Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

5. Anatole France—1904
The latest volume of M. Anatole France purports, by the declaration of its title-
page, to contain several profitable narratives. The story of Crainquebille's
encounter with human justice stands at the head of them; a tale of a well-
bestowed charity closes the book with the touch of playful irony characteristic of
the writer on whom the most distinguished amongst his literary countrymen have
conferred the rank of Prince of Prose.
Never has a dignity been better borne. M. Anatole France is a good prince. He
knows nothing of tyranny but much of compassion. The detachment of his mind
from common errors and current superstitions befits the exalted rank he holds in
the Commonwealth of Literature. It is just to suppose that the clamour of the
tribes in the forum had little to do with his elevation. Their elect are of another
stamp. They are such as their need of precipitate action requires. He is the Elect
of the Senate--the Senate of Letters--whose Conscript Fathers have recognised
him as PRIMUS INTER PARES; a post of pure honour and of no privilege.
It is a good choice. First, because it is just, and next, because it is safe. The
dignity will suffer no diminution in M. Anatole France's hands. He is worthy of a
great tradition, learned in the lessons of the past, concerned with the present,
and as earnest as to the future as a good prince should be in his public action. It
is a Republican dignity. And M. Anatole France, with his sceptical insight into an
forms of government, is a good Republican. He is indulgent to the weaknesses of
the people, and perceives that political institutions, whether contrived by the
wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the
happiness of mankind. He perceives this truth in the serenity of his soul and in
the elevation of his mind. He expresses his convictions with measure, restraint
and harmony, which are indeed princely qualities. He is a great analyst of
illusions. He searches and probes their innermost recesses as if they were
realities made of an eternal substance. And therein consists his humanity; this is
the expression of his profound and unalterable compassion. He will flatter no
tribe no section in the forum or in the market-place. His lucid thought is not
beguiled into false pity or into the common weakness of affection. He feels that
men born in ignorance as in the house of an enemy, and condemned to struggle
with error and passions through endless centuries, should be spared the
supreme cruelty of a hope for ever deferred. He knows that our best hopes are
irrealisable; that it is the almost incredible misfortune of mankind, but also its
highest privilege, to aspire towards the impossible; that men have never failed to
defeat their highest aims by the very strength of their humanity which can
conceive the most gigantic tasks but leaves them disarmed before their
irremediable littleness. He knows this well because he is an artist and a master;
but he knows, too, that only in the continuity of effort there is a refuge from
despair for minds less clear-seeing and philosophic than his own. Therefore he
wishes us to believe and to hope, preserving in our activity the consoling illusion
of power and intelligent purpose. He is a good and politic prince.