By Anatole France
The real name of the subject of this preface is Jacques-Anatole Thibault. He was born in Paris, April 16, 1844, the son of a bookseller of the Quai Malaquais, in the shadow of the Institute. He was educated at the College Stanislas and published in 1868 an essay upon Alfred de Vigny. This was followed by two volumes of poetry: ‘Les Poemes Dores’ (1873), and ’Les Noces Corinthiennes’ (1876). With the last mentioned book his reputation became established.
Anatole France belongs to the class of poets known as “Les Parnassiens.” Yet a book like ‘Les Noces Corinthiennes’ ought to be classified among a group of earlier lyrics, inasmuch as it shows to a large degree the influence of Andre Chenier and Alfred de Vigny. France was, and is, also a diligent contributor to many journals and reviews, among others, ’Le Globe, Les Debats, Le Journal Officiel, L’Echo de Paris, La Revue de Famille, and Le Temps’. On the last mentioned journal he succeeded Jules Claretie. He is likewise Librarian to the Senate, and has been a member of the French Academy since 1896.
The above mentioned two volumes of poetry were followed by many works in prose, which we shall notice. France’s critical writings are collected in four volumes, under the title, ‘La Vie Litteraire’ (1888-1892); his political articles in ‘Opinions Sociales’ (2 vols., 1902). He combines in his style traces of Racine, Voltaire, Flaubert, and Renan, and, indeed, some of his novels, especially ‘Thais’ (1890), ‘Jerome Coignard’ (1893), and Lys Rouge (1894), which was crowned by the Academy, are romances of the first rank.
Criticism appears to Anatole France the most recent and possibly the ultimate evolution of literary expression, “admirably suited to a highly civilized society, rich in souvenirs and old traditions . . . . It proceeds,” in his opinion, “from philosophy and history, and demands for its development an absolute intellectual liberty . . . . . It is the last in date of all literary forms, and it will end by absorbing them all . . . . To be perfectly frank the critic should say: ’Gentlemen, I propose to enlarge upon my own thoughts concerning Shakespeare, Racine, Pascal, Goethe, or any other writer.’”
It is hardly necessary to say much concerning a critic with such pronounced ideas as Anatole France. He gives us, indeed, the full flower of critical Renanism, but so individualized as to become perfection in grace, the extreme flowering of the Latin genius. It is not too much to say that the critical writings of Anatole France recall the Causeries du Lundi, the golden age of Sainte-Beuve!