Anatole France (1844-1924)
Trans.: J.A.V. Stritzco; Introduction: James Branch Cabell
This story is narrated by Elme Laurent Jacques Menetrier, other wise known as Jacques Tournebroche (turn spit). The latter cognomen results from Elme being employed from an early age as a spit turner at his father’s cookshop, the Queen Pedauque. The text is the tale of Jacques’ experiences under the tutelage of Jerome Coignard, Latinist, scholar, historian, religious philosopher, raconteur, part-time rake, and dedicated wine bibber.
Jacques’ early education was an unsettled business conducted by a local monk, Friar Ange, a connoisseur of cheap wines, Attic salt, and a lover of ladies. After the Friar is arrested for destroying a tavern, the Abbe Jerome Coignard offers to assume the duty of educating the boy, and by the time Jacques is nineteen years of age, he has attained a fair mastery of Latin and some Greek, and is familiar with a great variety of Biblical knowledge and theory.
One day while tending the cookshop fire, chatting with Jerome, a stranger dashes into the restaurant with an antique cane and starts thrashing the coals and tossing them about, yelling “Salamander” and cursing loudly. Jerome and Jacques calm the tall thin newcomer and they all sit down while he lectures them about alchemy and the spirits of the air. Salamanders and Sylphs, although invisible, abound in the atmosphere, and are constantly relating to and interfering with humans and their affairs. Salamanders occasionally fall in love with men, while Sylphs pursue women for various purposes. The man is Monsieur d’Asterac, the owner of a local derelict castle situated in a large number of untended and forested acres. He invites Jacques and Jerome to visit, which they do, and soon hires them to help him decipher ancient Greek and Latin texts. The two work assiduously at first, but as they never are paid, their enthusiasm begins to wane.
They find themselves making excuses for visiting the local village and inevitably run into trouble through sampling some of the local vintages and the concomitant association with miscellaneous sordid acquaintances. One thing leads to another, as it happens, and the two escape the town, pursued by the city police, accused of property destruction and assorted malfeasances, and kidnapping. (One of the girls, Catharine, fled with them.) Returning to the castle, Jacques falls in love with Jahel, the daughter of Mosaide, a partner of d’Asterac’s, but subsequently discovers that she favors Jerome, among others. One of the others is Anquetil, a drinking partner they had met in their last sortie on the village tavern. The latter convinces her to elope with him, leaving her jealous and abusive father to accompany him to his estate near Lyons. The two J’s agree to go along, but their plans are complicated by a stolen pearl necklace and d’Asterac’s plans to conjure up a Salamander for Jacques. Also, another noble, owner of a nearby estate is irate at Anquetil for stealing his mistress, Catharine.
The intricate difficulties mount to a head and Jacques, Jerome, Anquetil, and Catharine, fearing arrest, speed south to Lyons in two carriages. Near a hamlet, one of the vehicles overturns, injuring Jerome. They’ve been pursued by Catharine’s former lover and Mosaide, and as a result of the accident, they are temporarily arrested by the authorities. Jerome fades away, passing quietly a few weeks later, Catharine is returned for trial and is transported to America, Anquetil and Jahel continue on to his estate and Jacques goes home.
After settling in once more as “Tournebroche”, Jacques utilizes his education to get a job in a local book shop. He leads a quiet life and when the owner, Blaizot, retires, assumes possession of the store. In time, philosophers, authors, historians and religious figures frequent the business, but none of them are “as worthy as Jerome Coignard”.
I think this book would be quite different if read in the original language. Although it was witty, picaresque, funny and startling, i had the impression that i wasn’t quite getting the full thrust of of the many literary, philosophical, and religious references. Some of the metaphorical implications of France’s intent seemed largely absent: i could tell that a few of the apparently inane comments actually referred to events and concepts that might have seemed evident in the original, but not so much in English. Even so, it was quite interesting and humorous and the characters were pretty Gallic: behaving unlike English or American figures. The word is ambiance, i guess, indicating a societal and cultural environment strikingly different than what i, anyway, have been familiar with. There’s a sequel France wrote, “The Opinions of Jerome Coignard”, which i ordered and may do a post on at a later time.
France was an iconoclast. He was a social activist, a communist, and did his best to advertise the failings of the government. He actually was employed for a time in a bookshop owned by Blaizot, before he became a recognized and influential author.