The works of the French novelist and essayist Anatole France (1844-1924) combine classical purity of style with penetrating flashes of irony. He is a major figure in the tradition of liberal humanism in French literature.
Jacques Anatole François Thibault, who was to take the literary name of Anatole France, was born in Paris on April 16, 1844, the son of a self-educated bookseller. He attended the Collège Stanislas, a Catholic school, but was far from a brilliant pupil and emerged with a lasting dislike of the Church. Greater intellectual profit came to him from browsing among his father's books and from friendships with influential customers, which led to work for a publisher. France's first book was a study of the poet Alfred de Vigny and was followed by poetry and a verse drama, politely received but not particularly successful. At the same time he was pursuing a career in literary journalism, and in 1877 he married Valérie Guéin, the daughter of a well-to-do family, with whom he had a daughter, Suzanne, in 1881.
France's first great literary success came in 1881 with Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard). This story of an aging scholar betrays to the present-day reader an excessive sentimentality, but its optimistic theme and kindly irony were welcomed as a reaction against the brutal realism of the prevailing school of Émile Zola. The novel which followed, Les Désirs de Jean Servien (1882; The Aspirations of Jean Servien), was less well received. By the close of the 1880s France had established himself as a literary figure and had also begun a liaison with Madame Arman de Caillavet, who had a celebrated literary salon. Their relationship ended only with her death in 1910. France's marriage was dissolved in 1893.
In 1890 appeared Thaïs, set in Egypt in the early Christian era, treating the story of the courtesan Thaïs and the monk Paphnuce with tolerant irony and skepticism. It was followed in 1893 by La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque (At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque), another tale with philosophical implications, this time set in the 18th century; and in 1894 by Le Lys rouge (The Red Lily), a more conventional novel of love in the wealthier classes, set largely in Italy. Le Jardin d'Épicure (1884; The Garden of Epicurus) consists of reprinted articles but contains the essence of France's attitude to the world at that point: a weary skepticism redeemed by an appreciation of the delicate pleasures of the mind.
Elected to the French Academy in 1896, France was at the height of a successful career. But his journalistic articles had begun to include social as well as literary criticism, and when the Dreyfus case came to a head in 1897, he felt obliged to take sides with the Jewish officer, whom he considered to have been wrongly condemned. For the rest of his life France was to abandon the political skepticism of his earlier years, while the irony in his books turned sharply critical of the contemporary world. This becomes increasingly evident in four books of L'Histoire contemporaine (1897-1901; Contemporary History), in which the figure of Monsieur Bergeret acts as the representative of France's own views on the Dreyfus case and other social problems, and in the story Crainquebille (1901), in which the case was transposed into a parable of the unjust prosecution of a harmless and innocent street peddler.
The book in which France's political irony reached its height was, however, L'Île des Pingouins (1908; Penguin Island), a penetrating glance at French history and life and perhaps the only satire in French literature which can be compared to Voltaire's Candide. The novel generally regarded as France's finest came out 4 years later: Les Dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Athirst). Set during the French Revolution, the book portrays the gradual development of a young artist, Évariste Gamelin, from his initial idealism and good nature to a point at which, through membership in a Revolutionary tribunal, his virtues have been transformed into a bloodthirsty and merciless fanaticism. France's own attitude is made clear through the character of Brotteaux, a formerly wealthy tax collector whose only possession is now his edition of Epicurus. Brotteaux, unjustly condemned by Gamelin's tribunal, meets the guillotine with stoic resolution. The novel ends with the overthrow of Robespierre and Gamelin's own execution.
France's last major work was La Révolte des anges (1914; The Revolt of the Angels), another satire, in which a group of angels attempt to free themselves from divine despotism. Less bitter than L'Île des Pingouins the book is also less successful. In France's later years he was increasingly involved politically with the extreme left and for a time became a supporter of the French Communist party. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; a year later his works were put on the papal Index. France, who had married again in 1920, died 6 months after his eightieth birthday, in 1924.
The many other books by France include collected articles on literary and social topics, volumes of autobiography, and a life of Joan of Arc. Regarded at the turn of the century as probably the most important French writer of his age, France lived too long for his reputation not to be viewed with impatience by a younger generation of writers who had little time for either his clarity of style or his polished irony. He himself had said, "People will reproach me for my audacity until they start reproaching me for my timidity." But if overvalued earlier, looked at in perspective, France's achievement as a novelist and satirist and his stand for the principles of justice and tolerance mark him as a major writer.
Further Reading on Anatole France
The most recent biography of France in English is David Tylden-Wright, Anatole France (1967). Among the older biographies, Edwin Preston Dargan, Anatole France: 1844-1896 (1937), treats France's life until the Dreyfus case, and Jacob Axelrad, Anatole France: A Life without Illusions, 1844-1924 (1944), deals with France's entire career. Up-to-date literary studies are Reino Virtanen, Anatole France (1968), and Dushan Bresky, The Art of Anatole France (1969). Alfred Carter Jefferson concentrates on France's political development in Anatole France: The Politics of Scepticism (1965). Useful earlier studies are James Lewis May, Anatole France: The Man and His Work (1924), and Haakon M. Chevalier, The Ironic Temper: Anatole France and His Time (1932).