Paris - An Interview
( Originally Published 1910 )
IT was a November evening.
Outside, the rain was sweeping in gusts against the windows ; but indoors, with the curtains drawn and a fire burning on the hearth, my little sitting-room was warm and cheerful. I had spread my papers out on the table before the lamp and put a new pen in the holder ; but as I rose to light what I swore should be my last cigarette before going to work, one of the tiny logs in the fireplace collapsed with a shower of sparks. A sudden blaze followed, that illumined the whole room and shone especially on the green, gold lettered back of a volume in one of the shelves opposite. I stepped across and took it down. It was "Le Mannequin d'Osier " of Anatole France, the book that I love the best in contemporary literature. I carried it over to my place by the fire, and opened it, with that sweet sense of doing something a little wrong, to a favorite passage, intending to read only a few lines. But once under the spell of its incisive gem-like French, and the searching irony of its philosophy, I could not lay. the book aside, but read on and on, turning the leaves in spite of myself, resolving as I began each new chapter that when it was finished I would stop, and each time breaking the resolution, until finally I reached the last word of the last page, and closed the covers with a sigh. Then I glanced at my watch; it was one o'clock. Too late to do any work now, and there was no good in regretting ; so I put my papers away, and sitting back with " Le Mannequin d'Osier" still in my hand, fell to reflecting on it, and wondering about its author.
It is strange how few among the great men of the past one wishes he might have An Interview known personally. I should like to have met Shakespeare and Mozart and Molière, it is true, and I would give all I possess to have been the humblest of Shelley's friends. But, as for most of the others, I am content with what they have left me of themselves. To-ward authors of our own day, however, our feelings are necessarily different. We are in sympathy with their point of view. Their ideas are ours, only completer, more logically developed and better expressed. Their faults especially, which we possess in a greater degree, endear them to us. Thus it frequently happens that in reading a contemporary author we feel him to represent what is best and most worth-while in us ; we are conscious of a desire, that is almost introspective, to meet this higher self face to face. So it was with me, as I sat looking into the fire, and fingering abstractedly the familiar pages of the book I had just re-read. I ran over in my mind all the scattering information I had been able to gather concerning Anatole known personally. I should like to have met Shakespeare and Mozart and Molière, it is true, and I would give all I possess to have been the humblest of Shelley's friends. But, as for most of the others, I am content with what they have left me of themselves. To-ward authors of our own day, however, our feelings are necessarily different. We are in sympathy with their point of view. Their ideas are ours, only completer, more logically developed and better expressed. Their faults especially, which we possess in a greater degree, endear them to us. Thus it frequently happens that in reading a contemporary author we feel him to represent what is best and most worth-while in us ; we are conscious of a desire, that is almost introspective, to meet this higher self face to face. So it was with me, as I sat looking into the fire, and fingering abstractedly the familiar pages of the book I had just re-read. I ran over in my mind all the scattering information I had been able to gather concerning Anatole France — or Monsieur Thibaut, if you prefer his real name. He lived, some one had said, in a very small and closed society, and when he entered a salon every one was suddenly silent as at the entrance of a king. What means were there for an obscure foreigner to meet this genius, acquaintance with whom had become so rare and precious a thing for his own countrymen ? I might write to him, but my letter would be only one of perhaps fifty. It had doubtless been many years since he had been able to feel anything but weariness in glancing over these monotonous outbursts of anonymous praise. Perhaps he no longer read them, but employed a secretary just to throw them into the fire. Nevertheless the idea tempted me. There could be no harm in writing, and I did not need to send the letter. I drew up close to the table and began.
