Anatole France - The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
Sylvestre Bonnard is a literary man through and through, which has the unfortunate side effect – common to many literary men, if books from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy to Enrique Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady are any indication – of inspiring a certain level of comic buffoonery, promoting absent-mindedness about important things and obsession about arcana, and causing the proliferation of obscure literary references and jokes. The Crime Of Sylvestre Bonnard was Anatole France's first major success and helped to set the tone for many of his fiction works, which remained focused on the ironies and comedy surrounding literature and literary men.
The novel is split into two parts, which share the protagonist and not much else. In the first, 'The Log', Sylvestre Bonnard is engaged in a series of events surrounding his acquisition of 'La Legende Doree de Jacques de Genes', a manuscript prized for its translation by Clerk Alexander, who is a personal hero of Bonnard's. With what surprise, with what emotion, with what anxiety did I therein discover the following mention, which I cannot even now copy without feeling my hand tremble: "LA LEGENDE DOREE DE JACQUES DE GENES (Jacques de Voragine);-- traduction francaise, petit in-4. ” Bonnard travels from France to Sicily to find the manuscript, and then back again to France (to a shop a few streets away from his home), and finally to an auction house. Along the way he falls in with the Trepofs, a very rich couple who are traveling the world to collect matchbooks in an effort to stave away their “ennui”. They have amassed several thousand already, as Madame Trepof tell him: “You know that my husband is making a collection of match-boxes. We bought thirteen hundred match-boxes at Marseilles. But we heard there was a factory of them at Girgenti...Dimitri has been a collector of all sorts of things; but the only kind of collection which can now interest him is a collection of match-boxes. He has already got five thousand two hundred and fourteen different kinds. ”
'The Daughter of Clementine' tells the story of Sylvestre's first (and only) love. He loved her as a schoolboy and now, pushing sixty, he learns that Clementine has died. But never fear! for there is a daughter to be found. Sylvestre takes it upon himself to become her guardian – a decision which, we remember, comes on the strength of his never having met her and knowing nothing about her, including where he might find her. Nonetheless he blunders along, with people from his past conveniently appearing to tell their own stories of Clementine and first loves, some of which are connected; others, not.
Anatole France was a writer who used irony both as a scalpel and a bludgeon. Sylvestre Bonnard is an outstanding example of this, though the plots he becomes entangled within are not up to the quality of the characterisation. 'The Log' is stagecraft, pure and simple, and the strings attached to everyone's arms are much too visible. 'The Daughter of Clementine', on the other hand, suffers from having too many characters recount their tales to Sylvestre, which causes the story to become fat and slow. These problems aside, Sylvestre Bonnard himself remains an entertaining character. He doesn't 'mug for the camera' so much as see the exuberant best in people, whether they be the idle rich collecting matchbooks, or his housekeeper as she keeps him in line with quips and fine French food. The joke is not on us, or necessarily Sylvestre – but it is on someone, and therein lies the subtle strokes of France's irony.
Both stories are written as a series of diary entries, which allows France to give Sylvestre free reign on the text. Nothing comes to us that has not already been reflected through Sylvestre's eccentric worldview, which means that every action and every word spoken must be carefully studied for the irony they contain. Sylvestre is a trustworthy narrator, but his attention is often focused on aspects that seem less than necessary to the resolution of the story. This, of course, adds to the comedy of it all, and more importantly, enhance Sylvestre himself. Thus we have paragraphs like this, which exist almost entirely to reflect well upon the character of Sylvestre; as always, though, wrapped within France's mocking irony: “I feel myself to-day a little more deeply impregnated than ever before with that vague melancholy which life distils. The economy of my intelligence (I dare scarcely confess it to myself!) has remained disturbed ever since that momentous hour in which the existence of the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander was first revealed to me.” The tone sets the pace of the stories, and the pace is often very slow – luxurious.
It is nonetheless a shame that the two stories do not align more harmoniously. Both stories are very short, but they have such difference in tone that they would be better placed in separate novels, perhaps, or with a bridging story concerning Sylvestre's exploits. The first is too comedic when compared to the more serious nature of the second – it is hard, really, to laugh at the constant stories of love lost or never properly gained. Heartbreak can be funny, but not always and not this often. Anatole France would go on to perfect his ironic satire in such masterpieces as 'Penguin Island', though by the end of his life he was dismissed as a proponent of 'old France', one that was concerned with matters that no longer held any importance following the explosion of cultural and societal norms after the finish of the First World War. His Nobel in 1921 was deserved, but it was also an award given to a member of the old guard, which necessarily means ignoring the new. The Crime Of Sylvestre Bonnard is difficult to recommend outside of those who greatly enjoy nineteenth century French literature, and heavily ironic literature at that. Irony, we were told, died with September 11 – a charge which is as melodramatic as it is false. But appreciation of irony does change, which has seen authors as great as Thomas Mann fall into relative obscurity in recent decades. Anatole France, using irony in a different method to Mann, and with none of the verve of, say, Philip Roth's use of irony, or the ironies of the post-modernist writers, has fallen even further into darkness. Shed some light if you will, be come prepared for what you will find – even the sharpest bite loses its sting as the years wear on.
List of French authors under review
Also by France:
---The Aspirations of Jean Servien
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