Anatole France was one of the major figures in the French literature scene in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He even won a Nobel prize for literature in 1921. But he is now mostly known for being the literary mentor of young Proust and more importantly being the real life model of the novelist character Bergotte in Proust's Novel, which Proust uses to expound his own theory of literature and life and how they are related.
I was reminded of this, while reading the introduction that France wrote for Pleasures and Days, the first published work by Proust, which he wrote when he was only twenty two. This is a very short and elegant introduction, which is sadly the best part of the book. The rest of the book is pretty disappointing and will be of interest to only the most hard core Proust cultists (I am going in that direction, but I am still far from there it seems).
France in his introduction starts effusively:
Why did he ask me to present his book to curious minds? And why did I promise to take on this highly agreeable but quite unnecessary task? His book is like a young face full of rare charm and elegant grace. It is self-recommending, tells us about itself and presents itself in spite of itself.
And then in a remarkable understanding of the Proustian theme, which is all the more notable because he could identify it in this early juvenilia , he says:
True, it is a young book. It is as young as its author is young. But it is an old book too, as old as the world. It is the spring of leaves on ancient branches, in the age-old forest. One is tempted to say that the new shoots are saddened by the long past of the woods and are wearing mourning for so many dead springs.
Even his sadness will be found to be pleasing and full of variety, conducted as it is and sustained by a marvelous spirit of observation, and a supple, penetrating and truly subtle intelligence.
And then in a bravura display of ironical qualifiers:
Marcel Proust delights equally in describing the desolate splendour of the sunset and the agitated vanities of a snobbish soul. He excels in recounting the elegant sorrows and artificial sufferings that are at least equal in cruelty of those which nature showers on us with maternal prodigality. I must confess that I find these invented sufferings, these pains discovered by human genius, these sorrows of art, enormously interesting and valuable, and I am grateful to Marcel Proust for having studied and described a few choice examples.
He lures us into a greenhouse atmosphere and detains us there, amid wild orchids that do not draw the nourishment for their strange and unhealthy beauty from this earth. Suddenly there passes, through the heavy and languid air, a bright and shining arrow, a flash of lightning which, like the ray of the German doctor, can go right through bodies. At a stroke the poet has penetrated secret thoughts and hidden desires.
This is his manner, and his art. He here shows a sureness of touch surprising in such a young archer. He is not at all innocent. But he is so sincere and so authentic that he appears naive, and as such we like him.
It is indeed quite strange and fascinating to see how totally out of place these judgments are for the book for which this introduction was written and yet, at the same time, how accurate it is in the context of his eventual masterpiece. This is literary criticism as divination, nothing else can explain this.