It proved a difficult undertaking. All the thoughts awakened by the abbé Guitrel, the préfet Worms-Clavelin and the observations of Monsieur Bergeret,—thoughts that touch on nearly every subject under the sun, as you will know if you have read the book, — clamored to be expressed, and to go trailing page-long parentheses behind them. But this would not do. The language of a letter fit for the greatest modern master of French to read must be concise and straightforward. I ended by suppressing the thoughts. When I had finished and was considering the scanty result, I reflected that to have spent the evening in work would have been less laborious. But here is what I had written :
Monsieur:— It is only because, having just re-read "Le Mannequin d'Osier" for the fourth time, I feel it would be ungrateful not to try to express something of the humble admiration I have for the creator of Monsieur Bergeret, that I venture to write to you. When I read "Le Livre de Mon Ami" and "Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard" I had self-restraint enough to repress the impulse I felt to tell you of the delicate pleasure they gave me; but with your "Histoire Contemporaine" it is different. Those four volumes have done more than afford me keen enjoyment : they have made me think thoughts I should never have discovered by myself. Their point of view has helped to form my own. For the second one of the series I have a greater admiration than for any other prose work of the last twenty years. It would be useless to write you what I think of the book ; if this were an intellectual letter it would be impertinent. Only permit me to say, monsieur, that we trans-atlantiques as well as your own countrymen appreciate the wholesome irony, the profound philosophy, the interest in humanity as it is, and the perfect art, of "Le Mannequin d'Osier."
It would have shown, I know, a truer gratitude on my part to have spared you this expression of enthusiasm, but I could not help myself. Before a splendid spectacle in nature one invariably utters a cry. The spectacle is not improved or in anywise changed, but the cry is irrepressible; it is uttered for oneself. Thus this letter is written really for myself. If you should take it in any other way, I should fear that you thought me a seeker of autographs.
Croyez, monsieur, etc.
Here followed my name (written very legibly) ; I did not add the address (it was printed on the paper).
I laid the pen on the table, and pushed back my chair, then leaned over to throw more wood on the embers that were growing gray. In the morning I would send the letter.
Time passes as though one were only looking into the fire ; events are scarcely more real than dreams. Could it be that the month had changed to December and the rain to snow, when one morning Eugénie brought me, together with two wed-ding announcements from America (for five years my friends seem to have had nothing to do but marry), an envelope addressed in an unfamiliar hand and stamped with the Paris postmark? I shall never feel any-thing sweeter nor more improbably perfect than my joy at the contents. They were simple, only a few lines on a sheet of thin paper : —
VILLA SAID, December tenth.
Monsieur : — Permit me to thank you for your flattering letter, and to express the hope that if you have no other engagement for Wednesday the fifteenth of December, you will be kind enough to call on me that afternoon between four and five o'clock.
Be assured, monsieur, that I do not think you a "seeker of autographs," et croyez etc.
ANATOLE THIBAUT (ANATOLE FRANCE).
If I had no other engagement ! I would have canceled anything, — even an appointment to take tea with Madame Steinheil !
Looked back upon, one's life is a series of disconnected scenes — islands floating in a sea of forgetfulness. There is nothing to prove to me that the days between that on which I received the letter and the Wednesday following existed; if they did, they must have been a period of impatient dullness. But the afternoon of the rendezvous is as distinct as yesterday in my memory, beginning with the moment when the servant led me from the door of the house through a half-seen hallway to another door, the heavy hangings of which he held aside while I crossed the threshold, then let fall behind me. As I entered the room beyond, which I rather felt than saw to be a study, a man rose from an arm-chair beside an Empire table, and advanced to meet me. I was face to face with Anatole France.
My first impression, if I am to be honest, was not that he had wonderful eyes, nor yet that he was below medium height and was rather stout (though it might have been any of these), but a banal surprise that he should so strikingly resemble the portrait of him that I had seen at the Salon the preceding summer. It was less as though his likeness to it were remarkable (this, I suppose because I had seen, the picture first, was the perverse way I found myself putting the thought), than as though he actually were the portrait.
" You are very welcome, monsieur," he said, in a French so exquisitely enunciated that the rasping quality of the voice itself was at once forgotten. " Pray be seated. Will you smoke ?" Then, when he had lighted the cigarette he had proffered me and his own, he sank into a chair opposite mine and rested his chin in his hand. "You are even younger than I thought," he observed at last without appearing to look at me.
