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A French revolution bloody rare

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About six weeks ago, while sitting in the National Theater's production of Danton's Death, I realized that I needed to read a book about the French Revolution.

That book was A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel.  I bought it in the National Theater's gift shop, which I thought was a fair recommendation of its relevance to the theater's repertoire.  The recommendation was well taken: as an overview of the French Revolution, the book was great.  It has fabulous dialogue and sexy characters.  As a novel, however, I'm not sure it holds together.

In fairness, one of the problems is the French Revolution itself.  It went on for way too long.  After its eruption in 1789, it wasn't decisively finished until 1799, when Napoleon asserted himself.  This length of time is exorbitant excess.  Revolutions, to take a page from Gilbert & Sullivan, should be a "short, sharp shock"; even before the Internet, a decade was much too long for a revolution (just ask the Chinese about the Cultural Revolution).  

But another problem is that Hilary Mantel wanted to cover it all - or, at least, all the fun bits.  Her book ends where Georg Büchner finished Danton's Death (that is, obviously enough, with Danton's guillotining); but, whereas Büchner begins his play in 1794, just before Danton's arrest, Mantel begins her book a good deal earlier - with Danton's (and Camille Desmoulin's; and Maximilien Robespierre's) birth(s).

The material is simply too vast.  Mantel sprints through it, giving us only a sketch of everything important.  In place of plot, she has historical events.  In place of character development, she gives her characters superb dialogue and characteristic gestures. 

To break up the grind, Mantel occasionally slips out of third-person omniscient to allow one of the characters to take the helm.  Presumably for similar reasons, Mantel sometimes inserts dialogue in script format.  A theater bill for a play about the French Revolution is reproduced on page 242.  A variety show about the French Revolution, A Place of Safety might be; a novel, it might not be.  (The New York Times book review never printed a truer sentence than when it concluded, "we are left to wonder whether more novel and less history might not better suit [Mantel's] unmistakable talent.")

Mantel would have done well to have followed Büchner's example and culled the French Revolution down to a few months worthy of her focus.  A five novel series about the French Revolution, each book devoted to critical events in the years she covers (and a stand-alone novel in its own right), might have been an appropriate vehicle for her ambition.  A Place of Greater Safety falls short of achieving it.

On the other hand, A Place of Greater Safety is Mantel's first novel.  And when debut authors pen flawed and insanely ambitious first novels, all I can say is, "Well done."
(Image of Elliot Levey and Toby Stephens in the National Theater's production of Danton's Death from The Guardian)


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Wandering through the Tate Modern a little over a month ago, I came across Max Beckmann's painting, "Prunier."  It arrested me because I had a moment of total recognition: "I've felt that way," I thought.

I'm sure I have felt like the people depicted.  I've participated in some fairly shameful decadent consumption.  But my moment of identification wasn't with the "Gobblers," as Beckmann apparently referred to the piece in his diary.  It was with Beckmann himself.

Revulsion at the undisciplined intake of food is a familiar response for me.  Whether Beckmann, like me, was on a first-name basis with such revulsion, I have no idea, but looking at "Prunier," I felt that I - like Beckmann - had had the same artistic response: transforming my horrified disgust into art.  I felt actually that I'd written the same scene that he'd painted. 

Here it is, a passage from my first novel, Portnoy's Daughter, during which two characters converse over a wedding banquet:

A man flops down in the chair next to me, picks up his fork and knife and interrupts my thoughts: "Not eating?"

Lifting my head out of my hands and turning to him, I am astonished to see the Don Juan of the wine cellar.  He freezes, fork mid-way to mouth, chilled abalone in shrimp aspic with lemon-caper aioli and Chanel No. 5 dangling in mid-air like jello.  Then, recovering his equilibrium, he locks eyes with me, uncurls his tongue and licks the abalone, abusing the helpless mollusk until the aspic dissolves and runs down his chin.

I take in his little spectacle coolly, and then say:  "Mr. Fist, I presume?"

He sucks the mollusk into his mouth and chews with his mouth open, smirking with self-satisfaction. 
. . . .
[He p]our[s] himself a glass of wine from the carafe on the table. . . . "May I?" he asks, gesturing at my glass.

