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A LITERARY NIHILIST.
For that prevalent epidemic, decrepi- itable to Dr. Johnson of the "incomtude of faith, France has shown herself parable paysage” of the quais of Paris, prolific in physicians and prescriptions. and truly, as lapidary landscapes go, If optimism breaks down, it seems but it would be hard to beat that which fair to the versatile intellect of Gaul greets the eye of the pilgrim as he to give pessimism a chance; if positiv- crosses the historic river by the Pont ism fails, why not try negativism or des Arts that Balzac loved. "Born in nihilism? Not the political doctrine, bien library," like Benjamin Disraeli, entendu. There is no reason whatever Anatole France exhibits even more unwhy we should restrict the term “nihil- equivocal traces of his origin in every ism” to a political creed of which we fragment that he has penned. The dryknow extremely little, and which we est book upon the top shelf of a chapter can with difficulty distinguish from library has a secret to impart to him; anarchism. It seems, on the other like Washington Irving, he understands hand, remarkably well suited to a form the little language of ancient yellow of literary scepticism which submits quartos, and can translate their conthe most important operations of life fidences into a tongue intelligible to to contemptuous analysis, and which the vulgar. Many will share his earlaughs at the assumed dignity of an liest bibliographical recollection, that animal swayed by the ridiculous im- of an early eighteenth-century Bible, pulses, the grotesque beliefs and the with the Amsterdam landscapes of á hopeless desires of mankind, while as- Dutch artist, and God in a white beard. suring the individuals of the species “How sincerely I believed in him-althat the worst possible mistake they though, between ourselves, I considered can make is to take themselves seri- Him inclined to be whimsical, violent ously.
and wrathful; but I did not ask Him Your ordinary propagandist, of posi- to render an account of His actions. I tivist tendencies, intent upon making was accustomed to see great personconverts, is wont to subordinate liter- ages behaving in an incomprehensible ary to practical effect; but a vehement manner." Yet, he adds, “how delightnihilist is a contradiction in terms. The ful to believe the secret of the universe futility of human effort is not a theme in an old book, and to find in one's for the ponderous strokes of the polem- Noah's Ark a great proof of the truth ical craftsman, but for the delicate of the Scriptures." handling of the true literary artist; and The horizon of his childhood was seldom has a creed of any kind found strictly limited to two bends of the an expositor of such exquisite literary Seine valley and the obscure old shops art as the new nihilism has found in between St. Sulpice and the Institut. M. Anatole France.
But in the early days of the Second Born in the same year with Mun- Empire he went to the Collège Stankacsy, in that 1844 in which King Louis islas, where he “had the best of Philippe returned the visit of Queen masters and was the worst of scholars." Victoria to the Château d'Eu, M. The college was “very different then" France was the son of a bookseller on -from most schools, past or present. the Quai Malaquais. He speaks with How is it that men of genius invariably an urbanity that would have been cred. go to schools in which every recognized
scholastic principle appears to be of furniture. It was a glorious time, openly defied?
that in which we lacked common The scholars in M. France's time were sense." few, and the discipline to match. We It must not be supposed that he neg. were given a little liberty and took lected what we may call the three more, and life was very tolerable. "The R's of every Frenchman of sensibility: Abbé Lalanne, our master, was vener- Racine, Rousseau and Renan. In his able, yet the smiles that he provoked minute knowledge of religious archæolwere not few. He was a poet who ogy, M. France is pre-eminently après took much more pleasure in versifica- Renan. So he is in his love of hagioltion than Lamartine, but who met with ogy. A good nihilist loves the comless success." Here it was, however, munion of saints. In order to make a that the youth, whose French style saint, says M. France, in what may be “lacked distinction,” felt the "blossom- a partial explanation, a foundation of ing newness of things" and was inun- thumping big sins would seem to be dated by the divine Homer. “At the essential. first lesson I saw Thetis rising like a As in physiognomy (you may, if you white cloud above the waves." The have an exuberant fancy, trace a reHellenic charm operated sensibly upon mote likeness to the imperial effigy on his artistic soul. He cultivated the so- the French coins anterior to 1870) so ciety of Leconte de Lisle and the "im- in mental constitution, M. France is passibilité olympienne" of the Parnas- typically French. Of his many critics siens of 1865. But he scarcely crossed (and they are all enthusiasts), one has the threshold of the Parnasse, he never written, “il est l'extrême fleur du génie became the disciple of a school, and his latin." Among English writers it is own brief excursions into poetry, such difficult to name any whom he resemas the "Noces Corinthiennes,” owe their bles with any degree of distinctness. direction more to Alfred de Vigny than Generically speaking, as a master of to Leconte de Lisle, and much more to irony and a humorist of Cervantic deAndré Chénier than to either. Leav- scent, he has not a little in common ing college, he sauntered
with Fielding and with Disraeli; but in amount of conscience which Stevenson subtlety he suggests a much closer himself could not but have approved. resemblance to Mr. Meredith, while in “I led a solitary and contemplative life, sentiment he is a good deal nearer than and as I was studying nothing, I either to Dickens. As a practitioner of learned much." As a child he had fiction he takes, perhaps, a greater studied art in its noblest manifestation, license than any of the masters named, as the handmaid of religion. For the for he is less a novelist than a thinker philosophy of life, he now turned to in novelistic form. As regards style it the best available, that of the eighteenth is still more difficult for us to match century, of Montesquieu, Voltaire and him; but by combining some of the Hume. Vor was M. France's develop- features of Chesterfield, of Sterne and ment to lack a scientific phase. The of Matthew Arnold, we may get some Jardin des Plantes, formerly the sym- idea of the pellucid clearness, the happy bol of Eden, became his biological mu- glint of fancy and the felicity in phrase seum. He burrowed in Darwin, and that go to make up a style absolutely glided over the whole surface of Taine. free from any straining after effect. With “I should have been provoked to anger all great artists it is the same, their then, had I been told that the system of talent seems to ignore labor. Yet the Taine, like any other, was a mere piece best writers have worked their hardest
alike Cowper) to attain this sovereign some two hundred years before our
and the and has much of the spirit of the antiwriter of "Pierre Nozière" we should
quary, M. France is never a pedant or like well enough, if we dared, to sug- a copyist, for he knows how to suborgest a comparison. For the wonderful dinate the labors of research to the “relief" and "atmosphere" that M.
