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A LITERARY NIHILIST.
For that prevalent epidemic, decrepitude of faith, France has shown herself prolific in physicians and prescriptions. If optimism breaks down, it seems but fair to the versatile intellect of Gaul to give pessimism a chance; if positivism fails, why not try negativism or nihilism? Not the political doctrine, bien entendu. There is no reason whatever why we should restrict the term "nihilism" to a political creed of which we know extremely little, and which we can with difficulty distinguish from anarchism. It seems, on the other hand, remarkably well suited to a form of literary scepticism which submits the most important operations of life to contemptuous analysis, and which laughs at the assumed dignity of an animal swayed by the ridiculous impulses, the grotesque beliefs and the hopeless desires of mankind, while assuring the individuals of the species that the worst possible mistake they can make is to take themselves seriously.
Your ordinary propagandist, of positivist tendencies, intent upon making converts, is wont to subordinate literary to practical effect; but a vehement nihilist is a contradiction in terms. The futility of human effort is not a theme for the ponderous strokes of the polemical craftsman, but for the delicate handling of the true literary artist; and seldom has a creed of any kind found an expositor of such exquisite literary art as the new nihilism has found in M. Anatole France.
Born in the same year with Munkacsy, in that 1844 in which King Louis Philippe returned the visit of Queen Victoria to the Château d'Eu, M. France was the son of a bookseller on the Quai Malaquais. He speaks with an urbanity that would have been cred
itable to Dr. Johnson of the "incomparable paysage" of the quais of Paris, and truly, as lapidary landscapes go, it would be hard to beat that which greets the eye of the pilgrim as he crosses the historic river by the Pont des Arts that Balzac loved. "Born in a library," like Benjamin Disraeli, Anatole France exhibits even more unequivocal traces of his origin in every fragment that he has penned. The dryest book upon the top shelf of a chapter library has a secret to impart to him; like Washington Irving, he understands the little language of ancient yellow quartos, and can translate their confidences into a tongue intelligible to the vulgar. Many will share his earliest bibliographical recollection, that of an early eighteenth-century Bible, with the Amsterdam landscapes of á Dutch artist, and God in a white beard. "How sincerely I believed in him-although, between ourselves, I considered Him inclined to be whimsical, violent and wrathful; but I did not ask Him to render an account of His actions. I was accustomed to see great personages behaving in an incomprehensible manner." Yet, he adds, "how delightful to believe the secret of the universe in an old book, and to find in one's Noah's Ark a great proof of the truth of the Scriptures."
The horizon of his childhood was strictly limited to two bends of the Seine valley and the obscure old shops between St. Sulpice and the Institut. But in the early days of the Second Empire he went to the Collège Stanislas, where he "had the best of masters and was the worst of scholars.” The college was "very different then" -from most schools, past or present. How is it that men of genius invariably go to schools in which every recognized
scholastic principle appears to be openly defied?
The scholars in M. France's time were few, and the discipline to match. We were given a little liberty and took more, and life was very tolerable. "The Abbé Lalanne, our master, was venerable, yet the smiles that he provoked were not few. He was a poet who took much more pleasure in versification than Lamartine, but who met with less success." Here it was, however, that the youth, whose French style “lacked distinction," felt the "blossoming newness of things" and was inundated by the divine Homer. "At the first lesson I saw Thetis rising like a white cloud above the waves." The Hellenic charm operated sensibly upon his artistic soul. He cultivated the society of Leconte de Lisle and the "impassibilité olympienne" of the Parnassiens of 1865. But he scarcely crossed the threshold of the Parnasse, he never became the disciple of a school, and his own brief excursions into poetry, such as the "Noces Corinthiennes," owe their direction more to Alfred de Vigny than to Leconte de Lisle, and much more to André Chénier than to either. Leaving college, he sauntered with an amount of conscience which Stevenson himself could not but have approved. "I led a solitary and contemplative life, and as I was studying nothing, I learned much." As a child he had studied art in its noblest manifestation, as the handmaid of religion. For the philosophy of life, he now turned to the best available, that of the eighteenth century, of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Hume. Nor was M. France's development to lack a scientific phase. Jardin des Plantes, formerly the symbol of Eden, became his biological museum. He burrowed in Darwin, and glided over the whole surface of Taine. "I should have been provoked to anger then, had I been told that the system of Taine, like any other, was a mere piece
of furniture. It was a glorious time, that in which we lacked common sense."
