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||Anatole France (1844-1924) - pseudonym for Jacques Anatole François 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 peasant, who could neither write nor read until he went into army, eventually becoming bookseller. He called his shop the 'Librarie de France' – and 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 Poèmes 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. Le 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.
Like many other progressive writers, France participated in the famous Dreyfus, 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. With an American woman, Laura Gagey, France had one of his most serious affairs after the loss of Mme Arman de Caillavet. "My adored one, your letter made my heart beat as if it would break," he wrote to her. "At last, I will press you in my arms." However, at the same time he was involved with a Danish sex maniac. (Thorstein Veblen: Victorian Firebrand by Elizabeth Watkins Jorgensen and Henry Irvin Jorgensen, 1999, p. 86-87) When France deserted her, Laura Gagey killed herself in 1911 by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. France was present at the funeral and followed the cortège carrying her body all the way to the cemetery.
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.
died on October 12, 1924, in Tours, where he had moved
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." All the
newspapers, from left to right, published laudatory obituaries, which
were followed by a hostile manifesto, 'Un Cadavre' (October, 1924).
Mainly the brainchild of André Breton and Louis Aragon, it
was signed by many members of the Surrealist movement (among them Paul
Éluard and Philippe Soupault), who wanted to knock the author off his
"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)
After France's death, interest in his work in England began to
rapidly wane. Ford Madox Ford, who was his great admirer,
urged Jean Rhys to read him, along with Maupassant, Flaubert and
Colette, as examples of "clarity and concision." (''Adventures
of the Soul Among Masterpieces': Ford and France (Anatole)' by Max
Saunders, in Ford Madox Ford’s
Cosmopolis: Psycho-geography, Flânerie and the Cultures of Paris,
edited by Alexandra Becquet and Claire Davison, 2016, p. 144) Rhys referred to France's funeral in her 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight:
"There we were, chatting away affably, paying Anatole France the
tribute of a last salute, and most of the people who passed in the
procession were chatting away affably too . . . and we were all paying
Anatole France the tribute of a last salute".
For further reading: Anatole France by J.L. May (1924); Anatole France. The Degeneration of a Great Artist by B. Cerf (1926); The Ironic Temper by H.M. Chevalier (1932); Anatole France 1844-1924 by E.P. Dargan (1937); Anatole France: A Life Without Illusions by J. Axelrad (1944); Anatole France in the United States by M.R. McEwan (1945); Anatole France and the Greek World by L.B. Walton (1950); Anatole France: The Politics of Scepticism by C. Jefferson (1965); The Art of Anatole France by O. Bresky (1969); Anatole France by R. Virtanen (1969); Anatole France: The Short Stories by M. Sachs (1974); Techniques of Irony in Anatole France by D.W. Levy (1978); Anatole France by Marie-Claire Bancquart (1994); Anatole France avant l’oubli by Edouard Leduc (2006); Anatole France et le nationalisme littéraire: scepticisme et tradition by Guillaume Métayer (2011); ''Adventures of the Soul Among Masterpieces': Ford and France (Anatole)' by Max Saunders, in Ford Madox Ford’s Cosmopolis: Psycho-geography, Flânerie and the Cultures of Paris, edited by Alexandra Becquet and Claire Davison (2016)