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The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

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Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard


In his time Anatole France (1844-1924) was regarded as a great man of letters. He was a poet, journalist and novelist, the son of a bookstore owner who became a member of the Académie Française and was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although he must have appeared to his contemporaries to be a revolutionary writer, a scourge of the Church and a witty satirist, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard is a somewhat plodding read today. True, I have only read a translation of the work of this so-called master-stylist, a first person narrative of the eponymous hero that frequently dragged.


The main trouble for me is that Bonnard, a fusty old scholar with an enquiring mind and wide sympathies, doesn’t actually do anything until the end of the story when he adopts a young girl, Jeanne, rescuing her from an oppressive scholastic regime. Not that our hero (or anti-hero) is unsympathetic. He is earnest and meticulous in his pursuit of ancient texts, having devoted his life to recovering works that nobody but he is ever likely to read. He sees life, as Johnson said of Milton, ‘through the spectacles of books.’ To Bonnard’s credit, he is only too aware of being buried in the past: “Bonnard,” I said to myself, “Thou knowest how to decipher old texts; but thou dost not know how to read the Book of Life.” The archaic language is maintained throughout, serving to underline the narrator’s distance from what we might call ‘the real world.’


The out-of-touch bibliophile is constantly being orientated to practical issues by his dominatrix of a housekeeper, Therese. ‘On re-entering my lodgings I had to endure the sharpest remonstrances from Therese, who said she had given up trying to understand my new way of living.’ His new way of living (his Crime in fact) entails living with ‘the child’, Jeanne, who becomes his ward and indeed spiritual inamorata, although he ultimately but reluctantly cedes her to Gelis, a younger man - shades of Esther Summerson, perhaps?

But even the old man’s happy relationship with the rescued Jeanne is seen by the scholar a re-enactment of the Antigone situation. Thus when Bonnard reads the Chorus of Antigone to Jeanne, the tragic heroine’s face appears before him ‘in all its passionless purity.’ He tells his ward ‘I am reading, Mademoiselle – I am reading that Antigone, having buried the blind old man, wove a fair tapestry embroidered with images in the likeness of laughing faces.’ The realistic Gelis who overhears this protests that this ending is not in the text. No, Bonnard agrees, ‘It is a scholium’ – a marginal note, but adds Gelis ‘Unpublished.’ Thus does the wish-fulfilment of life in the end triumph over the reality of textual scholarship.

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