THE LAUREATE: Anatole France was born in Paris, the son of a prominent bookseller. He attended a private Catholic school and then worked in his father’s bookstore before becoming the French Senate’s librarian. He wrote poetry, novels and was a journalist. His ironic detachment marked him as the perfect man of letters, apparently. His entire body of work was put on the Catholic Church’s index of banned books, which he rightly regarded as a distinction. He won the Nobel in 1921 and died in 1924.
WHAT I’M READING: Penguin Island
REVIEW: Penguin Island is hysterical. It parodies the history of France (the country) to perfection, from the founding myths to the logical conclusion in the future of unchecked consumer capitalism – no, France was not a communist. The story starts with the aged monk Mael getting into a raft and accidentally landing on an island full of penguins. He doesn’t realize this, and he proceeds to baptize them. God and all the learned doctors of the church decide to turn them into humans and bring them closer to other inhabited lands. The sheer illogic, presented with disarming conviction, of this whole discussion is amazing, and that voice runs through the whole novel. In the “medieval” section, a woman falls in with a man who dresses himself up in monstrous armor and kidnaps children and steals livestock. The church, convinced that there is a dragon on the loose, consults the hagiographies and convinces itself that a virgin can capture a dragon without any trouble. No virgins are forthcoming, so the church changes its mind and says you can just stab him. Then this woman, who overheard all this while boning a stableboy, says she has an idea. They make a fake dragon for her to lead into the water in front of a huge crowd, which then explodes and all the kidnapped children and the guy pop out! Hooray! She must be a saint! This same sleight of hand kind of storytelling, revealing the real reasons for things while taking the surface level explanation at face value, continues with a description of a Napoleon-like figure – “we know he was the best general who led us to greatness because he lost the most battles!” say the emaciated old men – and the failed restoration of the monarchy, presumably after the second republic. Then there’s the section on the Dreyfuss Affair, which is just as hilarious. France himself was involved in the real Dreyfuss Affair, as a Dreyfussard, so his intimate understanding gave him plenty of ammunition for mockery.
WHAT’S NEXT: Bertrand Russell’s stuff about religion. Forget anything else you read here; I had a LOT of free time to read the last few weeks.