" You knew I was young ? "
" Yes," he remarked, but in the tone in which he might have admitted that this was a large city, or that we had been having cold weather. "You imagined that I had come to find letters of appreciation tiresome."
"You have not ? "
"No," said Anatole France, "I still read them. Authors always do. I no longer get any pleasure from them, except"—courteously— "such as yours; but were they to cease suddenly, I should feel discontented and abused."
One end of his upper lip curled down into a cynical little wrinkle. He was like his own Monsieur Bergeret now,— and yet not like him either, less human somehow. I knew Monsieur Bergeret personally ; I felt that I should never know his creator. I could not rid myself of the idea that he was just the portrait I had seen in the Salon.
"At all epochs," he continued, "the mind has been popularly considered as subject to none, or to strange and incomprehensible laws, essentially different from those simple ones that govern the body. The murmurs of philosophy whose persistent tendency has been to prove the contrary, have never reached the ear of the masses ; and indeed, had they done so, it is matter of doubt whether the masses would willingly have listened, for these popular misconceptions are obstinate and tenacious; it is through them that superstition and the belief in the miraculous maintain themselves. Philosophers welcome each reduction of complexity to simplicity as a new step toward the ultimate comprehension of the universe, which is their dream ; but the masses, cherishing the belief that certain things cannot be understood, look upon each such reduction with disapproval. Columbus was derided, and it is given to few to be as unpopular as Galileo."
I nodded approval. An immense pride was swelling in my heart. For I too had thought this out. The master whom I revered was expressing ideas I myself had had. A desire to cry as much into his ear and force his admiration wrung me; but I sup-pressed it, to listen again.
The public, it is true, have," he went on, " some justification for the skepticism with which they have always treated the conclusions of philosophers; but I have only to turn my eyes inward to be increasingly convinced that here at least philosophy is in the right. The attributes of my mind—will, attention, and the rest— are, I observe with an instinctive displeasure, subject to the same laws that rule my body. The athlete experiences pleasure from his over-developed sinews during the brief time that he retains the memory of his former inferiority; afterwards, comparison becoming impossible once the recollection of what he was has faded, he is conscious of no superiority. Nevertheless he has become the slave of his own strength. The muscles which he has trained into abnormal power must be ministered to, or a degeneration of his whole body will set in. Thus it is with the minds of authors. Their vanity has grown with pampering, like the liver of a Swiss goose. Flattery, which at first afforded them enjoyment, has become a necessity."
He paused, with a bitter smile.
" For pleasurable companionship," he added, "seek out men of affairs. Avoid authors and artists."
And musicians," I suggested.
" And musicians," said Anatole France fervently.
There was a little pause. I was unhappy; for my exultation that Anatole France had expressed my own thought was less than my dissatisfaction that he did not know it.
" There were so many things I wanted to speak to you of," I faltered at last helplessly, and now they are all gone. Do you re-member Heine's account of his meeting with Goethe ? He had thought for years of the things he would discuss with the great man, but when he finally met him he found nothing to say except that the plums were ripe along the road he had followed."
" But I am very far from being Goethe," said Anatole France.
" Not so far as I from being Heine," I added hastily.
The author of " Thais " smiled again. "The compliment is neat," he observed.
I thanked him deprecatingly, but I felt secretly that he was right.
" You are the first American," he re-marked, " to — you are American ? " (I nodded) — " the first to write me concerning Monsieur Bergeret. I had fancied him unknown in your country."
In America," I replied, " every one who reads French knows ' Le Livre de Mon Ami,' and every one who reads anything besides the magazines and the current fiction is familiar with ' The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard ' ; but those who delight in ' Le Mannequin d'Osier,' emancipated as they are from social caste (for such an emancipation is one of the essentials to understanding Monsieur Bergeret), belong, I think, all the more, if unknowingly, to an intellectual caste, one of the rules of which is that acquaintance with an author's books does not give one the right to infringe on his personal life. I have broken the rule. I am unworthy of my class."
