A pack of cards is a book of adventure, of the kind called romances

From Anatole France’s The Queen Pedauque (La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque) (ch17):

“That’s well,” sail M, d’Anquetil. “You have some wine, I have dice and cards in my pocket. We can play.”

“It is true,” said my good master, “that is a pleasant pastime. A pack of cards is a book of adventure, of the kind called romances. It is so far superior to other books of a similar kind that it can be made and read at the same time, and that it is not necessary to have brains to make it, nor knowledge of reading to read it. It is a marvellous work, also, in that it offers a regular and new sense every time its pages are shuffled. It is a contrivance never to be too much admired, because out of mathematical principles it extracts thousands on thousands of curious combinations, and so many singular affinities that it is believed, contrary to all truth, that in it are discoverable the secrets of hearts, the mystery of destinies and the arcanum of the future. What I have said is particularly applicable to the tarot of the Bohemians, which is the finest of all games, piquet not excepted.

It’s probably either a trope I don’t recognize or a chance convergence of thought but this reminds me much of the notion behind Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Either way, Calvino’s explanation of the formation of that work – in which characters, unable to speak, tell their tales through setting out Tarot cards and are given verbal interpretations by the narrator – is curious enough to deserve quoting. At bottom is an image of how this process played out:

I publish this book to be free of it: it has obsessed me for years. I began by trying to line up tarots at random, to see if I could read a story in them. “The Waverer’s Tale” emerged; I started writing it down; I looked for other combinations of the same cards; I realized the tarots were a machine for constructing stories; I thought of a book, and I imagined its frame: the mute narrators, the forest, the inn; I was tempted by the diabolical idea of conjuring up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck.

I thought of constructing a kind of crossword puzzle made of tarots instead of letters, of pictographic stories instead of words. I wanted each of the stories to have a coherent significance, and I wanted them to afford me pleasure in writing them—or in rewriting them, if they were already classic stories…. And so I spent whole days taking apart and putting back together my puzzle; I invented new rules for the game, I drew hundreds of patterns, in a square, a rhomboid, a star design; but some essential cards were always left out, and some superfluous ones were always there in the midst. The patterns became so complicated (they took on a third dimension, becoming cubes, polyhedrons) that I myself was lost in them.

To escape from this impasse I gave up patterns and resumed writing the tales that had already taken shape, not concerning myself with whether or not they would find a place in the network of the others. But I felt that the game had a meaning only if governed by ironclad rules; an established framework of construction was required, conditioning the insertion of one story in the others. Without it, the whole thing was gratuitous.
There was another fact: not all the stories I succeeded in composing visually produced good results when I set myself to writing them down. There were some that sparked no impulse in the writing, and I had to eliminate them because they would have lowered the tension of the style. Then there were others that passed the test and immediately acquired the cohesive strength of the written word which, once written, will not be budged.

Suddenly, I decided to give up, to drop the whole thing; I turned to something else. It was absurd to waste any more time on an operation whose implicit possibilities I had by now explored completely, an operation that made sense only as a theoretical hypothesis. A month went by, perhaps a whole year, and I thought no more about it. Then all of a sudden, it occurred to me that I could try again in a different way, more simple and rapid, with guaranteed success. I began making patterns again, correcting them, complicating them. Again I was trapped in this quicksand, locked in this maniacal obsession. Some nights I woke up and ran to note a decisive correction, which then led to an endless chain of shifts. On other nights I would go to bed relieved at having found the perfect formula; and the next morning, on waking, I would tear it up. Even now, with the book in galleys, I continue to work over it, take it apart, rewrite. I hope that when the volume is printed I will be outside it once and for all. But will this actually happen?

And in days of yore it was the saying in Gaul that the soldier’s best friend was Madame Marauding

From Anatole France’s At the Sign of The Reine Pédauque (La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque).

“Well then,” M. d’Anquetil continued, “whatever may be printed of it in the gazettes, war consists, above all things, of stealing the pigs and chickens of peasants. Soldiers in the fields have no other occupation.”

“You are right,” said M. Coignard, “and in days of yore it was the saying in Gaul that the soldier’s best friend was Madame Marauding.

—Eh bien! reprit M. d’Anquetil, quoi que disent les gazettes, la guerre consiste uniquement à voler des poules et des cochons aux vilains. Les soldats en campagne ne sont occupés que de ce soin.

