then changes to men, France satirizes politics, sexual mores, the Church, and other social institutions.


Principal Characters

Mael (ma-ёТ), a Breton missionary monk who, in ancient times, preached to a group of penguins living on an island at the North Pole. The penguins were baptized and turned into men, and the island was towed to a point off the Breton coast. Thus began a society that is the author's satire of French history.
Kraken (kra-kan'), a clever penguin who lives by his wits and turns to his advantage the ignorance and superstitions of the peasant penguins. By constructing an imitation dragon and "Killing" it at an appropriate time, he wins the gratitude of the populace and thereafter accepts annual tribute from them.
Orberosia (or-ba-ro-zya'), Kraken's mistress and the most beautifu1 of the penguin women. She appears as a virgin who conquers a dragon in order that Mael's prophecy might be fulfilled. The "dragon" is one she and Kraken have fashioned. Orberosian is the island's first and most important saint.
Eveline Clarence (a-va-len' kla'rans'), a beautiful, talented charmer who becomes a favorite at political social gatherings. She marries a rising politician and becomes the mistress of the prime minister. She lives a long, happy life and, when she dies, leaves her property to the Charity of St. Orberosia.
M. Hippolyte Ceres (m3;-sys;oe' ё-po-ll' sa-res'), Eveline's husband, who tires to ruin the prime minister's career when it becomes apparent that Eveline is his mistress. His action has some effect, for the prime minister is finally put out of office.
Father Agaric (a-ga-гёк') and Prince des Boscenos (da bo-sa-nos'), conspirators who attempt to destroy the republic and restore the monarchy. The revolution they launch is short-lived, failing almost as soon as it begins.
Greatank (gra-tank'), the most powerful of all the penguins, who establishes Penguinia's first government on the island of Alca, its system that of a clan or tribe ruled by a strong warrior.
Draco (dra-кб'), Kraken's son, who founds the first royal family of Penguinia.
Draco the Great a descendant of Draco who establishes a monastery in honor of Orberosia; thus the Middle Ages come to the island of Alca.
Trinco (tran-ko'), the great soldier who takes command of the army of the republic after the monarchy has been abolished. He quickly conquers and loses most of the known world.
Johannes Talpa (zhoan' tal-pa'), a learned monk who chronicles the early history of the penguins.
Marbodius (mar-bo-dyus'), a literary monk who leaves a record of his descent into Hell.
Viscountess Olive (6-lev'), a clever aristocrat who seduces Chatillon in order to gain his support for the royalists' cause. Viscount Ciena (kla-na'), a suitor whom Eveline rejects when she learns that he is of modest means.
God, a deity who finds it necessary to call the saints together in order to decide what to do about the penguins Mael has baptized.
Chatillon (sha-te-yon'), an admiral used by Father Agaric and the prince to head the military forces in the unsuccessful revolution.
M. Paul Visire (ma;-syoe' pol've-zer'), Prime Minister of Penguinia and Eveline's lover.
Madame Clarence (kla-raris'), Eveline's mother.
Pyrot (рётб'), a scapegoat.