It must not be supposed that he neglected what we may call the three R's of every Frenchman of sensibility: Racine, Rousseau and Renan. In his minute knowledge of religious archæology, M. France is pre-eminently après Renan. So he is in his love of hagiology. A good nihilist loves the communion of saints. In order to make a saint, says M. France, in what may be a partial explanation, a foundation of thumping big sins would seem to be essential.
As in physiognomy (you may, if you have an exuberant fancy, trace a remote likeness to the imperial effigy on the French coins anterior to 1870) so in mental constitution, M. France is typically French. Of his many critics (and they are all enthusiasts), one has written, "il est l'extrême fleur du génie latin." Among English writers it is difficult to name any whom he resembles with any degree of distinctness. Generically speaking, as a master of irony and a humorist of Cervantic descent, he has not a little in common with Fielding and with Disraeli; but in subtlety he suggests a much closer resemblance to Mr. Meredith, while in sentiment he is a good deal nearer than either to Dickens. As a practitioner of fiction he takes, perhaps, a greater license than any of the masters named, for he is less a novelist than a thinker in novelistic form. As regards style it is still more difficult for us to match him; but by combining some of the features of Chesterfield, of Sterne and of Matthew Arnold, we may get some idea of the pellucid clearness, the happy glint of fancy and the felicity in phrase that go to make up a style absolutely free from any straining after effect. With all great artists it is the same, their talent seems to ignore labor. Yet the best writers have worked their hardest
like Cowper) to attain this sovereign appearance of ease. Few have, perhaps, got nearer perfection in the attempt than the. author of "Colomba” (the "Premier Prose" of Victor Hugo's anagram), between whom and writer of "Pierre Nozière" we should like well enough, if we dared, to suggest a comparison. For the wonderful "relief" and "atmosphere" that M. France is able to concentrate upon a small surface, a good deal is due, no doubt, to the long vigils of Flaubert and Maupassant. A distinctive feature of the style as thus elaborated is the combination of color with concision. One marvels at the skill with which the author records the impression received not so much (as it appears) by himself, as by his characters. M. France seldom describes a scene impersonally. What he excels in, is in giving his reader the reflection of external circumstance upon the minds of his actorsthe landscape, or other setting, being reflected or suggested, as it were, by a few exquisite touches, while the reader escapes the least infliction of word painting or topographical explanation.
The fact is that the very complexity and richness of M. France's style multiplies the points of comparison, and it would be possible to name many other authors, both stylists and philosophers, whose influence is clearly discernible in his writings. Of his debt to Renan he makes no secret, and without "Candide" it may be possible to doubt if "Jérôme Coignard" could have assumed its present form. One fact, at least, is abundantly clear, that M. France has always been a diligent inquirer-not into the geography of the known merely, but also into the selenography of the unknown-and it has certainly not been from want of due investigation that he has developed into the type of man so comprehensively anathematized by Thomas Edwards,
some two hundred years before our nihilist was born, "as a very subtile man, a seeker, a questionist, a sceptick and, I fear me, an atheist."
But though he is an excellent scholar and has much of the spirit of the antiquary, M. France is never a pedant or a copyist, for he knows how to subordinate the labors of research to the creation of an original literary impression, and he has gone as near as any one to solving the problem of making the scholar work for the artist.
