On this day in 1924 Anatole France (Anatole Thibault) died. France took his pseudonym from his father’s Parisian bookstore, “Librairie de France,” rather than from any premonition of becoming the personification of French literature for his generation — a writer, said the citation for his 1921 Nobel, with “nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament.” Although opposed to Emile Zola’s naturalism and his exposé novels, France took Zola’s side throughout the Dreyfus affair, and at his contentious funeral famously praised the author as “a moment in the conscience of mankind.” By the time of his own death, France was regarded as the grand master of French literary style, and as an icon of nationalism and political commitment. A crowd of 200,000 attended his state funeral.
Among the crowd were Andre Breton and others in the “Surrealist Revolution.” Determined to move the avant-garde spirit of Dadaism into the political arena, the SR regarded the funeral as the ideal stage for attacking both France and France. Their first request was for official permission to open the author’s casket and slap the corpse. Denied this, they distributed “A Corpse” to the crowd, this a pamphlet in which Breton applauded the historic moment: “Let it be a holiday when we bury trickery, tradition, patriotism, opportunism, skepticism, and heartlessness…. His corpse should be put in an empty quayside box of the old books which he loved so much and thrown into the Seine. Dead, this man must produce dust no longer.”
Three days after orchestrating this first public “scandal,” Breton published his first “Manifesto of Surrealism.” Beyond praising dreams, Freud, and all those attempting to break free of Logic, it promised a modern sort of liberté-égalité-fraternité for those who pledged themselves to the new revolution: “Surrealism will usher you into death, which is a secret society. It will glove your hand, burying therein the profound M with which the word Memory begins. Do not forget to make proper arrangements for your last will and testament: speaking personally, I ask that I be taken to the cemetery in a moving van.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.