The Story

In ancient times, Mael, a Breton monk, was diligent in gathering converts to the Church. One day the Devil caused Mael to be transported in a boat to the North Pole, where the priest landed on an island inhabited by penguins. Being somewhat snow-blind, he mistook the birds for men, preached to them, and, taking their silence as a sign of willingness, baptized them into the Christian faith.
This error of the pious Mael caused great consternation in Paradise. God called all the saints together, and they argued whether the baptisms were valid. At last they decided that the only way out of the dilemma was to change the penguins into men. After this transformation had taken place, Mael towed the island back to the Breton coast so that he could keep an eye on his converts.
Thus began the history of Penguinia on the island of Alca. At first the penguins were without clothes, but before long the holy Mael put clothes on the females. Because this covering excited the males, sexual promiscuity was enormously increased. The penguins began to establish the rights of property by knocking one another over the head. Greatank, the largest and strongest penguin, became the founder of power and wealth. A taxation system was established by which all penguins were taxed equally. This system was favored by the rich, who kept their money to benefit the poor.
Kraken, a clever penguin, withdrew to a lonely part of the island and lived alone in a cave. Finally he took as his mistress Orberosia, the most beautiful of penguin women. Kraken gained great wealth by dressing up as a dragon and carrying off the wealth of the peaceful penguins. When the citizens banded together to protect their property, Kraken became frightened. It was predicted by Mael that a virgin would come to conquer the dragon. Kraken and Orberosia fashioned an imitation monster. Orberosia appeared to Mael and announced herself as the destined virgin. At an appointed time she revealed the imitation monster. Kraken sprang from a hiding place and pretended to kill it. The people rejoiced and thenceforth paid annual tribute to Kraken. His son, Draco, founded the first royal family of Penguinia.
Thus began the Middle Ages on the island of Alca. Draco the Great, a descendant of the original Draco, had a monastery established in the cave of Kraken in honor of Orberosia, who was now a saint. There were great wars between the penguins and the porpoises at that time, but the Christian faith was preserved by the simple expedient of burning all heretics at the stake.
The history of the penguins in that far time was chronicled by a learned monk named Johannes Talpa. Even though the battles raged about his very ears, he was able to continue writing in his dry and simple style. Little record was left of the primitive paintings on the isle of Alca, but later historians believed that the painters were careful to represent nature as unlike herself as possible. Marbodius, a literary monk, left a record of a descent into Hell similar to the experience of Dante. Marbodius interviewed Virgil and was told by the great poet that Dante had misrepresented him: Virgil was perfectly happy with his own mythology and wanted nothing to do with the God of the Christians.
The next recorded part of Penguinian history treated is of modern times, when rationalistic philosophers began to appear. In the succeeding generation their teachings took root; the king was put to death, nobility was abolished, and a republic was founded. The shrine of Saint Orberosia was destroyed. The republic, however, did not last long. Trinco, a great soldier, took command of the country; with his armies, he conquered and lost all the known world. The penguins were left at last with nothing but their glory.
Then a new republic was established. It pretended to be ruled by the people, but the real rulers were the wealthy financiers. Another republic of a similar nature, new Atlantis, had grown up across the sea at the same time. It was even more advanced in the worship of wealth.
Father Agaric and Prince des Boscenos, as members of the clergy and nobility, were interested in restoring the kings of Alca to the throne. They decided to destroy the republic by taking advantage of the weakness of Cha-tillon, the admiral of the navy. Chatillon was seduced by the charms of the clever Viscountess Olive, who was able to control his actions for the benefit of the royalists. An immense popular antirepublican movement was begun with Chatillon as its hero; the royalists hoped to reinstate the king in the midst of the uproar. The revolution, however, was stopped in its infancy, and Chatillon fled the country.
Eveline, the beautiful daughter of Madame Clarence, rejected the love of Viscount Ciena, after she had learned that he had no fortune. She then accepted the attentions of Monsieur Ceres, a rising politician. After a short time they were married. Monsieur Ceres received a portfolio in the cabinet of Monsieur Visire, and Eveline became a favorite in the social gatherings of the politicians. M. Visire was attracted by her, and she became his mistress. M. Ceres learned of the affair, but he was afraid to say anything to M. Visire, the prime minister. Instead, he did his best to ruin M. Visire politically, but with little success at first. Finally M. Visire was put out of office on the eve of a war with a neighboring empire. Eveline lived to a respectable old age and at her death left all of her property to the Charity of Saint Orberosia.
As Penguinia developed into an industrial civilization ruled by the wealthy class, the one purpose of life became the gathering of riches; art and all other nonprofit activities ceased to be. Finally, the downtrodden workmen revolted, and a wave of anarchy swept over the nation. All the great industries were demolished. Order was established at last, and the government reformed many of the social institutions, but the country continued to decline. Where before there had been great cities, wild animals now lived.
Then came hunters seeking wild animals. Later, shepherds appeared, and after a time farming became the chief occupation. Great lords built castles. The people made roads; villages appeared. The villages combined into large cities. The cities grew rich. An industrial civilization developed, ruled by the wealthy class. History was beginning to repeat itself.