creation of an original literary impresFrance is able to concentrate upon a sion, and he has gone as near as any small surface, a good deal is due, no one to solving the problem of making doubt, to the long vigils of Flaubert the scholar work for the artist. and Maupassant. A distinctive feature As a writer he has two other suffiof the style as thus elaborated is the ciently rare characteristics. It is gencombination of color with concision. erally admitted that there are few One marvels at the skill with which the
minds which have accomplished much author records the impression received that to observant eyes at one time have not so much (as it appears) by himself, not promised more. One may go 8 as by his characters. M. France sel- good deal further and say that the dom describes a scene impersonally. number of writers who have sustained What he excels in, is in giving his their early promise_or, still more, reader the reflection of external circum- made any steady progress in literary exstance upon the minds of his actors- cellence-is exceedingly small. Of this the landscape, or other setting, being chosen few Anatole France is unquesreflected or suggested, as it were, by tionably one: His work has not only a few exquisite touches, while the matured, but has ripened uniformly reader escapes the least infliction of while preserving the best qualities of word painting or topographical expla- his youth. In the second place, he is nation.
seldom imitative, and is never content The fact is that the very complexity to imitate himself. In his solitary and richness of M. France's style mul- novel of regulation pattern, “Le Lys tiplies the points of comparison, and Rouge,” M. France has shown that it would be possible to name many upon their own ground he might prove other authors, both stylists and philos- a very formidable rival of such writers ophers, whose influence is clearly dis- as Marcel Prévost and Paul Hervieu. cernible in his writings. Of his debt to But he has shown a wise discretion in Renan he makes no secret, and with- refusing to harp upon the study of a out "Candide" it may be possible to little corner of Parisian life and the doubt if "Jérôme Coignard" could have curious manner in which the art of love assumed its present form. One fact, is practiced there. Even Maupassant's at least, is abundantly clear, that M. work grew infected with this monotoFrance has always been a diligent in- nous topic, to deal with which and at quirer-not into the geography of the the same time avoid repetition would known merely, but also into the selen- hardly seem possible. ography of the unknown--and it has The
writer with whom Anatole certainly not been from want of due France has the most striking affinity investigation that he has developed into is not one of those that we have named, the type of man so comprehensively and not Heine, but Lucian, that strange anathematized þy Thomas Edwards, contemporary of Marcus Aurelius,
whose playful satire has still so much that is of modern application about it. In his fondness for the dialogue form, in his calm abstention from needless explanations, in his admirable blending of comedy and philosophy, and in the delightful waywardness of his narrative, by which the tedious portions of the tale proposed seem, as if by magic, evaded, M. France is contin. ually suggestive of Lucian; and in his “Histoire Contemporaine" he has erected for himself a much better claim to the title of "Lucian Redivivus" than even Raspe can be said to have done by his immortal fantasia in the key of the “Vera Historia" (to wit, “Baron Munchausen"). As regards the char. acters in the dialogue, again, we have the same clearness of intention and the same perfect appropriateness between the personages and the parts they have to sustain in the conversation. There is no imitation, of course, but there is a remarkable affinity and a common attainment of that most difficult literary aim-the gift of making us think without being a bore.
