4.0 (This review) 3.8 (All reviews)
We decided to introduce
the tag team book review, because we had differing views on the merits of this book.
Mike Crump and Aaron Aalborg
Aaron- Hilary Mantel writes about subjects and people we all think we know something about, like Thomas Cromwell in 'Wolf Hall'. We all think we know about the French
Revolution of 1789. After all our history teachers covered that and we all read a ‘Tale of Two Cities’. Those of us interested in fomenting the overthrow of the state, read more widely. Mantel helps us to discover that we have more to learn.
Her head must be bursting with her knowledge of history. She cleverly uses this to make us reassess what we thought we knew. Her challenge is to keep our attention
when we know how the story ends. The problem is that our attention can become lost in her labyrinths of detail.
She uses large numbers of less well known
historical characters. They add multiple different reflections and new insights into the famous characters, central to her novels. The trap she falls into is that dealing with too many characters over taxes most memories. Too many voices become a babble.
Mike- My esteemed colleague has a point, unless you think that 151 named characters (I counted them…but be my guest), is normal for even “idiosyncratic fictional history,” as one reviewer put it. It is certainly excessive for those of us who can’t keep our own grandchildren straight. But the author deserves a defense. Suppose one were to attempt a history
of America’s very own Committee of Public Safety, the Tea Party. Wouldn’t one want to know early influencers such as Joe McCarthy, Ralph Reed, the Reverend Pat Roberts, Karl Rove and those countless mega-church pastors who saw through the courting
a clear route to political power? Wouldn’t one want to be a fly on the wall of the Republican National Committee meeting after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate? Or for that matter, in the boardrooms of Archer Daniels Midland, Halliburton
and the Southern Baptist Convention. And who would not want to know who was sleeping with whom and how those assignations might have left the key actors fully confirmed in their political convictions and future treacheries? I think the answer is clear, a lot
The author conveniently provided a table of characters. It is worth the effort to check every time one picks up the book just to set one’s
Aaron- I’ll pass on calling the T party ‘revolutionary’. They seem more like Nazi Brown-shirts to me.
To revolutionary socialists, The French Revolution holds special interest. Histories of such past Revolutions were concocted by the victorious and reinstated European Monarchies of the time. They demonize the leaders of the Revolution and present a largely
negative score card on all their efforts. Mantel's book adds much needed balance.
Despite my interest in the subject, several times I had to force myself
to continue reading. It took several weeks to finish the book. Novels that require so much effort cannot be seen as good novels. Additionally, this one is far too long, at 872 pages in my edition. As Mike said, she does present a long list of the many characters
and sketches of their relevance to the story at the beginning. Despite this assistance, there are so many of points of view as to confuse. They require frequent reference back and to the Internet, to see who these minor players are. Furthermore, jumping from
one character to another in the same chapter without indicating a break in scene adds to the difficulties.
Mike- Spot on, Aaron. The
very humanity of the perps-in-training raises issues for current consideration. That includes prospective revolutionaries and members of the oligarchies who grow increasingly desperate in trying to convince the voting wings of their parties to protect their
special interests. My sense is that one reason we don’t learn from the historians is that they draw historical characters with whom one cannot personally identify. In histories, the villains are vilified. If modern villains can’t identify with
the villainies of the past, they are in effect, licensed to deny and therefore, repeat history. The implication is that we cannot see them as flawed people quite like ourselves (scary thought). By the time Danton and Desmoulins enter the tumbrel for their
ride to the guillotine, we have known them as Hilary Mantel knows them, warts and all and somewhat affectionately. We understand why they may not live longer. We also know the man, Robespierre, who put them in that wagon.
Aaron- Building on Mike’s thought, one of the best insights that Mantel shares is that her three main characters, Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins do not suddenly arise as fully
formed revolutionaries, regicides and instigators of the Terror. Just as in the American Revolution, the protagonists had some radical ideas in the beginning, but were relatively moderate and in many cases confused. I was amazed to learn that Robespierre tried
to introduce a law to abolish the death penalty, which was voted down. How different things might have been if it had passed, assuming that the murderous mob would have taken any notice of it.
With the exception of Robespierre, nearly all the revolutionaries were partly motivated by self aggrandizement and wealth. She makes this point well, especially with respect to Danton and Desmoulins.
As the Revolution progressed, each character developed to a point where everything in the established order had to be overthrown. In this case, the anticlericalism and bloody tendencies
of the protagonists are fed by events, interactions with others and the ungovernable and violent sans coulottes.
Mike- This point is
one of the most fascinating aspects of Mantel’s story. Both Desmoulin and especially Danton become increasingly radical. And the radicalization appears authentic, not simply a device to stay in power with its access to bribes. Marat’s drumbeat
never ceases (until he dies), and with the exception of Robespierre, he is the cagiest politician in Paris. Always willing to befriend the radical-radical of the day as long as that person is able to stay strong. His strategy is to keep a consistent story
and stay married to whoever holds the reins. Even the Catholic Church could not maintain that intensity of focus.
At some point however, Desmoulin gets
sick of constant killing. He produces five pamphlets criticizing the radical-radicals. Danton’s self-confidence is that he can retain power because his own sense is that the great majority of the French agree with Desmoulin. It appears that he is right
about popular sentiment but the emergent power structure nurtured by Marat and Robespierre is not to be removed.
In a couple of senses Mantel's novel is an unbalanced view of history. She says as much in her Author's note. She only tangentially includes Marat and primarily towards the end of his life. Most History books were written under the lasting influence of the
victorious allies and the restored monarchy. They demonize him above all the rest. No true understanding of the Revolution is possible without Marat as a more central character. Like most writers she fails to capture his electrifying influence on events.
Almost nothing is said about Tom Pain. His part in the Revolution was primarily as an influential theoretician before the event. More about him as an elected deputy
of the French Assembly and condemned prisoner could have provided crossover insights to American and British readers. She excludes quite important and colorful revolutionaries, like Couthon, in favor of less important players, or simply those related to her
three chosen leaders.
Mike- It’s true, we get only snapshots of Marat, but those give us his strategy for staying alive (remaining
on the move and nurturing those with power in the Revolution), and for keeping the most radical impulses of the Revolution alive. And we do see his perspective through his surrogate Robespierre. Unlike Marat, Robespierre was much more of a colleague to the
radicals-cum-moderates, Desmoulins and Danton. We understand the radical-radicals through their eyes. And theirs’—Desmoulin and Danton—is the real, personal tragedy of the Revolution. While some of us may know how the story
ends, Danton and Desmoulins do not. Mantel’s number of characters, many of them point-of-view, as Aaron points out, plus her narration style does not tolerate any distraction.
Aaron-She captures well the seemingly glacial pace of a revolution that lasted almost 5 years. She makes the reader aware of aspects known only to scholars. The continuance of the bourgeois lives of her protagonists
and their spouses is well portrayed, especially the persistence of private carriages and servants; salons; seductions and dinner parties with fine wines and food. The attempts to bring revolutionary emblems and colors to fashionable corsage seem particularly
innocuous to modern eyes. A glance at the portraits of Vergniaud, Saint-Just and Robespierre on the Internet, with their elaborate wigs and clothing, confirms the veracity of her insights.
There are confusing and frequent changes of scene, without marking them in the text. Other poor writing habits include: interruptions with bursts of long quotations from various people and great chunks of pure history text,
in an attempt to explain the wider picture and retrieve readers stuck in the mire of the confusion she creates.
Mike- As I’ve said,
her narration style does not brook inattention. But there are two aspects of her writing that flourish in a Petrie dish of massive intelligence and memory. The first is her writing is drop-dead-gorgeous. The scenes, gestures and thoughts of the actors (not
just the main ones), give a truly rare sense of immediacy and reality. The second is that her treatment of the sheer expanse of historical events gives her an opportunity to build character slowly and deeply over the course of the time covered. I get the feeling
that she wrote the story, foreshadowing character development with nary a revision. Unlikely, I admit. But that’s good writing exemplified.
Mantel captures the brute, blunt instrument of the mob and how each 'patriot' sought to influence it. She gives insights into how random and quick death could be. Friends and those paying bribes could be spared one minute but not the next. The way in which
the three main characters, played off one another, alternately supporting or opposing erstwhile 'friends' is well portrayed. She demonstrates why in Vergniand's words, "The revolution devoured its own children."
Mike-We see this book differently—Aaron and I. I took copious notes for reference in my own writing and am using them in rewriting two of my own novels in progress. I enjoyed the
hell out of it.
Aaron- Over all I felt I needed to read the book for more detailed knowledge of the Revolution, as opposed to enjoying
it. It inspired me to write my short story 'Red Rory's Nightmares' as part of my anthology 'Doom Gloom and Despair'.