As a writer he has two other sufficiently rare characteristics. It is generally admitted that there are few minds which have accomplished much that to observant eyes at one time have not promised more. One may go a good deal further and say that the number of writers who have sustained their early promise or, still more, made any steady progress in literary excellence is exceedingly small. Of this chosen few Anatole France is unquestionably one: His work has not only matured, but has ripened uniformly while preserving the best qualities of his youth. In the second place, he is seldom imitative, and is never content to imitate himself. In his solitary novel of regulation pattern, "Le Lys Rouge," M. France has shown that upon their own ground he might prove a very formidable rival of such writers as Marcel Prévost and Paul Hervieu. But he has shown a wise discretion in refusing to harp upon the study of a little corner of Parisian life and the curious manner in which the art of love is practiced there. Even Maupassant's work grew infected with this monotonous topic, to deal with which and at the same time avoid repetition would hardly seem possible.
The writer with whom Anatole France has the most striking affinity is not one of those that we have named, and not Heine, but Lucian, that strange 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 continually 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 characters 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 recognized 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 antiquary 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 springtidethis supplies the light and shade of a picture full of delicacy and charm. The fondness of the complex mind for that 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 hunting and archæological discovery are completely swallowed up by the prospect of becoming an adoptive grandfather.
Jeanne is to be married
to a rather promising young student of the Ecole des Chartes. "Her dowry," murmurs Sylvestre, "there it is, in front of me! It is my library. Henri and Jeanne have not the faintest suspicion of my plan; and the fact is, I am commonly believed to be much richer than I am. I have the face of an old miser. It is certainly a lying face; but its untruthfulness has often won for me a great deal of consideration. There is nobody in this world respected so much as a stingy rich man." He keeps to his stern resolve to sell his library, but he has not the heart to sell quite all of it. He determines to respite just a few of his folios, and the number of the reprieved shows a tendency to grow rapidly and mysteriously. The perpetration of this "crime" affords the material for a characteristic vignette. "Each time I come across a volume that has ever afflicted me with false dates, omissions, lies and other plagues of the archæologist, I say to it with bitter joy: Go, imposter, traitor and false witness-vade retro." The distinction about the portrait of Bonnard lies in the fact that it is a portrait from within, it depicts the inner working of the scholar's mind; the reader is initiated into what are the genuine preoccupations of a student's life, nor are the limitations and the doubts, by which such a man is beset, concealed from view. In this case, however, the narrow though refined egotism of the scholar, absorbed in his own special study, is tempered by his recognition of the relative futility of all scholarship, and by the deeper and more pathetic sentiment of the fragility of all human destiny.
The inclination of the author to irony is qualified by a feeling of profound
compassion for human wretchedness. Against the sceptic's tendency to coldness and dryness, which seemed to be gaining so terribly upon Flaubert's work in his later years, M. France is happily preserved by a delicate imagination and a very profound sensibility. Scepticism has never gained over his heart. He enjoys feeling even more than apprehending. "Truths discovered by the intelligence remain sterile. The heart alone is capable of fertilizing its dreams." So he upholds sentiment against reflection, and he dwells with a constant delight upon the vanity of intelligence, the inutility of science, the incurable conceit of human reason. Ignorance, he says, is a necessary condition, not merely of happiness, but of existence. It is one of our delusions to suppose that scientific truth differs essentially from vulgar error; is it not, indeed, a complete mistake to endeavor to learn so much, when we shall never really know anything?
Upon the whole, therefore, it is merely the pleasing side of the life of a savant, at peace with the world, that M. France develops for us here. Bonnard is a célibataire, as abstracted as Adrian Sixte, as benevolent and tender at heart as "L'ami Fritz!" and if he is not quite so plastic in the hands of his gouvernantes as either Cousin Pons or the Abbé Birotteau, there is a geniality about his domestic relations not unworthy of my Uncle Toby. In him, however, the gentleness of "my uncle" is combined with the scholarly aptitudes and the ironic humors of that wise youth, Adrian, in "Richard Feverel." The best of men are famous for making confidants of their domestic pets, but few of the latter have been apostrophised with such exquisite literary discrimination as M. Bonnard's cat, Hamilcar. "Hamilcar, somnolent prince of the city of books, nocturnal guardian of my library-uniting in your person the formidable appearance of a