Thursday, 24 April 2008

The Amethyst Ring by Anatole France (winner 1921)

Pointless, that’s the best possible summary of The Amethyst Ring by Anatole France, pointless from start to finish. It opens with an amusing enough vignette of Mme Bergeret, but then she promptly disappears from the scene, never to reappear. In fact, I didn’t notice her disappearance until very late in the piece, because the entire book is peopled with inconsequential characters who come and go randomly. Not one single thing of consequence happens in the book; even the minor incidents which are related don’t go anywhere and are soon forgotten. Its sudden ending is an absolute low point: a bishop, who has newly gained his position thanks to the lobbying of various society ladies, writes an open letter to the government decrying the unfair tax laws religious communities were subject to: and fin. What earthly purpose did that serve? If France was concerned with the inequities of taxation, he would have done better to write that open letter himself, instead of springing it as possibly the worst ending of a book I have ever read.

The only theme in the book is a recurring discussion of anti-Semitism, revolving around the Dreyfuss affair. Prior to reading the book (and it’s never explained within in), my knowledge of the Dreyfuss affair was limited to a vague muddle of: it took place in France, it was somehow related to anti-Semitism and “J’accuse!”. So I suppose the book can be credited with sending me to Wikipedia and a skim-read of the Dreyfuss affair article – Dreyfuss was accused of selling French military secrets, based on very circumstantial evidence and apparently suspicion centred on him because he was Jewish. An international outcry followed, although much of the French public were on the side of the military hierarchy, and he was eventually cleared. It possibly brought down the government of the day, I didn’t really pay sufficient attention…

I commented, in relation to Gordimer’s A World of Strangers, that ‘issue’ books risk being dated once the issue around which they revolve has faded from the popular imagination, and The Amethyst Ring may suffer from this effect to an extent, inasmuch as people aren’t quite so het up about the Dreyfuss affair these days. But the book’s failings can’t be blamed wholly on this problem; even its treatment of the Dreyfuss affair is unenlightening and the book doesn’t really come to a conclusion as to how the whole affair, or the Jewish people, should be viewed.

And the amethyst ring of the title? It’s a ring bought for the aforementioned bishop to fete his appointment, left behind by mistake at a debtor’s house and confiscated with the rest of his possessions. Its significance remains a mystery: thus an apt enough title, as it’s as pointless as the rest of the book.

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