Critical Evaluation

Penguin Island has been the most popular and most widely read of all Anatole France's books, though by no means the most admired by serious critics. The reason is not far to seek: Penguin Island is a clever satirical allegory which skims mockingly over the main landmark events of French history under the ironic guise of being a solemn historical narrative about an island civilization inhabited exclusively by penguins. This fantastic concept naturally gives rise to a lighthearted, comic approach which seems never to take itself seriously enough to probe deeply into the causes and meanings of history. Instead it is breezily anecdotal in method, sparing of detail and extremely sketchy in its narration, vague in its handling of historical time, and, above all, cast in a charmingly witty style by a narrator who appears to have his tongue in his cheek at all times. As a result, the book makes no obvious intellectual demands on the reader and is fun to read. At the same time, the book seems rather saucily cavalier, even trivializing, about French history, and as a novel it is disconcertingly negligent about such elements of craft as plot, characters, and structure. These weaknesses have been pointed out repeatedly by serious critics, who tend to be instinctively suspicious of any work that proves to be both popular and enjoyable. It can be argued, however, that Penguin Island earns its popularity honestly, by artfully concealing under an apparently frivolous surface an implied commentary on some of the most far-reaching issues in history and historiography. For the casual reader, Penguin Island can indeed be a merry romp, but for the more thoughtful reader it provides matter for much profound reflection.
It will be helpful, in assessing the enduring value of Penguin Island, to recall the circumstances of its composition. When it was published in 1908, France was a celebrated and practiced man of letters who, at the age of sixty-four, was at the peak of his late-blooming creative powers. That same year, he had at least completed and published, after a quarter century of intermittent effort, a life of Joan of Arc in two volumes, which was a seriously intended work of historiography. During the preceding decade, he had, for the only time in his career, become active in public life, intervening in the Dreyfus Affair and making political speeches in favor of the socialist point of view. During that same decade, his voluminous imaginative writing had also had an unwonted emphasis on history, politics, and current events. The evidence is that by 1908, France had become somewhat disenchanted with public life, and had perhaps exhausted himself physically and soured his interest in history by the long struggle to complete The Life of Joan of Arc. Penguin Island, rapidly composed in a few months, was perhaps a means of relaxing for France, after so much earnest and carefully researched historical writing, and was perhaps also a means of exorcising his troubled disenchantment with public affairs. It was a work conceived in a light vein which, by treating history as comic fantasy, might restore a badly needed sense of proportion to his own outlook, grown too grimly serious because of the nature of the historical and current events with which he had been so deeply concerned for a full, turbulent decade. By mocking his own erudition and solemn preoccupation with politics and history—which is the underlying spirit of Penguin Is/and—France seems to have aimed to relieve himself of the burdens he had assumed for so long and to bid an ironic farewell to his own activism.
Perhaps the best evidence in Penguin Island that the author was trying to purge himself of his own high moral seriousness might be found in the way the Dreyfus Affair is represented in the book. Called "The Affair of the Eighty Thousand Trusses of Hay," andfeaturing "amiddle-class Jew called Pyrot, desirous of associating with the aristocracy" who is accused of treason, the episode of modern Penguin history, which is a transparent parody of the Dreyfus Affair, is turned into pure farce. All sides in Penguinia's "Pyrot Affair" are roundly mocked, the Pyrotists as much as the anti-Pyrotists, the socialists as much as the capitalists, the heroes as much as the villains. Even the most disinterested defender of Pyrot's innocence, a man named Colomban (clearly a parodic equivalent of Emile Zola), is presented as a naive simpleton. The net effect of this globally satirical representation is to put distance between the narrator (France) and the events being narrated. No longer the passionate moralist who had so eloquently defended Dreyfus and Zola during the actual affair, France wished, in writing Penguin Island, to see recent events from a safe distance and from a posture above the battle, perhaps to remind himself that, viewed under the aspect of eternity, the fierce passions aroused by the affair—in himself as well as in others— must appear ludicrously petty.
Indeed, the effect of the ironic narrative tone throughout Penguin Island is to place all human history and all the learned endeavors to recover that history in the same remote, slightly ludicrous perspective. By the inspired invention of a society of penguins baptized by a nearsighted priest and thus coopted into the human family, France contrived to make the very premise underlying his composition a parody of human history. Thus he plants in the minds of his more reflective readers, at least, grave doubts about the way historical events occur and even graver doubts about the way historians reconstruct and interpret those events. That the bantering tone conceals profound questions about the nature and meaning of history appears most clearly in the famous concluding chapter, "The Endless History," which predicts the future of Penguinia as a cyclical process of expansion, conflict, and devastation followed by a new expansion arising out of the ruins and launching the cycle again. The conception of history as an endlessly repeated cycle of greed and violence, from which nothing is ever learned, is symbolically expressed by the device of closing the chapter with exactly the same words as were used to begin it. Through the prism of hindsight, Penguin Island must be seen as an ingenious travesty of French history, entertaining as farce yet at the same time subtly disturbing as an implied meditation on the limits of historiography.



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