By 1921, the year Anatole France was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Germany and France had been locked in mutual enmity for three centuries or more1. During the awards ceremony, France found himself standing on stage next to German chemist Walther Nernst, and, well, I'll let NobelPrize.org finish the story:
After Anatole France had received his Prize from the hands of the King, there occurred an incident which left a strong impression on all present. When the venerable had gone up to the rostrum again, he turned to Professor Walther Nernst, Prize winner in Chemistry, and exchanged a long and cordial handshake with him. The Frenchman, the «last classic», and the German, the great scientist and representative of intellectual sobriety, the citizens of two countries which had for a long time been enemies, were united in a handshake - a profoundly symbolic gesture. The audience applauded, feeling that the two nations, which for years had fought against one another, had just met in reconciliation. (source)This was not new territory for France -- the very backbone of his writing style is his ability to contrast (and sometimes even reconcile) opposites in interesting, insightful ways. In The Gods Will Have Blood, which is set during the Reign of Terror that marked the final blood-frenzied days of the French Revolution, this style manifests itself in several ways, the simplest of which are oxymoronic descriptions like "fanatic patience" and "reasoned dogmatism." The novel also spends a great deal of time contrasting the life-and-death seriousness of the Revolutionary Tribunals and deadly political infighting amongst powerful intellectuals with the largely unaffected daily lives of the French commoners. But the best two examples of this style of opposites in The Gods Will Have Blood are its two main characters, the aging ex-nobleman and epicurean Maurice Brotteaux and the opinionated, highly principled young painter Evariste Gamelin.
Gamelin is a fiercely passionate man who throws himself into everything -- conversations about fine art, defenses of the Revolutionary government's actions, his love affair with Elodie Blaise, etc. -- with equal force. His uncompromising approach to life is by turns admirable and disquieting; it's hard not to admire his resolve and strength of will, but when he is appointed to the Revolutionary Tribunal those same qualities lead him to order the executions of hundreds of his countrymen on the scantest of evidence.
Brotteaux, who lives in the same cramped building as Gamelin, is an unapologetic hedonist who insists that the pursuit of pleasure and beauty is paramount in life. In most authors' hands, a character with beliefs like his would invariably turn out to be a drunken, bug-eyed lech who double-entendres his way through every conversation. Instead, we are introduced to a good, gentle man who finds beauty and pleasure in the simplest of things, an atheist who willingly shelters a priest being hunted by the Revolutionary police, and a thinker who freely expresses his beliefs and ideals while all around him he sees others rounded up and executed for saying far less.
In the introduction included with my copy of the novel, translator Frederick Davies asserts that "Anatole France is one of the very few authors who have successfully portrayed both a very good man and a very wicked man in the same novel." I remember feeling skeptical of that comment at the time2, but after reading the novel I have to say that I agree. I'm also going to have to hunt down a few of Anatole France's other novels.
1The exact timeframe depends on whether one dates the origin of the animosity between the two nations to the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) or to some earlier conflict. If you really wanted to stretch things, an argument could be made for French-German revanchism originating in the Treaty of Verdun which split up the Carolingian Empire in the mid-9th Century. Some folks really know how to hold a grudge.
2I've found that when it comes to praise, introductions tend to err on the side of the sort of effusiveness that would embarrass the most obsequious of yes-men -- doubly so when they're written by translators. Hell, just look at this passage from the translator's note in my copy of The Magic Mountain:
But of the author of The Magic Mountain it can be said in a special sense that he has looked into the seeds of Time. It was indispensable that we should read his book; intolerable that English readers should be barred from a work whose spirit, whatever its vehicle, is universal.It's enough to make you stick a finger down your throat.