Anatole France (1844-1924) was one of the great writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing many works, the most famous of which include L’Île des Pingouins (Penguin Island) in 1908 and La Revolte des Anges (The Revolt of the Angels) in 1914. The publication of Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard) in 1881, his second work of prose fiction, is the work that made France famous. France was a noted bibliophile, as one can readily tell when you read his descriptions of books and in the words and thinking of the protagonist in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard.
I have taken great pains to collect and preserve all those rare and curious editions which people the City of Books; and for a long time I used to believe that they were as necessary to life as air and light. I have loved them well, and even now I cannot prevent myself from smiling at them and caressing them. Those morocco bindings are so delightful to the eye! Those old vellums so soft to the touch! There is not a single one among those books which is not worthy, by reason of some special merit, to command the respect of an honorable man.
Which of us cannot say this:
Each one dreams the dream of life in his own way. I have dreamed it in my library…
In fact, those of us hooked on books are no better than children when it comes to self-discipline on controlling our ‘need’ for the next book!
We remain forever children, and are always running after new toys.
Books ran in France’s family; his father owned a bookstore named Librairie France. France was elected in 1896 as a member of the Académie française and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921 in recognition of his literary achievements.
The protagonist in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard is an old scholar, Sylvester Bonnard, who is somewhat crafted after France himself. Bonnard, never married, lives in an apartment in Paris surrounded by his books. His only real companions, besides his books, is his cat and headstrong housekeeper Therese. The novel is split into two parts, both written as a series of diary entries. The first is called ‘The Log’ and the second ‘The Daughter of Clementine‘. Connections between the stories are somewhat limited and not initially obvious except that Bonnard is the central character in both books.
In ‘The Log’, Bonnard is shown in all his ‘bibliomania’ self as he searches far and wide for a unique manuscript from the catalogue of Sir Thomas Raleigh. As mentioned in the introduction, concerning Bonnard, in a description that could probably be said of many reading this review:
He dreamed much over his texts. All bibliophiles must, for the greatest enjoyment a man can receive from his books is the thoughts that they evoke.
During this adventure, Bonnard takes pity on an impoverished couple, giving them wood for a fire to keep them warm. Despite the protestations of Therese, Bonnard occasionally inquires in about the couple and finds out that the man had died, and the widow had moved. Unbeknownst to Bonnard, the widow (now named Madame Trepof) re-marries a rich aristocrat. Bonnard meets them while looking for his book, without realizing she is the formerly poverty stricken lady that he had helped. He fails in acquiring the manuscript he had been seeking. However, he is surprised one day as the manuscript is sent to him once day as a gift in gratitude, from Madame Trepof.
Bonnard does give us some truisms, some recognition that we bibliophiles can sometimes get in too deep:
He who lives little, changes little; and it is scarcely living at all to use up one’s days over old texts.
While that is undoubtably true, so is the following when it comes to the passion for books that bibliophiles harbor:
I have always preferred the folly of the passions to the wisdom of indifference…And if these fierce enthusiasms are slowly being quenched in me, it is only because I am being slowly quenched myself. Our passions are ourselves. My old books are Me.
The passion must be controlled, else we forget:
The poor man who has no desires possesses the greatest of riches; he possesses himself. The rich man who desires something is only a wretched slave.
‘The Daughter of Clementine‘ tells the story of Sylvestre’s first (and only) love. When young, Bonnard had fallen deeply in love with Clementine, a young lady who was the daughter of his father’s friend. However, when their fathers had a falling out, Bonnard never saw her again.
Youth and beauty are faithful companions of poets; but those charming phantoms scarcely visit the rest of us, even for the space of a season. We do not know how to retain them with us.
Years later, Bonnard learns that Clementine had married a rich banker and had a daughter named Jeanne. However, all the money was lost, and Clementine and her husband died impoverished while Jeanne was still a child. While at the de Gabry estate cataloguing a library, Bonnard meets Jeanne and becomes determined to assist her. He arranges to make frequent visits to the school where she boards.
During his visits to the school, it becomes apparent to him that Jeanne is treated poorly and is not receiving the education he wishes for her. He tells the head of the school, Mme Prefere,
“It is only by amusing one’s self that one can learn,” I replied. “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards; and curiosity itself can be vivid and wholesome only in proportion as the mind is contented and happy. Those acquirements crammed by force into the minds of children simply clog and stifle intelligence. In order that knowledge be properly digested, it must be swallowed with good appetite.”
When he rebuffs attempts by the Mme Prefere to marry, le loses access to Jeanne. When he finds out she is being treated even more poorly than before, Bonnard rescues her from the school. This is a ‘crime’ because Jeanne is underage and he would be liable to be charged with abduction and corruption of a minor. However, Jeanne’s legal guardian left France after defrauding his clients, and no charges are brought against Bonnard.
Bonnard becomes her legal guardian and Jeanne lives with him in Paris. She ends up falling in love with a young man that Bonnard is mentoring and they become engaged. To give Jeanne a dowry, Bonnard decides to sell all his books, except those given to him as gifts which includes the book given to him by Madame Trepof. Despite this pledge, he cannot resist and while all in the household sleep, he decides to save another rare volume, thus committing another “crime” by reducing the value of the dowry. Whether the ‘crime’ in the title of this story refers to his abduction of Jeanne or his retaining a few books from the auction block, remains a controversy to critics. Some even claim his crime refers to his benevolence in a society without such.
France is a master of quotable statements. Great literature almost always looks at the fleeting nature of life. France sums it up nicely:
…I hold that man is only master of time, which is Life itself, when he has divided it into hours, minutes, seconds — that is to say, into parts proportioned to the brevity of human existence. And I thought to myself that life really seems short to us only because we measure it irrationally by our own mad hopes. We have all of us, like the old man in the fable, a new wing to add to our own building.
How many books today are ignored because ‘progress’ seems to make them no longer relevant. What do we lose when we forget these works? The ability to understand from where we come, making the following unfortunate, but largely true:
The progress of science renders useless the very books which have been the greatest aids to that progress. As those books are no longer useful, modern youth is naturally inclined to believe they never had any value; it despises them, and ridicules them if they happen to contain any superannuated opinion whatever.
France’s writing often is poetic in is resonance, this being an excellent example.
The beautiful Night! She rules, with such noble repose, over men and animals alike, kindly loosed by her from the yoke of daily toil….
The Limited Editions Club edition of The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, published in 1937, is a fantastic edition, mostly due to the narrative-based, animated and colorful illustrations (done in water color) by Sylvain Sauvage. It is amazing how sharp these illustrations remain after 75+ years. The Miliani Gilio paper with Caslon set in linotype is very readable and a decent match with the tone of the story. The binding, in green linen with gold and green stamping, is attractively done. All in all, a nice edition that can still be found at a very nice price in near fine or better condition.
About the Edition
- Published in 1937
- Designed and printed by Edward A. Miller at Marchbanks Press in New York
- Water color illustrations by Sylvain Sauvage
- Illustrations reproduced by process offset by Duenewald Printing Corporation
- Translation by Lafcadio Hearn
- Introduction by A. S. W. Rosenbach
- Set in linotype Caslon
- Miliani Gilio paper
- Bound by Russell-Rutter Company in full green linen, stamped in green and gold from design by LeRoy H. Appleton
- 218 pages, 9 1/3″ x 11 3/8″
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Sylvain Sauvage
Pictures of the Edition
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