" It was a foolish rule," said Anatole France.
His eyes sparkled, and I laughed. I was reminded of a fencing exhibition I had witnessed once at the exercises of a girls' school. There had been no lunging, but much saluting and courteous crossing of foils.
" You said in your letter," he remarked simply, " that you admired my ' Histoire Contemporaine,' but you did not say why. I should like to know now — if you will tell me."
I was flattered. It could be only interest in me that prompted his question, for he knew already a thousand times better than I why the books were masterpieces. He could learn nothing new about them from my reply, but he would learn what manner of person I was. My responsibility to my-self was oppressive.
"There are so many reasons," I stammered. " I do not know where to begin."
" Beginnings are hard and invariably wrong," he observed thoughtfully, "so it does not matter ; begin anywhere."
" I think most of all it is for their point of view," I said, that I like the books,—the scrutinizing irony with which in them you look out on life, generalizing freely and acutely, but honestly and carefully, never unworthily from the mere masculine love of generalization, and finding the most where it seems to me the most is always to be found, — in the little things. It was, unless I mistake, from the tearful brutish protest of the servant Euphémie that Monsieur Bergeret drew the profoundest reflection in ' Le Mannequin d'Osier,' — that concerning the failure in the feminine mind to distinguish between the creative and the destructive forces."
" Yes," he assented.
People have reproached you for treating too much the petty [mesquin] side of things, but that is because, accustomed to the heroics of most works of fiction, they forget that it is almost entirely of what is mesquin that life is composed. There are heroics—and heroism too — in your books ; who will say that there were not both in the conduct of poor Madame de Bonmont ? but, as nearly always in life, they were at the same time absurd ; and this too was unpleasant to those readers."
" You are a warm adherent," said Anatole France with a smile. I flushed. " But what you say is discerning," he added kindly. " My ' Histoire Contemporaine' will never be genuinely liked by the mass of readers, not even by the mass of intelligent readers; they have been fed too long on sweets, — though less here, I believe," he continued, "than in England or America."
Oh! " I exclaimed sadly, " in England and America it is considered praise to say of a book that it may without danger be placed in the hands of a sixteen-year-old girl. The effect on our prose has been appalling. That some books should be writ-ten for girls of sixteen is well enough ; that all books should be is distressing. The result has been to bar our prose-writers from the frank consideration of much that is vitally important in life, and to force them often into hypocrisy."
"Yet you have had books which were not afraid to discuss things as they are."
" In the eighteenth century, yes few since. Our poetry, thank God, has always been freer."
" Your poetry is inimitable ; and your prose may yet be emancipated. Victorianism, Englishmen tell me, is dying."
" There was something else," I remarked a little timidly after a pause, that I wanted to say of the 'Histoire Contemporaine.' It will perhaps weary you, but I should feel an ingrate if I should go away without having said it."
I should be sorry not to hear it," he returned. " What you have already said has interested me."
It was," I continued, " that in the form of those books you have gone one step beyond the novel."
It seemed to me that for the first time I had really interested Anatole France. He looked at me keenly.
The novel is a splendid form, — the best we have had," I went on, and much has certainly been done through it ; but even the novel truckles to romance. It has too sharp a beginning, too definite an ending ; it is too much a whole to be capable of en-tire usefulness. In it the characters created fit together too nicely, so that in looking back from the end to the beginning one is aware of a rigid unity, a careful plan. To achieve such a work of art, to eliminate everything that has no bearing on the theme, to create only characters that serve in its development, must demand great talent ; but, noble as the result is, it seems to me cramped by its own perfection. Life is not like that. It has both purpose and purposelessness. Things do not dovetail so accurately. Everywhere there are ragged ends hanging loose. In the four books of the 'Histoire Contemporaine' you let them hang. The characters you created have some influence on one another, but no more than they would have had if they had. actually existed, and never for the furtherance of an artistic scheme. At times their lives touched, at times ran separately.
