A Word from the Editor
The Buzz and Classroom Classics on the French Revolution
2012 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and the centennial of Anatole France’s Les dieux ont soif. In their reviews, Colin Jones and Don Sutherland show why these novels deserve to be taken seriously by historians. A Place of Greater Safety is not only a literary tour de force and masterpiece of historical research, Jones argues, but it also challenges the standard version of the Terror by stressing the similarities between Danton and Robespierre and by turning the insufferable Desmoulins into a likable character. Mantel captures, moreover, as only fiction can, these men’s doubts and anxieties as the regime they were fashioning engulfed them. Don Sutherland is less indulgent toward Les dieux ont soif until its central character becomes a judge on the Revolutionary Tribunal. From this point on, France impeccably recreates the machinery of revolutionary justice and anyone tempted to doubt the Terror’s destructiveness would do well to reread this novel.
In our buzz feature, Aurore Chery examines the transformation in recent years of the representation of the French Revolution on television. Louis XVI, once treated as bumbling fool, has acquired new gravitas while a quirky little series, 1788 et demi, focuses on the forgotten subjects of the Old Regime: women, Jews, and Blacks, eschewing the great events of the day. Chery has convinced me that despite its high jinks and what I took to be its presentist mindest, the series depicts many aspects of the new historiography. Definitely worth a detour.
Maybe Missed on Gay Memoirs
Fictionalized memoirs garnered some of France’s top literary prizes last fall, the prix Médicis going to Mathieu Lindon (reviewed below) and the Renaudot to Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, while Delphine de Vigan’s paean to her mother, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit, topped the best-seller list Claude Arnaud’s Qu’as-tu fait de tes frères (also reviewed here) was shortlisted for every prize the year before. Autobiographical fiction is “in” and we historians will have to wrestle with the beast, sooner or later, as we strive to separate fact from fiction and ponder why this hybrid format proved so popular. The French, more given to literary genre-bending than Anglo-Americans, refer to it as “auto-fiction.” The tone of the two gay memoirs under review is confessional and reflective, underlining the fact that the form of the narration is as important as its content. As David Caron notes, Arnaud and Lindon’s struggles to forge their adult selves is inextricably tied to writing itself.
University at Buffalo, SUNY