Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Revolt of the Angels

Antaole France

Nobel Laureate. Excellent, starts a bit slow but proves itself to be a tour de force of comic invention, emotional intensity and general creativity. The story appears for the first forty pages to be a setup for a rather dull society world with one Maurice the owner of a vast collection of books and discovering one of them to have gone missing. After a bit of by the numbers effort to see who might have taken it, Maurice is met by the being responsible. It’s his guardian angel, and as the result of reading the rationalist literary text the angel has decided that religion and the bonds of heaven are tyranny, and sets about to spread emancipatory consciousness among the order of angels. The title of the book wasn’t symbolic, it features the direct plot of the book, with lots of unexpected turns, good insights and general hilarity. The strength of the discordant relationship between Maurice and his ex-guardian angel could carry the book in themselves--there’s lots of hilarious and surreal scenes like where Maurice tries (unsuccessfully) to preach the virtues of religion, or when he challenges the angel into a duel over an issue of personal honor. Ultimately the book’s scale is a lot wider than just that aspect, and it benefits from it.

Much of the book is a direct satire. It’s from the early twentieth century and bits of this humor haven’t aged well, but a lot of it has. For instance there’s the effort by one angel to talk another into rebellion against the celestrial arrangement and the current social arrangement in France. The second angel protests, on the grounds that France needs no change and was already completely perfect. It then goes on a speech on how the main credit bank of Frane was particularly refined "as pure and chaste and the Holy Virgin."
The novel also has, late on, one of the most affecting inversions of Christian myth that I’ve seen. The text had previously established a gnostic worldview where the entity ruling by the name of God was a lying oppressor of less than ultimate power. It had also shown Satan and his followers to be free thinkers, who tried to defeat God from humanitarian altruist notions. Across the novel the new outbreak lead by Maurice’s ex-guardian angel linked up with the old resistance and formede plans for a new front, gathering strength to a march against the status quo. In the last chapter Satan has a dream, whereby his invasion is successful, the God-being is cast down and he takes on the celestial throne. The scenario plays out longer, with Satan becoming more cold, distant and egotistical, remote from and callous towards the human suffering that motivated his earlier fighting. He starts to shroud himself in mystery and hierarchy and govern as a tyrant. Simultaneously, cast down from the seat of power and command, God begins to observe the suffering of the small people and has a turn towards compassion and activity. Satan awakes from the dream, sees that a successful invasion of Heaen would just switch roles, and calls off the attack, resolving to maintain his spirit of compassion and work to help in smaller ways. There’s a basic attitude of decency built into this story that’s rather affecting, combined with the very strong and narratively surprising ending tone of anti-militarism. Such moments, of which the above is only the culmination, establish a writer of great sensitivity and complexity as well as humor.

The novel is enormously rewarding and entertaining. Proof that at least sometimes the Nobel Award for Literature wen into deserving hands. I’m definitely going to look up more of Anatole France’s writings.

Similar to and better than: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Similar to and also better than: The Hunchback of Notre Dama by Victor Hugo

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