And yet it seems to me that in standing aside as you did, in watching it all as an observer, in giving never your own view of life, but the view held by each of your characters, you achieved a wider and truer unity than was ever reached in a novel."
I paused apprehensively, abashed at my presumptuousness. But the author's look was kindly.
" Your appreciation," said Anatole France, " is very grateful to me. That was indeed what I attempted to do."
Then we talked on — mostly it was I who talked— of Monsieur Bergeret, of Madame de Gromance, of the abbé Lantaigne and the abbé — later the bishop — Guitrel, of the préfet Worms-Clavelin and his amazing wife, and of the dog Riquet.
The dog Riquet," observed Anatole France, " has the character accorded by all novelists who are liked to their heroes. In his attitude toward life there are unselfishness, humility and idealism. These qualities are in fact to be found only in dogs. That is why novels, as you have so justly observed, are untrustworthy."
I rose to go. " It would be useless to at-tempt to tell you, monsieur, with what gratitude and pleasure I shall remember this hour you have granted me," I said; and he must have recognized my sincerity for his smile was kindly. " It is such courtesy as that you have shown me which makes me love Paris," I went on. (There were vague thoughts struggling to take shape at the bottom of my mind. I must express them for I felt them to be worth while.) " Friends, I think, are for the big things of life" (I know I spoke confusedly), to depend on or to help in the great emergencies; and the two or three friends one needs one can perhaps most readily find among his own people. But while the big things arrive only very rarely, the little things are with us every day ; our very social existence is constructed of them. For them one has acquaintances ; and acquaintances are more readily made here, I believe, than anywhere else under the sun. Friendship, after all, is somewhat barbarous, requiring on both sides a total loyalty which is unnatural, given the mutual knowledge of faults that must exist in so close an intimacy; acquaintanceship is less exacting and more civilized, binding one to nothing, and asking only that faults be kept discreetly out of sight for the time being. You knew, monsieur, that you would see me only for an hour and then perhaps never again, and yet there has been no hint of that in your kindness to me. You have talked with me as pleasantly as though we had dined together yesterday and were to drive in the Bois to-morrow. Paris is the only civilized country in the world. That is why I love it."
"Thank you," said Anatole France. "That is a very pretty speech."
" It was a very long one," I replied.
" You live in Paris always ? " he inquired, touching the bell.
One has to be a little foreign to be a Parisian," he went on musingly. "Those Frenchmen who are not so already, hasten to marry an American or adopt an English accent. But you will go back."
"To my own people?"
"1 am sorry you say that," I remarked, "for I have secretly known it all along."
"Why be sorry?" he asked. Is it so dreadful — America ? "
"No," I answered quickly, "it is not dreadful. It is vulgar ; but its vulgarity is only a sign of its exuberant vitality."
Anatole France nodded. Vulgarity is to be found in whatever is great and young and splendid. Beethoven was vulgar, and Shakespeare and Michel Angelo."
" No, truly it is not dreadful," I repeated remorsefully.
He smiled. No one is so detached as he thinks himself," he said. One destroys prejudice after prejudice and conviction after conviction, as a man in a balloon cuts the cords that connect him with the ground and prevent his rising to a point whence he can look down on all things with a just and comparing gaze, yet there are always a thousand delicate fibres that hold him back from perfect freedom. You are cutting, cutting, but you are not completely detached, nor will you ever be. When I asked you whether America was dreadful you felt a swift shame at having insinuated as much. You are still patriotic."
Perhaps," I murmured.
Yet patriotism is just one of our innumerable prejudices. In a way, I confess to finding it admirable. I envy the ability of a man to hate passionately and inclusively a whole race, simply because he does not belong to it. I envy, because such a hatred reveals an intensity of feeling of which I am incapable. I envy, because I cannot under-stand. People are so pitifully alike [se ressemblent si tristement]," said Anatole France wearily.
