Anatole France and Proust
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
A new translation of Anatole France’s novel Les Dieux ont soif is being published next month by Alma Classics, as The Gods Want Blood. First published in 1912, the book is set during the Terror of 1793–4 and features, fleetingly, both Marat and Robespierre. As its translator Douglas Parmée writes in his introduction, the novel has contemporary resonance: its main character, the mediocre painter (pupil of Jacques-Louis David) and revolutionary fanatic Évariste Gamelin “would surely make a first-rate suicide bomber”. France did his research thoroughly, with the result that his novel, in Parmée’s words, “bears throughout the stamp of historical authenticity”.
The publication seems timely: the elegant, epicurean Anatole France counted among his admirers one Marcel Proust, whose work celebrates a rather significant anniversary this November. The first part of his great novel, Du Côté de chez Swann, was published in November 1913. Proust had devoured France’s work. In her recent Monsieur Proust’s Library (which I reviewed in the TLS earlier this year), Anka Muhlstein wrote “France’s “style and interests are very similar to the ones attributed to [Proust’s] fictional writer” Bergotte.
She also pointed out that “When he was still in school, Proust admired France with a passion that recalls the Narrator’s at that age for Bergotte. Although he did not know him, he wrote Anatole France a veritable fan letter after reading a nasty review of one of his books”. One of Proust’s biographers Jean-Yves Tadié reveals that Proust “went so far as to plant real France sentences in passages of Bergotte’s prose”. France wasn’t of course the only model for Bergotte; it’s been suggested that he was a composite of France, the orientalist novelist Pierre Loti and John Ruskin – and let’s not forget that the novelist’s own powerful imagination was at work.
France wrote a brief, rather perfumed preface for Proust’s early publication Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896), a collection of stories, poems and observations: “Marcel Proust delights equally in describing the desolate splendour of the sunset and the agitated vanities of a snobbish soul”. He noted the author’s “marvellous spirit of observation, and a supple, penetrating and truly subtle intelligence”.
According to Muhlstein, Proust’s “enthusiasm for France’s work . . . waned over the years”, but “their friendship endured, strengthened by their common fight for Dreyfus”. Later France was to write of the younger novelist, “I’ve tried to understand him, and I haven’t succeeded. It is not his fault. It’s mine”.
The new translation of Les Dieux ont soif will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.