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What the Swedes Read: Anatole France

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Anatole France

Daniel Handler
16 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Anatole France (France, 1921)
  • BOOK READ: The Gods Will Have Blood, translated by Frederick Davies

It is with some embarrassment that your humble columnist must admit that he was a bit confused about the 1921 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. OK, OK: I thought he was a fictional character. I think I had him confused with Anthony Adverse. On reading the name “Anatole France,” I pictured a guy in a peasant blouse, half fop and half swashbuckler. If you’d told me that Anatole France was played by Errol Flynn in some breathtaking Technicolor production, not only would I have believed you, but I would have thought I’d seen the thing. “Unhand her, you lout! Unhand her in the name of Anatole France!

Anatole France turns out—and I’m sure everyone knew this but me—to be a French poet and writer, whose best-known work is Les dieux ont soif, a novel the title of which has been translated variously as The Gods Are Thirsty, The Gods Are Athirst, and The Gods Will Have Blood, which cumulatively sounded to me, as I chose what to read, like the studio, live, and remixed versions of some death-metal album.

This preconception, it turns out, puts me closer to the mark. The Gods Will Have Blood—that’s how the Penguin Classics likes it called—is set in the bloody, thrashy aftermath of the French Revolution, although both the translator and the Nobel Committee are keen to remind us that the book, published in 1912, is also prescient in predicting the bloody European troubles that were on the horizon. “How events have fulfilled his predictions!” said fellow Nobel winner Erik Karlfeldt in his presentation speech. “What beautiful arenas have been prepared now for the games of salamanders! The smoke of battles still hangs over the earth. And out of the fog surge gnomes, sinister spirits of the earth.”

The novel has no gnomes, but the smoke of battles is everywhere, and our hero, Gamelin, a young, idealistic artist, finds himself in a sudden position of power when the smoke clears. The foundation of the republic has led a group of brash youngsters to appoint Gamelin as magistrate, which might sound petty-bureaucratic until you remember that the magistrates were basically in charge of the guillotine. It’s a job requiring sober and careful judgment, so that justice might be exacting but not destructive—a post for a zealot, maybe, but not for a fanatic. Well, let’s listen in to what Gamelin tells his mother when she remarks that people are suffering in the streets:

Mother, the scarcity we’re suffering from is caused by the monopolists and speculators who starve the people and conspire with our enemies outside the country to turn the citizens against the Republic and to destroy liberty. This is what the plots and treasons of the Brissotins, the Pétions and the Rolands has led to! Perhaps it will be best if the workers in the army do march on Paris and massacre the remaining patriots that the famine’s not destroying quick enough! There’s no time to lose. Flour must be taxed, and any person, whoever he is, who speculates in the food of the people, who foments rebellion or who comes to terms with the enemy, must be guillotined. The Convention has just set up an extraordinary Tribunal to put conspirators on trial. It is made up of patriots—but will they have the devotion to duty to defend our beloved country against all its enemies? We must put our trust in Robespierre; he is incorruptible.

This might be my favorite bit of dramatic irony since seeing Mary Lincoln, portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s hilarious and delightful movie The Plainsman, reminding her husband, Abe, that they’re going to be late for the theater. Sure enough, absolute trust in one of the architects of the Reign of Terror turns out to be a bad idea, but, as with death metal, we get the visceral thrill of bloodlust before the doomy comedown. Gamelin embarks on his career with a fierce enthusiasm, and there’s a bit of a vicarious thrill, since you can’t help imagining, as fiercely as our hero, just whom you might choose if you got to march anyone you wanted to the guillotine. Despite France’s finger-wagging —I’m speaking of the author here, not the country—I got the sense that the author felt a certain relish for Gamelin’s dirty dealings and double-crossings, which first make him an object of respect and then of suspicion.

Meanwhile, though, Gamelin isn’t just running his enemies through the meat grinder of the revolution. He’s also picking up women:

You embroider skillfully, citizeness, but, if you wish me to speak frankly, the pattern you’ve made isn’t simple enough or plain enough; it’s inflated by the affected taste which lasted too long in France in the art of dress, furniture and wainscoting; all these clusters and garlands recall that pitiful, paltry style everybody favoured under the tyranny.

As with rock musicians, what might sound to some like the ravings of a paranoid adolescent is hot and alluring to the ears of certain young women, and soon enough Élodie the seamstress falls more or less into Gamelin’s arms. The author seems to offer Gamelin’s romantic entanglement in order to introduce the notion that a man can be tyrannical and human at the same time, but neither the hero’s nor his creator’s heart is really in it; in the end, between the brashness of Gamelin and the other historical incidents that get crammed into this short book, the notion reads more along the lines of the idea that a man can be tyrannical and horny at the same time, which creates less of a dual tension than France might like.

And, also, than France might like. Soon enough the republic has no taste for Gamelin, and the hero’s sputtering and panicked justifications help along his fate, which comes at him from above, with his head perched above a basket. I was grateful for the novel’s brevity, as the predictable plot and fist-pounding dialogue would have become tiresome over a long work. For a short bout, however—as it must have been back in the day—the blood-splattery thrill of giving sway to one’s most fanatical fantasies is quite the spectacle to behold at a distance. Up close, less so. The author is so intent on Gamelin’s ideas, and their inevitable gruesome consequences, that Gamelin himself is little more than the sum of all his zealous speeches. In the end, I closed The Gods Will Have Blood with a vivid picture of the Reign of Terror, but my picture of the hero was a little vague. He was just a guy with a guillotine, maybe dressed in a peasant blouse. You know, like that guy in the old movie or book or whatever. I think his name was Anatole France. 

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