" It is strange," he went on, " that patriotism should be so hard to shake off; for it is one of the most obvious prejudices. It is indeed no more than an expression of vanity, of the old thought, 'What's mine is better than what's yours!' "
"Perhaps that itself is the reason," I suggested. "Is not vanity very important?"
"True," he assented. "Not vanity but selfishness, of which vanity is a corollary. Selfishness is at the root of every creative impulse. Without it the world would stop — or that little scum on the face of the world, that senseless activity, we call life."
" L'espèce de corruption que nous appelons la vie organique," I quoted swiftly.
I am flattered that you remember so well," he observed. "Ambition, inspiration, love,— they are all forms of selfishness — love more than the rest, as it is the most in-tensely creative."
" But," I asked, "if patriotism is only vanity, why is it held to be something high and noble?"
" At all times," he replied, " men's vanity has made them contemplate incredulously their own futility, and led them to imagine themselves the tools of some higher force. With this premise selfishness was no longer a conceivable motive. It does no harm for the philosopher to recognize that God is on the side of the greater numbers, but the common soldier must think differently. No war of aggrandizement, or of selfish interest, has ever been successfully waged without a noble catch-word. ' God and My Right' was the slogan of Henry V as he laid waste France ; the Germans sang ' Ein' Feste Burg ist unser Gott,' in the Franco-Prussian War, which was brought on by a forged telegram ; and a poetess of your own country, I am told, has in a popular hymn made the armies of the North in your late war suggest that as Christ ' died to make men holy,' they would 'die to make men free.'"
The servant had been waiting a long time. Anatole France took my hand.
"Your visit has given me a real pleasure," he said kindly. " I hope you will believe me."
"I must because I want so much to," I answered wistfully.
Then, when I was almost at the door, "You will go back sooner or later to your own country," he added, " but do not feel badly. You will never quite become part of it. Even from a captive balloon one has a wider, less biased view than from the ground."
I drifted out of the house in a dream. Anatole France had said that my visit had given him pleasure. Anatole France had talked with me as with an equal. And, indeed, reflecting on the interview, I was not displeased with myself. That speech on friendship and acquaintanceship had held ideas. The memory of the mocking little smile that had played around one corner of the great man's mouth from time to time barely troubled me. It was for others that his face had taken those lines ; me he had not laughed at, I was sure.
But, in considering myself, which I have always done rather closely (with an intense, if amused, interest which my growing conviction that what I see there is rarely unique keeps from becoming fatuous), I am continually amazed at the abrupt changes in my moods. Thus I had barely reached the Ave-nue du Bois before my exhilaration left me like a fog that, suddenly lifting, lays bare the barren country beneath. I had seen Ana-tole France and heard him speak, and my sole concern was for what I had said, for the impression I had made. I had been given such an opportunity as would not come to one American out of ten thousand, and I had squandered it. I had had an hour with Anatole France, and I had spent it in trying to show him that he might talk to me without stooping. Moreover, it was clear to me at present that this too had been at the root of my desire to meet my hero. I understood the twisted smile now, and was swept with humiliation. Then, effacing this petty shame with a profounder regret, came the thought of what I might have learned if I had not been preoccupied with myself. I had been unworthy of my riches ; they had been, I muttered, as pearls before — But I would not finish the quotation. The word was too offensive in French, and I was still thinking in French. I had indeed seldom felt more French than now, when I knew so well that I should some day go back to America. And, after all, whatever I had missed, my hour with Anatole France had been splendid. (You will know without needing to be told that, having reached the end of the avenue, I was gazing up now at the Arc de Triomphe, if, like me, you too have stood be-fore it and felt your own inner bickerings stilled by its white solemnity.) But the regret, though less acute, remained. There were so many things I might have learned ! Why had I not at least asked
The bell in a nearby church boomed two, and I started up in my chair with a smile. When one looks into the fire it is as though time were passing ; dreams are almost as real as events. It was still November. My letter to Anatole France was on the table at my hand. I picked it up, laid it on the coals, and watched it as it curled inward, turned black, and burst into sudden flame.