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Perhaps only an author whose literary reputation was firmly established could have published this novel in 1914. It has elements of science fiction, certainly of fantasy, yet is a satire on war, government and religion; and places the reader firmly in Paris, at a time when the city was braced for war. It is a delight to read with a writing style that looks back towards "le fin de siècle" rather than forwards to 20th century modernism.
The disparate elements which make up this novel hold together reasonably well, because the reader never loses the charm with which it is written. It starts off as a mystery with books disappearing from the wealthy family d'Esparvieu's private library. Poor Sariette the family librarian cannot explain the weird things going on in the library, books displaced, thrown around, found outside the library and worst of all randomly desecrated. Arcade is soon revealed as the culprit; an angel who materialises in front of Maurice d'Esparvieu and is using the library to gain an education. There is no call for an education in heaven and with the help of his reading Arcade is planning a revolution that will dethrone God and replace him with Lucifer. Arcade however is Maurice's guardian angel, but he cannot lead a revolution and keep his day job as a guardian to Maurice, and there is a further complication as angels are notoriously liable to desire mortal women and he wants Maurice's mistress; Madame des Aubels.
There is a group of characters around the art forger Guinardon that become closely linked with other fallen angels and Maurice enters their world in pursuit of Arcade, but these tales of life and loves in Paris are a backdrop to the coming revolution in heaven. We learn that God is in fact Ialdabaoth a minor demiurge who has gained control of heaven through his lies and deceitful ways. He is a narrow minded tyrant, only one of many who operate in our galaxy, he has based his power on the fable of Christianity, which Anatole France says, could influence those feeble intellects that are to be found everywhere in great masses and enjoy the idea of suffering in this world to gain an advantage in the next. Anatole France then launches the reader on an alternative version of a history of creation and the domination of man in our world, before dropping back to the fallen angels and their dealings with the local Parisians in present times. On the way through all of this there is plenty of opportunity for satire and some choice remarks:
Max Everdirgen is a fallen angel who has become a financier who encourages war because of course it is good for business. Ialdabaoth (God) has little general culture but is a soldier - to the marrow of his bones, The organisation of paradise is a thoroughly military operation, it is founded on hierarchy and discipline. Passive obedience is imposed there as a fundamental law. The fallen angels are lectured on the advantages of modern warfare where numbers of men are all important and the fact that promotion in the military is based on time served rather than brilliant generalship. The heading to chapter XXVII starts with a typical summary by the author:
"wherein we shall see revealed a dark and secret mystery and learn how it comes about, that empires are often hurled against empires, and ruin falls alike upon the victors and the vanquished; and the wise reader (if such there be - which I doubt) will meditate on the important utterance "a war is a matter of business"
The lives of the Parisians on the ground and the final battle in heaven provide a climax to the book. There are lessons to be learned and Anatole France's wry views on the human condition permeate throughout his fantastical story.
Just so as the reader is in no doubt that this is a French novel written by a Frenchman Anatole reminds us that:
French cooking is the best in the world. It is a glory that will transcend all others when humanity has grown wise enough to put the spit before the sword
Just as H G Wells' story of a fallen angel The Wonderful Visit published 20 years earlier gave a parochial feeling of Southern England Anatole Frances' book gives us Paris, but a city nervous about a war coming ever closer. Frances' book is of a grander scale but the angels are curiously similar to Wells' angel, We might want them to be friends and guardians, but we might need to keep them away from our partners. A thoroughly enjoyable read which I rate at 4 stars.
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