As I Please
Tribune, 23 June 1944
The week before last Tribune printed a centenary
article on Gerard
Manley Hopkins, and it was only after this that the chance of running
across an April number of the American Nation reminded me that 1944
is also the centenary of a much better-known writer – Anatole
France. When Anatole France died, twenty years ago, his reputation
suffered one of those sudden slumps to which highbrow writers who have lived
long enough to become popular are especially liable. In France, according to
the charming French custom, vicious personal attacks were made upon him
while he lay dying and when he was freshly dead. A particularly venomous one
was written by Pierre
Drieu la Rochelle, afterwards to become a collaborator of the Nazis.
In England, also, it was discovered that Anatole France was no good. A few
years later than this a young man attached to a weekly paper (I met him
afterwards in Paris and found that he could not buy a tram ticket without
assistance) solemnly assured me that Anatole France ‘wrote very bad French’.
France was, it seemed, a vulgar, spurious and derivative writer whom
everyone could now ‘see through’. Round about the same time, similar
discoveries were being made about Bernard
Shaw and Lytton
Strachey: but curiously enough all three writers have remained very
readable, while most of their detractors are forgotten.
How far the revulsion against Anatole France was genuinely literary I do not know. Certainly he had been overpraised, and one must at times get tired of a writer so mannered and so indefatigably pornographic. But it is unquestionable that he was attacked partly from political motives. He may or may not have been a great writer, but he was one of the symbolic figures in the politico-literary dogfight which has been raging for a hundred years or more. The clericals and reactionaries hated him in just the same way as they hated Zola. Anatole France had championed Dreyfus, which needed considerable courage, he had debunked Joan of Arc, he had written a comic history of France; above all, he had lost no opportunity of poking fun at the Church. He was everything that the clericals and revanchistes, the people who first preached that the Boche must never be allowed to recover and afterwards sucked the blacking off Hitler’s boots, most detested.
I do not know whether Anatole France’s most characteristic books, for instance, La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque, are worth rereading at this date. Whatever is in them is really in Voltaire. But it is a different story with the four novels dealing with Monsieur Bergeret. Besides being extremely amusing these give a most valuable picture of French society in the nineties and the background of the Dreyfus case. There is also ‘Crainquebille’, one of the best short stories I have ever read, and incidentally a devastating attack on ‘law and order’.
But though Anatole France could speak up for the working class in a story like ‘Crainquebille’, and though cheap editions of his works were advertised in Communist papers, one ought not really to class him as a Socialist. He was willing to work for Socialism, even to deliver lectures on it in draughty halls, and he knew that it was both necessary and inevitable, but it is doubtful whether he subjectively wanted it. The world, he once said, would get about as much relief from the coming of Socialism as a sick man gets from turning over in bed. In a crisis he was ready to identify himself with the working class, but the thought of a Utopian future depressed him, as can be seen from his book, La Pierre Blanche. There is an even deeper pessimism on Les Dieux Ont Soif, his novel about the French Revolution. Temperamentally he was not a Socialist but a Radical. At this date that is probably the rarer animal of the two, and it is his Radicalism, his passion for liberty and intellectual honesty, that give their special colour to the four novels about Monsieur Bergeret.
I have never understood why the News Chronicle,
whose politics are certainly a very pale pink – about the colour of shrimp
paste, I should say, but still pink – allows the professional Roman
Catholic ‘Timothy Shy’ (D.
B. Wyndham Lewis) to do daily sabotage in his comic column. In Lord
Beaverbrook’s Express his fellow-Catholic ‘Beachcomber’
B. Morton) is, of course, more at home. Looking back over the twenty years
or so that these two have been on the job, it would be difficult to find a
reactionary cause that they have not championed – Pilsudski,
appeasement, flogging, Franco,
literary censorship; between them they have found good words for everything
that any decent person instinctively objects to. They have conducted endless
propaganda against Socialism, the League
of Nations and scientific research. They have kept up a campaign of
abuse against every writer worth reading, from Joyce
onwards. They were
viciously anti-German until Hitler appeared, when their anti-Germanism
cooled off in a remarkable manner. At this moment, needless to say, the
especial target of their hatred is Beveridge.
The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law