Weeks, bloody weeks

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. November 4, 2011 at 3:33 am

    I haven’t read any Anatole France yet although I do have some on the kindle. I don’t think I’ll start here.

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    • November 4, 2011 at 9:14 am

      I heard Thais is better.

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  2. November 4, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Isn’t he a bit pompous? All in all it does sound like an interesting read but not one I would be likely to pick up any day soon.
    Why did you read this? Did you mention that somehwre? i think you did but I forgot. It’s interesting sometimes to see why people choose a book.

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    • November 4, 2011 at 9:13 am

      More than a bit pompous. Outdated like when you hear oldfashioned way to tell speeches.
      He’s part of my Hell’s Challenge and I wanted to see who was behind the street name & Bergotte. Plus it was interesting after reading La Belle Epoque.

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  3. November 4, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Ah The Hell Challenge… I see you renamed it, maybe more apt. Hehe. In this case anyway.
    Stuffy, preachy old Anatole…

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    • November 4, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Not exactly preachy. More the product of a certain time & a certain education (Latin, rhetoric…)

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  4. November 4, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Very interesting to hear about this one, especially as it is the only remaining France in print in English, for who knows what reason. You do not exactly make me eager to read it. Maybe the two novels I read last winter will do.

    Oh, and that story from the point of view of a dog. That was good. Not preachy, not stuffy – the opposite, a fine goof.

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    • November 4, 2011 at 9:47 pm

      Thanks, it’s good to know his style can be different. This one was written at a different period of his life: his lover had died (they’d been together for 25 years) and he was older.
      I’m interested in the one from the point of view of a dog. Which one is that?

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  5. November 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm
    • November 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks I’ll read your review.

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  6. November 6, 2011 at 12:55 am

    Sounds like a fascinating premise! I like the idea of looking at someone who sent many people to the guillotine and discovering how they became that way. But the style doesn’t sound great. I suppose that in those days there were a lot of assumptions about a common knowledge that the reader would share with the author, but these days those assumptions don’t hold true. Certainly I don’t know much about classical history, literature and mythology, and a lot of it would be lost on me. Thanks for the review – I’d always heard of Anatole France and wondered what his writing was like, so now I know!

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    • November 6, 2011 at 10:32 pm

      What is incredible is that Gamelin never regrets what he’s doing. He’s perfectly aware that he behaves like a monster but until the end he believes that what he did needed to be done for the cause. His belief is a strong as a religious one.
      I think it was cleverly analyzed by France and it is even more insightful when you think of all the massacres in the name of an ideology the 20thC will witness.
      Also, we tend to forget but there was terrorism at the time too, bombings and terrorist acts in Paris and London.

      It’s a pitty the style is outdated, the plot and the related questions aren’t. I’m glad I read it.

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  7. November 16, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Oh dear was my thought too after that quote. I was impressed though to learn he’s the source for Bergotte.

    I actually own the Penguin Classics translation of this. If I didn’t I doubt based on this that I’d buy it. I can’t say I come away from your review feeling enthused. It sounds excellent, but perhaps now too much of its own time.

    These pre-war writers really were great at evoking time and place. I think readers valued that more in a period when of course there were no visual media other than painting to communicate such things. It’s a trait I associate most with the 19th Century, but in Europe I’d say the 19th Century didn’t end until 1914.

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    • November 16, 2011 at 10:16 pm

      Well that was my written thought as I usually think in French when I read in French. “Oh la vache!” must have been the original thought.

      I remembered you had it too. Not exactly an enjoyable read but definitely interesting. I took the children to the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille last weekend. I realized I had learnt a lot of things about the Terror with this book. I saw the painting which is on the cover of my French edition. It was painted during the Third Republic, it’s interesting to see how the Jacobins are represented. The children were a bit stunned by the paintings of Marat murdered in his bath. (the blood, the knife and Charlotte Corday behind a curtain, that fascinated them) and really intrigued by the paintings of prisons and the explanation about the guillotine. I’ve had hard time explaining in simple words why Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinnette were guillotined. The fate of the Dauphin (only 10) seemed hard to them too.
      What I also found fascinating was a room full of china tableware from that period. It came from France, England, Germany and the Netherlands. I never knew there was so much propaganda on plates, bowls, mugs and so on. The French ones had patriotic slogans and mottos from the French Revolution. The English ones had anti-Napoleon texts. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to read the German and Dutch phrases.
      Most of the time I just forget how violent it had been and many people were killed in the name of ideas.

      I agree with you about 19thC writers and their ability to describe time and place. You’re right of course about needing more description in a time when there was no TV/photos…But I’ve always thought that, as many writers published their texts in newspapers (feuilleton), they got paid more and on a longer period if the story lasted longer. So they took their time to describe places and people.
      France is a 19thC writer even if he died in 1924. I should read another of his books to see if the style was adapted to the historical topic or if it’s his natural style.

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  1. December 10, 2011 at 5:59 am

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