Antole France - The Aspirations of Jean Servien
The bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, is a common style of literary novel. It generally begins with the protagonist as a child or teenager, and follows them through the critical portion of their life where they intellectually and emotionally mature and develop. Typically, as in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the protagonist is introduced to a variety of characters each embodying a specific way of life or method of thought. Such novels often attempt to encapsulate the over-arching symbol of entering adulthood as experienced by a particular nation or time – a good example of this is Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth. Anatole France's The Aspirations of Jean Servien follows the bildungsroman style to completeness, varying, however, one important fact – Jean never seems to learn much of anything, and his incursions into new social spheres and economic stations seem always to end abruptly, and negatively, and usually not by his own hand. The Aspirations of Jean Servien is, then, a satire on the bildungsroman, one that is constricted in its chosen effect by an unfortunate lack of depth, both to the character of Jean and the situations in which he finds himself embroiled.
France's novel opens with Jean as a baby. He “was a little weakling child, and his mother nursed him at her breast as she sewed the books, sheet by sheet, with the curved needle of the trade." The novel begins with Jean's mother slipping on the floor of the shop, and after a series of hallucinations concerning Jean's potential future, she dies. Immediately we are introduced to the melody of the work, that is, the combination of the literary and the grand, with the mean and violent. Following this, the novel abruptly transitions to a more laid-back style, with the trappings of Jean's life leisurely explored by France as Jean ages from babe to young man.
At school, we learn that Jean "possessed a certain brilliancy of mind and a keen wit that amused his companions, whose superior he was in gifts of imagination." He is a dreamer, but his dreams are ill-formed, and would be difficult to pursue outside of fancy. There is no concreteness to him, nothing solid, which makes for a sharp contrast when compared with his father, a stolid man who readily admits he possesses too little education to properly understand the high flown ideas of his son. He shakes his head in wonder and says, “Ah! It is a famous tool, is a workman's hand! But an educated man's brain is a far more wonderful thing still.” But Jean is all dreams, he is a wisp of a person to others, and in particular to his father and his tutors at school, but also to himself. He can, by turns, imagine himself a soldier, a priest, a scholar, a king – but there is never any Jean within all this.
France keeps the novel moving at a fast pace. Soon, Jean has left school and, though his test scores never amounted to much, his hopes for a better future remain strong. Jean's father is persuaded by a (a drunk? A fraud? A fool? A translator? France leaves the character open throughout the novel, though the hints are there for all but Jean to see) certain Marquis Tudesco, perpetually down on his luck, that what Jean needs is a thorough grounding in Latin. The Marquis says, "We will make a man of him and a good citizen, and God knows the heights my pupil will scale in this noble land of freedom and generosity. He may one day be ambassador, my dear sir. I say it: knowledge is power." True enough, but Marquis Tudesco's words are as empty as Jean's ambition, and by the time the Marquis has gone, Jean's head has grown full to stuffed with ridiculous dreams, and his father's savings have been somewhat depleted.
From here, Jean meets a woman, an actress, a girl who is, it seems to the reader and to France, but not to Jean, a little coarse, rather simple, and very much unsophisticated. Jean “beheld a lady so different from all he had ever set eyes on till that moment that he could form no notion of what she was, no idea of her beauty or her age. Never had he seen eyes that flashed so vividly in a face of such pale fairness, or lips so red.” It is common in a novel such as this, that the woman, knowingly or not, will lead the man into dissolution, making him part with money and dignity until he is wrung dry and discarded. But Jean is already dissolute, and always has been. France plays with the traditional femme fatale archetype, making the girl charming enough, yes, and talented, but no real beauty and of limited interest to others. Indeed, she doesn't do much at all to encourage Jean, repeatedly rejecting his advances in a manner which suggests not coquetry but legitimate discouragement, though he has not the wit to understand. Again and again, his friends and colleagues express disbelief that this small slip of a girl could be the object of his desires, not because she is unworthy but because she is – but worthy in a manner which requires niceness, flowers, and consideration, not a burning endless love such as Jean expresses.
Finally Jean, tired of working for a living, attempts in earnest to make of himself the man he has dreamed about for so long. But even then, he fails: “Again and again he tried to write poems, tragedies, romances; but his indolence, his lack of ideas, his fastidiousness brought him to a standstill before half a dozen lines were written, and he would toss the all but virgin pages into the fire. Quickly discouraged, he turned his attention to politics...he read the papers, joined the groups that gathered on the boulevards, followed the yelping pack of white blouses, and was one of the crowd that hooted the Commissary of Police as he read the Riot Act. Disorder and uproar intoxicated him; his heart beat as if it would burst his bosom, his enthusiasm rose to fever pitch, amid these stupid exhibitions of mob violence.” In the space of a few short sentences, Jean has shifted into a creature of politics, a rebel, and when the stakes becomes too high (that is to say, real), he is ill-equipped to properly grasp his situation. The time of the Paris Commune's rule of Paris was confusing, rushed, and spattered with violence, and altogether too immediate and tactile for a dreamer like Jean.
The weakness of The Aspirations of Jean Servien come not from the irony, which is handled very well, or the inversion of the bildungsroman trope, but from the lack of a centre for Jean Servien himself. He is meant to be a cipher – the novel would not work unless he were, in fact as in description, a leaf pushed this way and that by currents of air – but for all that he is too thin to hold the connective tissue of the work together. Look at him too closely and he disperses, a vapid collection of whimsy and desire – but desirous of what? It's hard to say. Jean is as easily (or as poorly) a school teacher as he is a rebel as he is a student as he is a lover. The novel needs another fifty or a hundred pages to help solidify it into the satire it hoped to be, but for all that it remains readable and interesting. Certain characters, particularly the recurring Marquis Tudesco and Jean's father, are strong even though they remain mostly in the wings, waiting for Jean to encounter them once more. And the violence and mayhem of the Paris Commune is handled very well, mimicking effectively the cessation of all that is regular during an outbreak of rebellion.
At one point, the Marquis Tudesco declares to Jean that “the world's opinion is not worth the sacrifice of a single one of our desires.” There is truth to that, or there can be if the person uttering the words backs the declaration with activity, with drive and force and realised ambition. But if it is merely an empty saying, a series of words to increase the rush of blood to the head? Then you have Jean Servien, a man dreaming of stars that are close enough to hold, if only he would work up the ambition to reach out and grasp them.
List of French authors under review
Also by France:
---The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
"in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements, characterized as they are by a nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament"
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Boojum, L'animal Littéraire
Cairn (electronic journal archive)
Chroniques de la Luxiotte
Evene (Book section)
French Book News (English)
French Cultural Agency (English)
Gallica (Bibliotheque nationale de France digital library)
L'Express (Book section)
Lire: le magazine littéraire
La Femelle du Requin
La Vie des idées
Le Centre National du Livre
Le Magazine Littéraire
Le Matricule des anges
Le Monde (Book section
La République des Livres
Le Monde Diplomatique (Book section)
Le Nouvel Observateur (Book section)
Le Tiers Livre, littérature et Internet
English translation of François Bon's blog
Libération (Book section)
Palimpsestes (French and English)
Transfuge, literature et cinéma