Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev had a brain almost double the size of the grey globe between the ears of French Nobel laureate Anatoly France - another quite interesting fact from an episode of QI. As much as I enjoyed Turgenev, it offended me slightly that presenter Stephen Fry said he was very much the greater writer. Not thanks to the sizable noggin, of course.
So the Nobel in Literature is just another award – or not really, since it's a great way to discover writers you might not have heard of otherwise. But there are some on the list who have been branded unworthy by revisionists and critics - and France is one of them. At the famed English bookshop Shakespeare & Co in Paris I tried to buy any of his books in translation (seemed appropriate), but nobody there had even heard of him.
France was a poet, novelist and journalist who lived from 1844 to 1924. His father had a Paris book shop, Librarie de France, from which Anatole later took his surname. After his studies he worked there until he got a job as librarian to the French senate.
France wrote some odd stuff for a Nobel noble. A lot of it was essays and discourses on topics of his day, like the renovation of Paris landmarks. The official motivation for his 1921 award was
“in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements, characterized as they are by a nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament.” For a quick sample, look up a page of his most memorable quotes and you'll find biting sayings like: “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” or charming sayings (from a man with a turbulent romantic life) like: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; in just the same way, you learn to love by loving.”
His best novels were top-sellers back then and all his writing had an effortless, disarming grace. I found myself reading even the prose that was so bound to its time and context that I had no idea what it was about. His first novel, an instant success, was The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, about a sceptical old scholar bewildered by modern life. In the satyrical allegory The Island of Penguins the birds become human after a near-sighted abbot accidentally baptises them.
His most rated novel was The Revolt of Angels in which the main character's celestial guardian joins the revolution of angels. It must have been part of the reason why his entire oeuvre was put on the Prohibited Books Index by the Roman Catholic Church (he considered it an honour).
After his death in 1924 he was dismissed as a derivative writer who lacked real imagination, but most of these sideswipes came from clerics and political opponents who hated his mocking of the church and highbrow society. Unfairly, that opinion stuck and these days probably none but devoted Francophiles or scholars would bother to read him. But the wit, compassion and social insights of his important novels are well worth discovering.
Words © Pieter van der Lugt. Original template by OS Templates.