Sunday, July 8, 2012

Classic Lit: Penguin Island by Anatole France

Publisher: Signet Classics
Translator: Belle Notkin Burke
Date: 1908 (1968)
Format: paperback
Source: Christmas gift
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 253
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: A near-sighted man, cast upon an island somewhere off the Breton coast, proceeds to baptize the population. Unfortunately, this population consists entirely of penguins. However, when through Divine Grace all are granted the dubious privilege of becoming human, their history begins - and one of the most devastating satiric allegories ever conceived is set in motion. Written with the singular combination of elegant style and uncompromising irony of which Anatole France was a master, Penguin Island is a scalpel-like dissection of human stupidity, hypocrisy, sham and fraud. Sex, war, religion, business and politics, all are delineated by a pen dipped in acid. Though events in this extraordinary work correspond to the course of French history, the reader will have no difficulty in relating the author's concerns - whether they be reforming politicians who turn conservative at the first taste of power, or generals who climb to glory upon the corpses of soldiers - with contemporary realities. For, as David Caute writes in his keenly observed introduction, "the target of Anatole France's sharp and destructive wit is in reality the whole of Western Civilization."

My review: It took me a while to get into Penguin Island. I expected to find the novel bitingly satirical and was, for the most part, disappointed for the first half of the book. The episodes seemed fragmented and incohesive, which wasn't aided by my relative lack of knowledge in ancient and medieval French history. Though this could be due to the translation, I didn't think the author's writing style was all that great; it wasn't bad, but there was nothing special to recommend it. Still, the first half of the novel wasn't much of a drag, as I was able to read quickly and the plot kept moving.

The second half of Penguin Island was definitely an improvement. Anatole France reached the Renaissance-inspired part of the book, and so I kind of caught up with what exactly he was satirizing. Surprisingly, he spent relatively little time on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, instead preferring to focus on more modern events. Some Church-and-royalists-versus-the-republic conspiracy and the Dreyfus Affair occupied the longest segments of the novel. Each section of story increased in development and in humor, which in turn increased how much I enjoyed reading the book. I was particularly fascinated by the ending, which takes on a somewhat sci-fi aura as the author explores what the future holds for "Penguinia."

I don't usually like being distracted by footnotes in classic novels, but in this case, some explanatory notes would have been fantastic. Though Penguin Island can in many ways be read simply as a light, rather odd novel if one does not possess knowledge of the underlying history, I think better understanding the events which underpin Anatole France's allegory would have helped me enjoy the novel much more than I already did. This is a book that I'll need to return to in later years, perhaps armed with a good book outlining the history of the French nation.

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