"No," I say, covering the glass with my hand and looking at him.

"A woman who values her sobriety won't easily find a man," he quips, draining his glass and pouring himself another.

"Hardly.  The wine is cheap."

"Agreed," he says, after gargling with a mouthful and spitting it onto the ground behind me. 
The parallel between "Prunier" and the foregoing passage of Portnoy's Daughter made me reflective (and possibly a little combative).  In what I don't think is a terribly insightful display caption, the Tate Modern writes of "Prunier":

Beckmann suffered from heart trouble shortly after beginning the painting, so that the contrast between his daily, wartime realities and the sensual pleasure conjured up in the painting may suggest a meditation on mortality.
I don't have any particular insight into Beckmann, but because I feel such strong identification with the painting the Tate Modern's speculative caption strikes me as unlikely.  Excess, not mortality, seems to be under examination, and especially how excess signals decline and tends to violence.  The Tate Modern seemed much more on point when it referred to the "brutality" of the consumption being depicted.

Depiction may be an attempt at control - getting such excess on the canvas, or the page, is an enclosed space under the artist's command.  It may also be a habit: I have a hard time not making characters who are eating repellent.  (So much of accurate description of the mechanics of eating seems to invite unsavory characterization.) 

And it's also no doubt an attempt at understanding and empathy.  The tendency to excess is complicated.  The visceral impulse to gorge is often accompanied by a cerebral stupidity, apathy or arrogance about the consequences of taking in so much of the world; while the revulsion from such behavior often coexists with such impulses and mind-sets.  (Nor does preferring either the gorging, or the revulsion, have predictable results.  As Hilary Mantel made clear in A Place of Greater Safety, Danton was a revolting sensualist libertine, but refined Robespierre had the greater appetite for blood during the Reign of Terror.) 

By the time Beckmann's painting released me to continue my meandering through the collection, I'd come to recognize this tangle of impulses and judgments, additionally, as one of the enduring topics of art.  

(Image of Max Beckmann's "Prunier" from the Tate Collection)

Who loves armed missionaries?

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Nothing in the reviews has made me want to read Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey: My Political Life.  Michiko Kakutani's observation that A Journey "sheds little light" on Blair's core motivations - especially as they relate to involving Britain in America's war in Iraq - finds echoes in other reviews.  Like everyone I know, I'm busy enough that I don't want to spend time on un-illuminating books.

I can't help wondering, though, whether Blair's shallowness is a function of his own reading material.  Kakutani quotes Blair as saying that, by an April 2002 meeting with George W. Bush, Blair

had resolved in [his] own mind that removing Saddam would do the world, and most particularly the Iraqi people, a service.
At the time I read that remark, I was also reading Hilary Mantel's, A Place of Greater Safety, and I felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition.  An ambitious account of the French Revolution from the time before its inception through the deaths of Georges Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins, A Place of Greater Safety details the political conflict preceding France's declaration of war on Austria in 1792.  The pro-war faction was named the Brissotins (for their spokesperson, Jacques-Pierre Brissot); the anti-war side was a sub-set of the Jacobins called the Montagnards, who included Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. 

Here's Hilary Mantel's version of a conversation between Danton and Robespierre regarding the Brissotin war plans:

"They talk," [Danton] said, "of a crusade to bring liberty to Europe.  Of how it's our duty to spread the gospel of fraternity."
"Spread the gospel?  Well, ask yourself - who loves armed missionaries?"
"Who indeed?"
"They speak as if they had the interests of the people at heart, but the end of it will be military dictatorship."
(p. 398.)

Hilary Mantel isn't responsible for the armed forces of the UK, but maybe she should be.  She, at least, has been reading (and writing) her history. 

If Blair had been doing the same, perhaps he wouldn't have supported the American folly in Iraq; or perhaps he would have: but either way he'd be much less likely to justify it as "a service."  Indeed, he'd likely have seen "a service" in describing how he learned from experience that no one loves armed missionaries.

But that service is as sadly lacking as the one Blair claimed to be providing the Iraqi people.
(Image of Jacques-Pierre Brissot from Wikipedia; image of Tony Blair from BBC)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the A Place of Greater Safety category.

A Passage to India is the previous category.

A Room with a View is the next category.



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