(by Hilary Mantel) (1992)
“No law be left but the will of a prevailing force.” Thus Edmund Burke (1790) on the French Revolution; which pretty well sums it up. Whilst the revolution did send shock waves throughout the Monarchical world, at least for a time, it merely reflected the ripples that wash over any society that lacks broad consent as to its mores, or, alternately, lacks a ruler with sufficient iron in the fist. The Terror was all the more terrifying because of its instability; the hands that signed the death warrants one night couldn’t scratch their heads the next day. The tedium of the Revolution wolfing itself down was such that even really evocative set pieces concerning the Committee for Public Safety, the dread Tribunal, and the guillotine, seem hackneyed.
Of course, the French Revolution is an awfully big topic. To the French, it’s still big and still throws a shadow, long like that cast by the U.S. Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the rise and fall of Rome, and 20th century totalitarianism. An immense social upheaval, it changed France irrevocably, and touched all French lives. So any novel has to focus on a select few players, with the noise and clatter as background colour, as Dickens did in A Tale of Two Cities.
In this long, complex and mostly satisfying novel, Hilary Mantel concentrates on three men who had a good thing going under the Terror (at least, for a while): Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques D’Anton, and Maximilen Robespierre, described by Carlyle thus:
“…that anxious, slight, ineffectual-looking man, under thirty, in spectacles; his eyes (were the glasses off) troubled, careful; with upturned face, snuffing dimly the uncertain future times; complexion of a multiplex atrabiliar colour, the final shade of which may be the pale sea-green…Maximilien Robespierre.”
“…he with the long curling locks; with the face of dingy blackguardism, wondrously irradiated with genius, as if a naptha-lamp burnt within it: that figure is Camille Desmoulins.”
“The huge, brawny Figure; through whose black brows, and rude flattened face (figure écrasée), there looks a waste energy as of Hercules not yet furibund, – he is an esurient, unprovided Advocate; Danton by name: him mark.”
Yes, mark: for all three, intensity is suggested rather than character.
Which is the central problem with the novel. Mantel’s three ex post facto musketeers are, to put it bluntly, unflushable turds, bloodthirsty adventurers out for advancement, adopting heroic poses whilst clutching their volumes of Rousseau, and suddenly finding themselves in lethal charge of the State. There’s really very little to commend them and their amorphous souls, and so whilst the times are well evoked, and the narrative is thrilling, one views the protagonists’ inevitable date with the guillotine as might Madame Defarge. In a prefatory note, the author mentions her (sound) decision to consign the appalling Jean-Paul Marat to a cameo, and suggests she might tackle him in a future book. I hope not – he has been dealt with harshly but fairly, already.
Mantel’s words and word-images are rich and very readable (we excuse howlers like Desmoulins’s whisper, “They’re checking you out“), although the mood and manner of observations are at times reminiscent of Vidal’s Burr. Her wielding of the demotic is generally very good, as are her omniscient asides and halting conversational exchanges. For example:
“The constant shuttling of opinions is tiring, and the shuffling of papers across desks, the chopping of logic and the trimming of attitudes. There must, somewhere, be a simpler, more violent world.”[Billaud, to D’Anton and Desmoulins:] “I should like to see the last king strangled with the guts of the last priest.”
“Price inflation 1785-1789: Wheat 66% Rye 71% Meat 67% Firewood 91%….Even the rich experience a sense of dislocation. Alms-giving seems not enough; there are frozen corpses on fashionable streets. When people step down from their carriages, they pull their cloaks about their faces, to keep the stinging cold from their cheeks and the miserable sights from their eyes...Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.”[Robespierre’s sister, to him:] “Do you want them to have a revolution just to please you?” [D’Anton, to Desmoulins:] “I know you, you want violence, you’ve got the taste for it.”
“…people were arguing, laughing, parading; the stockbrokers from the bourse had wrenched their cravats off and were drinking lemonade, and the patrons of the cafés had spilled into the gardens and were fanning themselves with their hats. Young girls had come out to take the air and show off their summer dresses and compare themselves with the prostitutes, who saw chances of midday trade and were out in force. Stray dogs ran about grinning; broadsheet sellers bawled. There was an air of holiday: dangerous holiday, holiday with an edge.”
“You can’t, he tells his brother Augustin, separate political views from the people who hold them; if you do, it shows you don’t take politics seriously.”
“…her large-chinned Hapsburg hauteur is already beginning to battle with the advantages conferred by silk, diamonds and ignorance…her face set with stupidity and helpless contempt, her hard-edged diamonds flashing around her like naked blades.”
“Some were heard to mutter that the Assembly should write the constitution first, since rights exist in virtue of laws; but jurisprudence is such a dull subject, and liberty so exciting.”
“Laclos got unsteadily to his feet. ‘I know what you want. One month after the ascension of Philippe the Gullible, M. Laclos found in a gutter, deceased. Blamed on a traffic accident. Two months after, King Philippe found in a gutter, deceased – it really is a bad stretch of road.’”
“It was a room for hopes to die in; he imagined picking up a crimson cushion, and placing it decisively over Eléonore’s face.”
“Messengers wait outside the door, to carry urgent orders for release. It is difficult, when the pen skips over a name, to associate it with the corpse it might belong to, tomorrow or the day after that.”
“A weary deputy puts his hand to his head, sees Robespierre watching him, and withdraws it hurriedly: ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘he will suppose I am thinking of something.’”
“‘…can we offer you an escort, Citizen Deputy, to a place of greater safety?’ ‘The grave,’ Camille said. ‘The grave.'”
All in all, this was a fun journey but fell a little short of expectations. Desmoulins comes over a little like Adam Morris in The Glittering Prizes – bookish, reticent, too smug by half. Robespierre is as banal as Eichmann but better dressed. We will concede that Mantel develops him cannily: whilst Danton appears to have been conceived as akin to Gerard Depardieu after a boozy lunch, and remains such from go to whoa, and Desmoulins remains largely a cipher, you can see, piece by piece, how Max turns from a prig to a monster, down the relatively short, Stalin-esque steps from inner torment to rampant paranoia. Yet the incandescent fervour of these men, the hypocrisy, and the opportunism and corruption of their colleagues and rivals, are not always adequately shown. And the dizzying parade of walk-ons, whilst adding depth and colour, created a sense of the impenetrable. (Louis XVI is a bumbling extra and we don’t even see him walk off.) The long dramatis personae at the start of the book would have been better presented as a chart, on one of those wonderful fold-outs contained within antique three-volume histories. However, we were impressed enough, overall, to carry on to the violent yet prosaic end, and the sheer audacity of the work earned from us a slightly tetchy four stars.
And now, let’s all relax to Allan Sherman’s You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louie: