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Exploring Europe at the British Library

14 July 2014

Vive [la] France! 'Les Dieux ont soif' and the French Revolution

In 1921 the French author Anatole France (1844-1924; photo below from Wikimedia Commons) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature ‘in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements, characterized as they are by a nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament’. He had been a member of the Académie Française, and in 1927 the Symbolist author Paul Valéry was elected to succeed him among the Immortels. Tradition decreed that he should deliver a eulogy in honour of his predecessor, but instead the new Academician proceeded to launch an attack on France’s humble origins as the son of a Paris bookseller, his prose style, his politics and his pusillanimous nature. What was responsible for the discrepancy between the international acclaim which France received abroad and the vicious obloquy meted out to him in his own country so soon after his death?

Photograph of Anatole France in 1921

Many of the reasons can be found in the resentment felt by Valéry and his fellow Symbolists at what they perceived as France’s mockery of their work. In reaction against the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, he had written in the tradition of the Realist movement, and never more brilliantly than in his novel of the French Revolution, Les Dieux ont soif (Paris, 1912; British Library 12550.ppp.22).

Variously translated as The Gods are Athirst and The Gods will have Blood, this is the story of a young man, Evariste Gamelin, who during the Terror undergoes a transformation from a devoted son and sensitive artist to a fanatical member of the Commune prepared to despatch countless victims, including his own brother-in-law, to the guillotine, and ends up, like Robespierre, being destroyed by the Revolution itself in a coup which outlaws the entire General Council which supported the rebellious Commune. France mercilessly portrays the inexorable corruption of the principles on which the revolution was based as the Terror gathers momentum and sweeps bewildered and hapless innocents – an old bread-woman, for example, accused of plotting to rescue the Queen – into the Tuileries and onto the tumbrils on trumped-up charges of counter-revolutionary activities. The appearance of Marie Antoinette in court is almost incidental in the general turbulence, described in a brief throwaway paragraph or two. France shows how the personal and political are equally polluted as Gamelin becomes increasingly delusional, condemning a blameless young man to death on false evidence as he is convinced that the latter was the man who had seduced his mistress Elodie, and a disturbing element of increasingly frenzied and hectic sado-masochism marks their relationship.  He illustrates the decline of lofty ideals to the squalor and squabbling of the Paris mob in a bread queue and dogs licking yesterday’s blood below the guillotine. Yet alongside these he creates painterly scenes of startling beauty – two women preparing quinces for jam-making, a small Savoyard boy entertaining passers-by with a dancing marmot – which complement the background of Gamelin, an artist, and Elodie, an art-dealer’s daughter. He also presents the reader with an entirely convincing depiction of a truly good man in the figure of the former aristocrat and avowed atheist Brotteaux, who rides on his last journey between a former monk and a young prostitute and offers comfort to them both.

Pictures of French revolutionary playing cards with republican allegorical female figures

A set of revolutionary playing-cards from 1790-92, similar to those designed by Evariste Gamelin in the novel, showing republican motifs including the elements, the seasons and values associated with the declaration of the Rights of Man, from Egalité-sur-Marne (Château-Thierry), in Henri-René d’Allemagne, Les Cartes à jouer du XIVe au XXe siècle (Paris, 1906) LB.31.c.6035. 

France himself had seen at first hand the duplicity and deformation of ideals betrayed and political cynicism during the Dreyfus trial, and his action in coming to Dreyfus’s defence and thereby risking his social and literary reputation was not that of a timorous man. Moreover, the scrupulous precision with which he handled language stemmed from his conviction of the importance of preserving it from the kind of creeping debasement in the service of ideology which George Orwell, one of his greatest admirers, would later identify in his essay Politics and the English Language (London, 1946; shelfmark 12987.h.3.).

Two years after the publication of Les Dieux ont soif, France’s country, with the rest of Europe, would be plunged into another conflict which, Cronus-like, devoured its children as pitilessly as the Revolution did Gamelin. His evocation of the terrible consequences of fanaticism and the belief that any means are justifiable to achieve its aims endowed his greatest novel with an eerily prophetic quality in the years preceding the First World War, and continue to give it a timeless relevance today.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak


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