The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France
Translated by Frederick Davies

For some reason, I seem to have been finding myself a little unfocused over the last couple of weeks when it comes to reading. Some books I’ve been drawn to read straight away, but then I seem to find myself flailing around trying to decide where to go next. Book hangovers don’t help either…. I think it’s partly the manic time of year (work is horrendous) and also a plethora of lovely books to choose from.

Anyways, as they say – I decided to fling myself with wild abandon (ok, gently) at the French Revolution pile and settled on Anatole France’s “The Gods Will Have Blood”. Written in 1912, the book comes highly talked up and apparently has resonances with conflicts that occurred in the 20th century. Well – it was *interesting*, but a book not without problems and one that I would argue doesn’t always live up to the hype…

Anatole France is an author I’m pretty sure I haven’t read before (although I *did* own one of his books in the past, though I suspect that might have gone back to the charity shop in one of my periodic clear outs). France won the Nobel Prize in 1921; his reputation as a person and an author seems to have varied over the years, though very laudably he supported Zola during the Dreyfus Affair; and as a man of letters wrote across genres, producing anything from poetry, prose, plays and memoirs to a number of variants of criticism. “Gods…” was one of his last novels, and it’s more literally translated sometimes as “The Gods are Athirst”. This Penguin Classics version perhaps goes for a more inflammatory title, bearing in mind the subject matter, but I’m not sure it’s any better or worse than the other.

The sole destiny of all living beings seems only to become the fodder of other living beings fated also to the same end.

That’s by the by, really; what of the subject matter? Central to the story is Evariste Gamelin, a young painter living in Paris during the aftermath of the 1789 revolution. Evariste is a strong and strident supporter of the Jacobin regime; Marat and Robespierre are his gods; and as he becomes drawn more deeply into the administration of the new leaders, his fanaticism increases in inverse proportion to his compassion and kindness. At the start of the book he is a good man, in love with Elodie, the daughter of Jean Blaise, a print maker. At the end of it, he has become some kind of monster, ready to be devoured by the savage regime he has helped create and perpetuate.

The story is populated with a number of characters, all struggling to survive and carry on some kind of normal life during extraordinary events. Most interesting, perhaps, is Maurice Brotteaux who lodges above Evariste and his mother. Brotteaux is an intellectual, scraping a living from making puppets, and it’s tempting to see him as representative of the author. He’s cynical, susceptible to a beautiful woman, an atheist and somewhat to one side of the main run of the French people (Jacobins, aristocrats and religious types). Despite all that, he’s one of the most moral people in the book, helping a vulnerable monk and a troubled prostitute, and eventually becoming enmeshed in the vicious campaign of violence into which Paris is descending.

You live in a dream; I see life as it is. Believe me, my friend, the revolution’s become a bore: it’s lasted too long. Five years of rapture, five years of brotherly love, of massacres, of endless speeches, of the Marseillaise, of bells ringing to man the barricades, of aristocrats hanging from lamp-posts, of heads stuck on pikes,, of women with cannons between their legs, of little girls and old men in white robes on flower-bedecked chariots, the prisoners, the guillotine, semi-starvation, proclamations, cockades, plumes, swords, carmagnoles, it’s all gone on too long! Nobody knows anymore what it’s all about! We’ve seen too much, we’ve seen too many of these great patriots raised up for us to worship only for them to be hurled from your Tarpeian Rock – Necker, Mirabeau, La Fayette, Bailly, Petion, Manuel and all the rest of them. How do we know you’re not preparing the same fate for your new heroes?… Nobody knows any more!

What of Evariste himself? In many ways, his character may be part of the slight issues I had with the book. He’s rigid, in many ways narrow-minded and I actually didn’t find either himself or his lover, Elodie that sympathetic. However, sympathetic characters are not always a necessity and I reminded myself that France was using him as a tool in this book, to show how a reasonable and good person can be corrupted. At the start of the story he’s living with his mother, for whom he provides, and is capable of acts of great kindness; but his personality traits mean that inevitably his fervour for change will overwhelm his good points. The book throws up so much food for thought: is an ideal more important than a family link? Does terror beget terror, and is it ever justified? Is a pure love ever possible between people who don’t possess like minds? Does power always corrupt? Some of Evariste’s mental monologues are quite chilling and to watch his relationship with Elodie degenerate as he becomes more embroiled in death is not pleasant.

Gamelin was beginning to turn punishment into a religious and mystical ideal, to give it a virtue and merit of its own.

Despite the power of some of its portrayals, I do have some caveats about “Gods…” For a start, the writing seemed a little uneven, with the language veering from lyrical to melodramatic, and taking in long passages of philosophical musing. “Gods…” is very much a book of ideas and France’s need to discuss beliefs sometimes got in the way of the story. The characterisation often seemed underdeveloped, and again there was an unevenness, with important personages (for example, Evariste’s sister Julie) being brought into the story quite late on. It did sometimes seem that France was unsure as to whether he was writing an adventurous story of the Revolution, a political and philosophical treatise or a bodice-ripping pot-boiler; certainly there was a warped sensuality to some of the characters, which I get was intended to reflected strange events, strange times and the brutalising effect of violence – but it still jarred a little.

Storming of the Bastille (Jean-Pierre Houël [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

As for the Revolution itself, to be honest that was oddly muted and often seemed to be happening offscreen. Although the book was peppered with historical characters from David to Danton to Marat to Robespierre to the Austrian woman, the events were not particularly strongly delineated, so you would have to be fairly well versed in the French Revolution to really fully engage with the book. And the notation was quite limited, which was a bit of a shame because even with what I’ve read about the period I felt I could have done with a little more support.

Anatole France (Atelier Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the book *does* have many strengths, in particular its portrayal of the dread of living under the constant threat of denunciation and the guillotine. The horror is visceral and very real, and the parallels with what would come next under Stalin (or indeed any terror-driven regime you could name nowadays) are striking. Much is made of France’s prescience; well, I feel it’s probable that his view of the corruption which exists under any regime was informed by his experiences during the Dreyfus Affair. Yes, the events he describes in his book very much anticipate events following the Russian Revolution and Civil War (even down to the concept of children denouncing their parents), where just as much blood must have been spilled in the name of a cause as was during the French Revolution(s); but let’s face it, we’re a species that is very happy to kill for an ideal…

But “Gods…” captures a real sense of what it was like to live under that kind of terror and regime, and how under even the most impossibly circumstances human beings will still try to get on with their lives. France creates a wonderfully sympathetic character in Brotteaux; Evariste’s sister Julie was also a stand-out creation for me, and I would have like to see her make her entrance earlier in the book – I found her a nice antidote to the insufferable Elodie, who seemed no more than a shallow sensualist. However, despite my reservations, “The Gods Will Have Blood” was a powerful read which has very much lingered in my mind for days after I finished it. As a portrait of the consequences of rigid and unswerving belief, which inevitably lead to a loss of human empathy and compassion, it’s exemplary and France’s achievements here do outweigh the flaws. And if nothing else, reading this book certainly got me thinking that I must attack the very loosely constructed French Revolutionary reading pile soon, and in a slightly more focused way! 🙂