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Weeks, bloody weeks

November 4, 2011 15 comments

The Gods Are Athirst by Anatole France. 1912. Original title: Les dieux ont soif.

On doit aimer la vertu; mais il est bon de savoir que c’est un simple expédient imaginé par les hommes pour vivre commodément ensemble. Ce que nous appelons la morale n’est qu’une entreprise désespérée de nos semblables contre l’ordre universel, qui est la lutte, le carnage et l’aveugle jeu de forces contraires. We should love virtue; but it is well to know that this is simply and solely a convenient expedient invented by men in order to live comfortably together. What we call morality is merely a desperate enterprise, a forlorn hope, on the part of our fellow creatures to reverse the order of the universe, which is strife and murder, the blind interplay of hostile forces.

1793. Citoyen Gamelin, an aspiring painter is nominated to be a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The novel unfolds step by step the terrible events that will lead this man to become a heartless judge who’ll send many people to the guillotine. Gamelin is a strong believer in the Revolution. He is coldhearted and it prevents him from understanding other people’s passions. He turns mystic about his mission and oddly, the memory of Nick Corey, the crazy sheriff of Pop 1280 popped up in my mind.

There are many valuable ideas in that novel, about politics, justice, the use of violence and the means we are entitled to use to defend a cause. It shows how an ordinary and virtuous man becomes a bloody judge, loses his mind and changes into a fanatic. Since Anatole France wrote this novel, sadly we’ve had many opportunities to challenge and check his theory. The capacities of humanity to behave in inhuman ways seem abysmal.

It also exposes Anatole France’s rejection to violent outbursts and revolutions (He had hated La Commune in 1870). An generous idea transformed into an official dogma becomes lethal:

J’espère, du moins, citoyen Brotteaux, que, lorsque la République aura institué le culte de la Raison, vous ne refuserez pas votre adhésion à une religion si sage/- J’ai l’amour de la raison, je n’en ai pas le fanatisme, répondit Brotteaux. La raison nous guide et nous éclaire ; quand vous en aurez fait une divinité, elle vous aveuglera et vous persuadera des crimes. I hope, at least, citoyen Brotteaux, that, as soon as the Republic has established the worship of Reason, you will not refuse your adhesion to so wise a religion!”“I love reason, but I am no fanatic in my love,” was Brotteaux’s answer. “Reason is our guide and beacon-light; but when you have made a divinity of it, it will blind you and instigate you to crime,”

Enlightened by Winock, I noticed several passages where Anatole France addresses contemporary issues. Indeed, in 1910-1911, Jaurès had started working for the rehabilitation of Robespierre. Socialism was becoming an important political force and an international movement. The anti-clerical and clerical parties were still opposing arguments. Therefore I saw a reference to socialism in the following quote:

Sous l’apparence de préparer le bonheur universel et le règne de la justice, ceux qui proposaient comme un objet digne de l’effort des citoyens l’égalité et la communauté des biens étaient des traitres et des scélérats plus dangereux que les fédéralistes. These men who, under pretense of securing universal happiness and the reign of justice, proposed a system of equality and community of goods as a worthy object of good citizens’ endeavours, were traitors and malefactors more dangerous than the Federalists.

My edition has an excellent foreword by Marie-Claire Bancquart, a specialist of Anatole France. His father owned a bookstore specialized in the French Revolution. The young Anatole had access to all his documentation (including the newspaper tainted with blood that Marat was holding when Charlotte Corday killed him). It was original documents, from books, to almanacs, pamphlets, letters, etc.  Anatole France had an immense culture on the subject and knew very well the era, its politics, its famous people, its way of life. Bancquart says that his description of everyday life in 1793-1794, of the people’s state of mind, of the clothes, of the language and the songs, of the gardens in Paris are all accurate. As I said before, when France wrote his novel, Jaurès was trying to rehabilitate Robespierre and the discussion about the Terror was in the air. The novel is highly political, showing at the same time a bloodthirsty power and revolutionary ideas replacing religious faith, creating a violent and intolerant faith. It describes the not-so-slow evolution of a page of history that promoted justice and freedom to a paranoiac State that condemns people without a fair trial and on dubious testimonies.

From an historical, political and philosophical point of view, it’s an excellent novel. Accurate, insightful, meaningful. From a literary point of view, the style was a put off for me. Sure, the characters come to life under his pen, they sound real and the picture of Paris in that time was great. The beginning of the book was promising until Gamelin is appointed to the Tribunal. Then the style becomes heavy, complicated, too filled with many allusions and references I didn’t understand. The prose is too erudite for the modern reader. I have studied enough of Latin to understand that kind of references:

– Dictateur, traître, tyran ! il est encore des Brutus.- Tremble, scélérat ! la roche Tarpéienne est près du Capitole. “Dictator, traitor, tyrant! the race of Brutus is not extinct.”“Tremble, malefactor! the Tarpeian rock is near the Capitol!”

But I missed many comparisons. Despite the end notes, I was totally lost in the name dropping of politicians and other famous people of the revolutionary period. And the pompous tone sometimes!

Ô pureté ! ô douceur ! ô foi ! ô simplicité antique ! ô larmes de pitié ! ô rosée féconde ! ô clémence ! ô fraternité humaine ! Oh purity! oh sweetness! oh faith! oh antique simplicity! oh tears of pity! oh fertilizing dew! oh clemency! oh human fraternity!

OH DEAR!! As another example of old-fashioned ways, I took me a second or two to figure out who Guillaume Shakespeare was. It’s certainly well-written but it didn’t age well. Proust admired France so much that Bergotte is portrayed after him. Proust is a lot more gifted than him and it’s remarkable that this man who was so literate didn’t need to call his culture to back up his prose. In Proust’s novels, culture stays behind the curtains but nurtures his prose. In France’s book, it’s on stage.

Update on December 16th, 2018 : See Kaggy’s review here.

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