Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Review of Herbert L. Stewart, Anatole France, The Parisian

 

I should like to begin this review of Dr. Stewart’s admirable book with a couple of sentences from the eulogy delivered by M. Paul Valéry when he took the chair in the Académie Française rendered vacant by the death of Anatole France:
     "The suffrage of the majority was won immediately by a style that could be savoured without too much thought, whose fascination consisted in its semblance of naturalness, and whose limpidity allowed one to perceive occasionally a hidden significance, though never a mysterious one; —rather, on the contrary, one entirely readable, if not always reassuring. There was in his books consummately the art of skimming over the most serious problems and ideas." We stumble on this sentence at the very threshold of the eulogy. The last words are—"A delightful mind, unimaginably pliant, the passionate lover of all that was most beautiful in every domain, and ever the friend of mankind, he will survive in the history of our letters as the man who made plain to our contemporaries a singular and remarkable relationship—the one I have here attempted to elucidate, between our free and creative nation, emancipated thought, and the purest and most rigorous system of art that has yet been conceived."
     Between these two sentences there are hundreds of words chosen with infinite care and arranged in subtle patterns. One feels the result as a work of preciosity accomplished, and the imagination plays for a moment with the thought of a full length study carried out in this fashion. We have in Dr. Stewart’s book an example of a different method and a very different style. There would be no profit in drawing a stylistic comparison. It is the content of the quotations that may enter a comparison, and they, and all that lies [page 375] between them, are not so very far away from the general drift of Dr. Stewart’s book. He remarks—"His erudition, vast as it seemed to the popular mind, was far below that of other men whom one could name, and of whom the popular mind takes no account. To the expert philosopher he appears as constantly dealing in the commonest of philosophic commonplaces, avoiding the real sting of a problem, and making the gay paradox to do duty for reasoned argument." Elsewhere—"He could have no patience with anyone who made a fellow-sufferer’s lot even by a hairsbreadth less bearable than it is." The claim for continued fame is based on his "system of art," on "the ingenuity of a fertile imagination or the subtler witchery of words."
     The closing chapters of the book, written with sympathy but with consummate judgment, give us a clear impression of the great Frenchman; and when one has read the last word, it is with the feeling that an "enigmatic personality" has been fully explored and, as far as possible, made plain. The child of Paris and the man of his time, developed by events, nourished and stimulated by violent and fluctuating currents of opinion, stands revealed. This is the result of Dr. Stewart’s arrangement of his material, his command of his subject, and his clear and vigorous style. He draws upon a full mind, and his writing on the margin of his subject is always of interest, enhancing the value of the main text and giving one the feeling of security in ripe scholarship.
     The literary life of Anatole France is so bound up with the life of his time that it would be impossible to understand its development without following closely the contemporary political and social events in Paris. Dr. Stewart has arranged his book so as to bring out the truth of this fact, recognizing that an historical treatment of France’s career is required to outline the divisions into which the literary energy falls. The concision and completeness with which these episodes are treated provide a history of the times in miniature. The difficult subject matter of the chapter "Clericalism and Chastity" is treated with skill and welcome frankness, considering our past rather absurd sensitiveness to discussion on these subjects. However, reticence seems to be weakening in these later days. The contents of such books as La Rotisserie and Le Lys Rouge gain as many readers for Anatole France as are recruited by his more prudent works. As our author says, modern civilization in its higher features may have outgrown the method of these books, but I must [page 376] express the opinion that they will be kept alive by feelings and taste on the lower levels, and will survive in scandalous immortality. Yet Dr. Stewart is sound on the corrupt streak in the complex character—How could such a man treat "questions of sex"? He exclaims—"There is no real treatment of such questions which is not at the same time a treatment of human love; and of what is meant by love—except as physical attraction—he has shown only the dimmest idea." But is it not the fact that we have become too intimate with Anatole France? His erotic productions are supported and amplified by the gossip of his familiars until the shadows have become too deep. Over-emphasis might easily be placed on other characteristics of this "enigmatic personality." The prime importance of this book is that there is no over-emphasis; it is a well-balanced study, written with catholic sympathy; a safe guide in a maze of contradictions. Beyond that, it contains much wisdom reflected from the brilliant surface of the subject. Many books may be forthcoming on the life and works of Anatole France; but Dr. Stewart’s book must hold rank by its weight, its sanity, moderation and completeness, as an important contribution to the fascinating subject. [page 377]

 

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