As with every other year, 2014 has been The Year of Reading Old Dead People for me, particularly the writers no-one bothers with any more; not to be obscure for the sake of it but because they seem kindred spirits somehow, hidden by time as we are hidden by space. Whilst not completely neglected, there’s a chasm between the regard held for Anatole France in his own day (he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) and the indifference of today. He featured, in thinly-veiled and glowing terms, as Bergotte in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. He was a signatory to Émile Zola’s Dreyfusard manifesto, lining up on the side of angels in the defining rift of the day. Even the Surrealists’ venomous opposition to him (the first issue of Un Cadavre was devoted to attacking the recently deceased ‘Gilded Mediocrity’) was an indication of his stature, now much diminished. There are a lot of factors for this, one of them the danger of timely writers being trapped in the zeitgeist like a mosquito in amber, but books like The Gods will have Blood and The Revolt of the Angels should still be read, irrespective of the refined tedium of his lesser work and the undoubted many flaws of his major books. At the very least, France should be remembered for periodic flashes of brilliance, like the following excerpt from his sub-Swiftian satire Penguin Island, in which a short-sighted missionary accidentally baptises a colony of penguins and then watches in horror as they develop the dreaded entity we call civilisation,
“Do you see, my son,” he exclaimed, “that madman who with his teeth is biting the nose of the adversary he has overthrown and that other one who is pounding a woman’s head with a huge stone?”
“I see them,” said Bulloch. “They are creating law; they are founding property; they are establishing the principles of civilization, the basis of society, and the foundations of the State.”
“How is that?” asked old Mael.
“By setting bounds to their fields. That is the origin of all government. Your penguins, O Master, are performing the most august of functions. Throughout the ages their work will be consecrated by lawyers, and magistrates will confirm it.”
Whilst the monk, Bulloch, was pronouncing these words a big penguin with a fair skin and red hair went down into the valley carrying a trunk of a tree upon his shoulder. He went up to a little penguin who was watering his vegetables in the heat of the sun, and shouted to him:
“Your field is mine!”
And having delivered himself of this stout utterance he brought down his club on the head of the little penguin, who fell dead upon the field that his own hands had tilled.
At this sight the holy Mael shuddered through his whole body and poured forth a flood of tears.
And in a voice stifled by horror and fear he addressed this prayer to heaven:
“O Lord, my God, O thou who didst receive young Abel’s sacrifices, thou who didst curse Cain, avenge, O Lord, this innocent penguin sacrificed upon his own field and make the murderer feel the weight of thy arm. Is there a more odious crime, is there a graver offence against thy justice, O Lord, than this murder and this robbery?”
“Take care, father,” said Bulloch gently, “that what you call murder and robbery may not really be war and conquest, those sacred foundations of empires, those sources of all human virtues and all human greatness. Reflect, above all, that in blaming the big penguin you are attacking property in its origin and in its source. I shall have no trouble in showing you how. To till the land is one thing, to possess it is another, and these two things must not be confused; as regards ownership the right of the first occupier is uncertain and badly founded. The right of conquest, on the other hand, rests on more solid foundations. It is the only right that receives respect since it is the only one that makes itself respected. The sole and proud origin of property is force. It is born and preserved by force. In that it is august and yields only to a greater force. This is why it is correct to say that he who possesses is noble. And that big red man, when he knocked down a labourer to get possession of his field, founded at that moment a very noble house upon this earth. I congratulate him upon it.”