—Vous avez bien raison, dit mon bon maître, et l’on disait jadis en Gaule que la bonne amie du soldat était madame la Picorée.

As best I can trace it, the Madame Marauding/madame la Picorée witticism makes its first appearance in the 16th century memoirs of François de la Noue which cover the early wars of religion. In his description of the 1562 fall of Boisgency (modern Beaugency, I think) and the cruelty of the soldiers towards the inhabitants he says:

…So our infantry lost its virginity and from this illegitimate conjunction followed the conception of Madamoiselle La Picorée, who has since so increased in dignity that we now call here Madame. And if the civil war continues on, I have no doubt that she will become a Princess.

The passage and full text are here on google books

The Procurator of Judea

This is a short tale by Anatole France from his 1892 collection L’Etui de nacre (Mother of Pearl). The full French text can be found here and an English translation here. The extract I’d have opted for feels both too much a spoiler and too insignificant when pulled from context – since the artistry of the tale is very much in its continued denial, a sort of variant on the Holmesian curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.

And in passing – I don’t have access to it right now but there’s an Italian translation with a preface by Leonardo Sciascia that is surely worth reading.

But before proceeding I must beg very serious persons not to read this

From the introductory chapter to Anatole France’s Abeille.

But before proceeding I must beg very serious persons not to read this. It is not written for them. It is not written for grave people who despise trifles and who always require to be instructed. I only venture to offer this to those who like to be entertained, and whose minds are both young and gay. Only those who are amused by innocent pleasures will read this to the end. Of these I beg, should they have little children, that they will tell them about my Honey-Bee. I wish this story to please both boys and girls and yet I hardly dare to hope it will. It is too frivolous for them and, really, only suitable for old-fashioned children. I have a pretty little neighbour of nine whose library I examined the other day. I found many books on the microscope and the zoophytes, as well as several scientific story-books. One of these I opened at the following lines: “The cuttle-fish Sepia Officinalis is a cephalopodic mollusc whose body includes a spongy organ containing a chylaqueous fluid saturated with carbonate of lime.” My pretty little neighbour finds this story very interesting. I beg of her, unless she wishes me to die of mortification, never to read the story of Honey-Bee.

Mais, avant d’aller plus avant, je supplie les personnes graves de ne point me lire. Ceci n’est pas écrit pour elles. Ceci n’est point écrit pour les âmes raisonnables qui méprisent les bagatelles et veulent qu’on les instruise toujours. Je n’ose offrir cette histoire qu’aux gens qui veulent bien qu’on les amuse et dont l’esprit est jeune et joue parfois.

Ceux à qui suffisent des amusements pleins d’innocence me liront seuls jusqu’au bout. Je les prie, ceux-là, de faire connaître mon Abeille à leurs enfants, s’ils en ont de petits. Je souhaite que ce récit plaise aux jeunes garçons et aux jeunes filles ; mais, à vrai dire, je n’ose l’espérer. Il est trop frivole pour eux et bon seulement pour les enfants du vieux temps. J’ai une jolie petite voisine de neuf ans dont j’ai examiné l’autre jour la bibliothèque particulière. J’y ai trouvé beaucoup de livres sur le microscope et les zoophytes, ainsi que plusieurs romans scientifiques. J’ouvris un de ces derniers et je tombai sur ces lignes : « La sèche, Sepia officinalis, est un mollusque céphalopode dont le corps contient un organe spongieux à trame de chiline associé à du carbonate de chaux. » Ma jolie petite voisine trouve ce roman très intéressant. Je la supplie, si elle ne veut pas me faire mourir de honte, de ne jamais lire l’histoire d’Abeille.

By the time one has read them all one does not know what to think about anything

From Anatole France’s Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard:

– Que de livres ! s’écria-t-elle. Et vous les avez tous lus, monsieur Bonnard ?

– Hélas ! oui, répondis-je, et c’est pour cela que je ne sais rien du tout, car il n’y a pas un de ces livres qui n’en démente un autre, en sorte que, quand on les connaît tous, on ne sait que penser. J’en suis là, madame.

“What a lot of books!” she cried. “And have you really read them all, Monsieur Bonnard?”

“Alas! I have,” I replied, “and that is just the reason that I do not know anything; for there is not a single one of those books which does not contradict some other book; so that by the time one has read them all one does not know what to think about anything. That is just my condition, Madame.”