Monday, June 22, 2020

Summer of France, Reading Update 1

Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, takes place during the French Revolution, and it tells the sweeping story through the close perspective of three main characters: George-Jacques Danton, a driven, charismatic idealist whose face was famously scarred, Maximilien Robespierre, a controlled and formidable visionary, and Camille Desmoulins, the creative and beloved writer of pamphlets who battles a stutter. But there are many, many other characters. Hundreds of characters, in fact, who are listed in the six-page Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book. And the effect of the novel reminded me very much of the way we take in information today, in 2020, because it pivots between public events and private moments, between grand gestures and bloody actions, and the parlor conversations that take place simultaneously. Characters come in and out of focus; events rush by and much like a play, actors enter and exit the stage at what is sometimes a breathtaking pace. My reading strategy from the beginning has been to cling to those three main characters, and to try not to worry too much about keeping everyone else straight.

Mantel traces each of the main characters—all young lawyers—from their childhoods in rural areas through their migrations to Paris. The writing is always engaging, and so, for me, there’s a weird experience of not always knowing exactly what’s going on but being thorough entertained anyway. The setting: 1780s France, when unpopular taxes, a decline in harvests, and monarchical abuses of power have caused a civil unrest fueled, also, by watching the revolution across the Atlantic in America. The instigating circumstances, aims and events of the growing French Revolution are brought to life through the characters and their everyday interactions:

The voters didn’t go home; they stood in groups outside the Cordeliers’ church, gossiping and making predictions. Fabre didn’t have a vote because he didn’t pay enough taxes; the fact was making him spiteful. “Why couldn’t we have the same franchise as the provinces?” he demanded. “I’ll tell you what it is, they regard Paris as a dangerous city, they’re afraid of what would happen if we all had votes.” He engaged in seditious conversation with the truculent Marquis de Saint-Huruge. Louise Robert closed the shop and came out on Francois’s arm, wearing rouge and a frock left over from better days.

“Think what would happen if women had votes,” she said. She looked up at d’Anton. “Maitre d’Anton believes women have a lot to contribute to political life, don’t you?”

“I do not,” he said mildly.


M Reveillon remarked that the price of bread was too high. There was a murmur of agreement and a little sycophantic applause: as if the observation were original. If the price of bread were to come down, M. Reveillon said, employers could cut wages; this would lead to a reduction in the price of manufactured articles. Otherwise, M. Reveillon said, where would it all end? Prices up, wages up, prices up, wages up…

And with these glimpses around the city, we understand the situation, politically and economically, and we feel the dissatisfaction amongst the citizenry. None of it was completely unfamiliar, I must say: the disenfranchising of a group of voters, the disparity between rich and poor, the frustration and lack of agency leaving lower classes to feel they have to fight for their most basic needs. When Robespierre begins to address the crowd, there’s a feeling of a storm being unleashed:

Those few steps seemed like a field, and he was walking uphill in the mud, shouting “No, no,” his voice carried off by the wind. His heart seemed to have jumped up and hardened into his throat, the exact size of the piece of black bread the archbishop held in his hand. He turned, saw below him hundreds of white, blank, upturned faces, and heard his voice in the sudden hush, blistering and coherent:

“Let them sell their carriages, and give the money to the poor.”

The characterizations are vivid and creatively drawn, from Camille’s bisexuality and playful spirit, to the famous figure of Jean-Paul Marat represented mostly through word-of-mouth, to the depiction of the book's surprising heroine, Camille’s wife, Lucile, whom he has come to marry after an affair with her mother sputters out. Events are often rendered in surprising ways; it’s through Lucile that we get our first glimpse of the Storming of the Bastille:

“All this was planned,” she said. “I know there are reinforcements, but they have to cross the river.” She walked to the window. “Look. No moon tonight. How long will it take them to cross in the dark, with their commanders falling out amongst themselves? They only know how to fight on battlefields, they don’t know how to fight in the streets. By tomorrow morning—if they can be held now at the Place Louis XV—the troops will be cleared out of the city center. And the Paris Electors will have their militia on the streets; they can ask for arms from City Hall. There are guns at the Invalides, forty thousand muskets—”

“Battlefield?” Claud said. “Reinforcements? How to you know all this? Where did you learn it?”

“Where do you suppose?” she said coolly.

“Electors? Militia? Muskets? Do you happen to know,” he asked, with hysterical sarcasm, “where they will get the powder and shot?”

“Oh yes,” Lucile said. “At the Bastille.”

These moments of parlor discussion are punctuated, often startlingly, with images of the bloody acts that took place. The overall effect of Mantel’s methods is that you’re left with the feeling that reading her novel mimics what it must have felt like to live through these events—things escalating at a rapid pace from various directions, players leaping into view, the whole thing moving forward with a force of its own.

At the same time, Foulon’s son-in-law Berthier, the Intendant of Paris, had been arrested in Compiegne and conveyed, glassy-eyed with terror, to City Hall. He was bundled inside, through a crowd that peppered him with crusts of sour black bread. Shortly afterwards he was bundled out again, on his way to the Abbaye prison; shortly after that, he was bundled to his death—strangled perhaps, or finished with a musketball, for who knew the moment? And perhaps he was not dead either when a sword began to hack at his neck.

Again, Mantel's retelling mimicking the revolution itself: cause and effect are not always clear, but what is clear is that things are moving forward, the movement is growing, gaining strength and becoming much, much more serious. Reading this during the recent protests in our country certainly made some aspects more relatable. How can you break down the exact order of events for something like that? How can you say, for certain, where the first spark appeared?

I shared several passages from the book, because I think the style of writing speaks for itself in ways I can’t describe. As I said, it’s a completely engaging read, despite its difficulty. I’m reading it much more quickly than I thought I would; I’m over the half-way through the 748 pages. And I’ve started to poke around in the book of Paris poems, too, and will share something from that soon.  

“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.” Maximilien Robespierre.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka