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The Red Lily by Anatole France

The Red Lily (1894)

by Anatole France

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The Red Lily is an old-fashioned French novel about the aristocracy (or in my opinion the lazy rich). They spend their days visiting: each other, museums, churches, popular natural sites, and shops. They also philosophize, gossip and rendezvous with their lovers. And many times somebody gets hurt.

Anatole France uses dialog to describe the superficiality, the hypocrisy, the double-standard toward women, the awkward moments of this social group to make us see them clearly.

I didn't understand the political components as much as I would have liked but then again politics have never been my strong suit.

May I say this was a good read despite my NOT LIKING most of the characters? That speaks, of course, to the author's excellence. ( )
  Bookish59 | Jun 24, 2014 |
I will start with an avowal and with apologies. The main reason I decided to read this novel now was not so much because of an interest in the book and in its writer, but in another work and in another author. As part of the full year project of reading Proust’s La recherche, I want to read a selection of some of his contemporary writers.

Ruskin would have questioned the morality of such a purpose.

Anatole France himself was an important figure in Proust’s world. Older than Proust by almost thirty years, he was sort of his literary protector, writing the Preface to his first published work, Les plaisirs et les jours (1896). The character of Bergotte in the famous roman à clef is a key to Anatole France.

AF’s real name was François-Anatole Thibault and he lived from 1844 until 1924. As the son of a book seller, he was very well read and developed a very polished, sensitive and witty writing style. He occupied a very public place in the Parisian literary circles, as both a member of the prestigious Académie Française and as the Librarian of the Senate. May be it was his weighty role in the cultural circles of Paris, and his general excellent writing abilities, rather than the greatness of any particular work, that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1921 and that keep his name alive today.

The first draft of this novel had the very different title of La terre des morts. The final version was published in a serialized manner in La Revue de Paris in 1894 under its more beautiful name of Le lys rouge. This red flower crops up repeatedly in different guises along the book. As a natural flower, as a piece of jewelry, as a decoration in a silver teaspoon or most importantly, as the heraldic symbol of the city of Florence, it becomes a sort of idée fixe very much favored by the Symbolists.

The novel is considered as an exemplary Roman d’amour in French literature. For a more cynical reader from the twenty first century the story can easily seem one of silly jealousies. For the whole drama consists of a woman committing adultery with one man, and then with another one, and of the consequent jealousy felt by the latter two (no, not the husband). At the time it was easily realized that Anatole France knew what he was talking about. The not so hidden story between himself and Mme Arman-Caillavet (Léontine Lippman) could be easily read into the book. Mme Arman de Caillavet was well known for the Salon she held in Paris. AF eventually divorced his wife for her.

The main appeal of the book, if not in the plot, resides in the scenes, incidents, settings, and all the cultural vignettes that it describes. Art is the pervasive air that everyone breathes. The red lily could represent love as the embodiment of artistic passion, or a passionate love of art, or the art of passionate love, or as a passion for the love of art. But the best of all is that this is explored by AF’s exquisite prose.

But to return to our interest on the book’s relevance for Proust: the novel starts with a scene in a Parisian Salon. It then follows the British art and literary circles by traveling to the place in Europe where these circles could best be found, Florence. There it visits a Vivienne Bell (sic), who darlings everyone and collects “cloches” or bells (AF could be very lyrical but also very funny), and an opportunity is created to mention one of the Pre-Raphaelites, Burne Jones. Upon returning to Paris, there is an inevitable visit to the Opera house in which the looking around to society and to who is with whom, switches on the Degas mode. And in case anyone had missed this, Degas seems to be walking in himself with a lovely but somewhat disconnected description of his dancers doing their bar exercises next to men dressed in black.

In addition to the above elements, which make this a suitable parallel read to La recherche, there is an additional incident that links both writers and friends even closer. AF includes, again in a somewhat disconnected fashion to the rest of the story, and in the mouth of one of the secondary characters, Joseph Schmoll, an angry diatribe against the Arch of Titus standing in Rome. He denounces its high reliefs that show and celebrate the spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also this character who declares what has become the most famous quote from this novel: "L’antisémitisme, c’est la mort, entendez-vous, de la civilization européenne"

This, at the time very controversial statement, certainly takes us to one of the most memorable episodes of the friendship between Proust and AF.

When the Affair Dreyfus exploded, Proust, who later would represent himself as the first Dreyfusard, persuaded AF to stamp the first signature in a public statement in support of Alfred Dreyfus. A group of writers and artists declared their belief in the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. When Zola later vociferously and much more controversially championed the case also in support of Dreyfus, Anatole France then lent his support to both Dreyfus and Zola.

Le lys rouge has then been perfect foyer for approaching La recherche.

But to do AF justice, I plan to read, later on, two more of his books, Thaïs, in honor of someone, and the evocatively titled L’île des Pinguoins.

I am adding a postscript on Dec 11th, 2012 :

I have just learnt from [b:Marcel Proust: A Life|1258289|Marcel Proust A Life|William C. Carter|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1182310193s/1258289.jpg|1247105], that Proust was buried wearing the ring that Anatole France had given to the actress Gabriele Réjane, when Le lys rouge was later adapted for the theatre. She had acted the main role and the ring was brought to Proust's deathbed by Jacques Porel, her son. ( )
  KalliopeMuse | Apr 2, 2013 |
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She looked round at the arm-chairs, grouped in front of the fire, at the tea-table with its tea-things glittering like shadows, at the big bunches of delicately colored flowers in Chinese vases.
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In this love story, an egotistical woman seeks to rearrange her domestic situation in such a way as to replace a man she merely likes with one she deeply loves. The result is tragedy.

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