The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
by Anatole France
1881 / 234 pages (Kindle)
rating: 7.5 ?
“The poor man who has no desires possesses the greatest of riches; he possesses himself. The rich man who desires something is only a wretched slave.” (p. 17 – Kindle)
I read and quite enjoyed France’s Penguin Island years ago so when the 19th Century group chose this for discussion I rather looked forward to it.
And it started quite well, I was promptly involved in Part 1, The Log, where Sylvestre keeps a diary and tells the story of how he desired a certain ancient book so much, he obsessed over it. In the meanwhile he befriends a poor neighbor by giving them a large log for their Christmas fire. Years later he’s still desiring the book and travels to Sicily to find it but it wasn’t there – instead a series of rather mysterious events took over.
He lands back in Paris where he receives the book as a gift. The story goes back in time to when he fell in love with a young woman named Clementine but circumstances interfered. The woman has a granddaughter named Jeane whom Sylvestre meets and befriends. She is living in a book-obsessed world and he wants to widen it for her.
The point is that Sylvestre is so bookish he doesn’t really know how to live – and he’s a bit nervous Jeanne might be falling into a similar rut.
The writing is fun if you can get the sense of a document written in 1881 but not available in the US until the 1930s (France won the Nobel). And the story is great in places but in others it drags. Also, I’m not sure about the point of it – a satire on money and obsessions and character I suppose, with Dickensian overtones?
The characters are well done, especially Therese, Sylvestre’s housekeeper.
There were illustrations in the original editions some of which are reproduced here: https://thebookexaminer.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/the-crime-of-sylvestre-bonnard/