It is significant that M. France should have christened the protagonist of his great satire “Lucien” (M. Lucien Bergeret), and it recalls the fact that in his first work of prose fiction "Jocaste," the story of a woman's remorse, leading to her suicide by hanging herself, he could not resist the pleasure of applying to his heroine the name of the Theban Jocasta, the most celebrated of all "pendues.” Before the production of "Jocaste" in 1879, M. France had subordinated his imagination rather strictly to the pursuit of erudition. The taste is sufficiently rare among men of high imaginative endowment to excite some amount of surprise. Not many imaginative writers have served a literal apprenticeship in a library (M. France was attached to the library of the Senate in 1876) and devoted their leisure to the editing of
the great writers of past time. But the real complexity of Anatole France's genius was first revealed by his successful story of 1881 (he was now thirty-seven), “Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard.” Irony and pathos, learning and fancy, love of the past and insight into the present were promptly recog. nized to form in the new novelist a combination of faculties such as are very rarely seen in conjunction.
The fable is slight, one might even say conventional. In English fiction, at any rate, the tiquary and scholar has been depicted more than once with a fund of sympathy or of knowledge, as the case may be, that leaves little to be desired. Dr. Casaubon may be deemed to act as a counterpoise to the delightful figure of Monkbarns, while, between the two, the portwine-loving Dr. Middleton symbolizes a type of scholar which, in a countryman of the convivial Porson, it would be unbefitting to ignore. Yet the portrait of M. Sylvestre Bonnard, of the Quai Malaquais, member of the Institut, is perfectly original and perfectly new, for it has nothing in common with any of these. The delicate intuition which has gone to make up M. France's intimate portrayal of the mind of an old recluse can only be described as one which Nathaniel Hawthorne himself might have envied. The contrast between the solemn pedantry of this modern Dugdale, the self-critical wisdom of his soliloquies and the burden of pathetic lament that forms an undertone to his reverie-the need of a being to love, of a fresh young face to reflect and concentrate the beauty that he felt around him each recurring springtide this supplies the light and shade of a picture full of delicacy and charm. The fondness of the complex mind for tbat which is simple and primitive is strongly asserted in Bonnard. He succeeds at length in adopting the daughter of the woman he had loved years
ago, and the fearful joys of manuscript compassion for human wretchedness. hunting and archæological discovery Against the sceptic's tendency to coldare completely swallowed up by the ness and dryness, which seemed to be prospect of becoming an adoptive gaining so terribly upon Flaubert's grandfather. Jeanne is to be married work in his later years, M. France is to a rather promising young student of happily preserved by a delicate imagthe Ecole des Chartes. “Her dowry," ination and a very profound sensibility. murmurs Sylvestre, “there it is, in Scepticism has never gained over his front of me! It is my library. Henri heart. He enjoys feeling even more and Jeanne have not ine faintest sus- than apprehending. “Truths discov. picion of my plan; and the fact is, I ered by the intelligence remain sterile. am commonly believed to be much The heart alone is capable of fertilizing richer than I am. I have the face of its dreams." So he upholds sentiment an old miser. It is certainly a lying against reflection, and he dwells with face; but its untruthfulness has often a constant delight upon the vanity of won for me a great deal of considera- intelligence, the inutility of science, tion. There is nobody in this world the incurable conceit of human reason. respected so much as a stingy rich Ignorance, he says, is a necessary conman." He keeps to his stern resolve dition, not merely of happiness, but of to sell his library, but he has not the existence. It is one of our delusions to heart to sell quite all of it. He de- suppose that scientific truth differs termines to respite just a few of his essentially from vulgar error; is it not, folios, and the number of the reprieved indeed, a complete mistake to endeavor shows a tendency to grow rapidly and to learn so much, when we shall never mysteriously. The perpetration of this really know anything? "crime" affords the material for a char- Upon the whole, therefore, it is acteristic vignette. "Each time I come merely the pleasing side of the life of across a volume that has ever afflicted a savant, at peace with the world, that me with false dates, omissions, lies and M. France develops for us here. Bon. other plagues of the archæologist, I say nard is a célibataire, as abstracted as to it with bitter joy: Go, imposter, Adrian Sixte, as benevolent and tender traitor and false witness-vade retro." at heart as “L'ami Fritz!" and if he is The distinction about the portrait of not quite so plastic in the hands of his Bonnard lies in the fact that it is a por- gouvernantes as either Cousin Pons or trait from within, it depicts the inner the Abbé Birotteau, there is a geniality working of the scholar's mind; the about his domestic relations not unreader is initiated into what are the worthy of my Uncle Toby. In him, genuine preoccupations of a student's however, the gentleness of “my uncle" life, nor are the limitations and the is combined with the scholarly aptidoubts, by which such a man is beset, tudes and the ironic humors of that concealed from view. In this case, wise youth, Adrian, in “Richard Fevhowever, the narrow though refined erel.” The best of men are famous for egotism of the scholar, absorbed in his making confidants of their domestic own special study, is tempered by his pets, but few of the latter have been recognition of the relative futility of all apostrophised with such exquisite litscholarship, and by the deeper and erary discrimination as M. Bonnard's more pathetic sentiment of the fragil- cat, Hamilcar. “Hamilcar, somnolent ity of all human destiny.
prince of the city of books, nocturnal The inclination of the author to irony guardian of my library-uniting in your is qualified by a feeling of profound person the formidable appearance of a