THIS IS HISTORY as cliffhanger, history as historical novel, but with documentation at the back to prove its veracity.
The Wind from America, which was preceeded by Volume I, Twilight of the Old Order of Claude Manceron's The French Revolution covers the period 1778-81 when the fortunes of France and the American colonies, then at war with England, came together via a military alliance. This panoramic history is a rich assortment of nuggets from the underside of the main events we all know.
No wonder it's a best seller in France. Manceron's chosen vehicle is the vignette; his system is to proceed year by year, with slices of life that fragment the historical sweep but trap the fleeting moment as never before. A woman (Mme. Roland) receives a proposal of marriage; a man (Mirabeau) decides to dump his mistress and return to the tutelage of his father. These apparently unrelated episodes are held together by a kind of journalistic coexistence. They will all culminate in the great upheaval.
Manceron writes a kind of newspaper of the Revolution, and it is largely a scandal sheet, an editorial, a flood of racy political cartoons. His style is supremely colloquial, wordy full of bouncy asides. He minces no four-letter words.
The book opens on the Whitehaven raid and a subsequent foray by John Paul Jones when his men steal Lord Selkirk's silver, which he later gallantly returns to the lady of the manor. Subsequently, Manceron merely nods in passing at the more celebrated engagement with the Serapis, when Jones fought by moonlight in a sinking ship and was victorlous. Why did Manceron choose the lesser incident? To point up the hero's obsession with his illegitimacy? (Jones believed himself to be the bastard son of Lord Selkirk)Anyway, it is a great curtainraiser. And Manceron keeps things going. The grand finale is a description of the French involvement in our own American Revolution, with La Fayette, Rochambeau and de Grasse on stage.
In between there are many portraits that look like digressions -- the journey, for instance, to Russia of a physicist named Romme, who gets a job as tutor to a noble Russian boy. Imbued with the precepts of Rousseau, Romme takes his little charge "to the very gates of Asia" in order to show him Siberia rather than lecture about it. But the dozen pages on Romme are no digression at all. We see the "enlightened depotism" of Empress Catherine at work, and hear the musings of a sensitive, virtuous Frenchman (too virtuous for Manceron, who makes fun of Romme's innocence), trying to apply principles of reason and humanity to his exotic environment.
The poet Florent Gilbert dies by suicide; he has swallowed a large key! At the inquest, the doctors are amazed that he was able to get it down his throat, and live for 15 more days with a perforated esophagus. Anecdotes like this seem to be thrown in for the fun of it. What did Gilbert, a romantic madman, an enemy of the philosophes, have to do with the Revolution?
Another razor-sharp portrait: the abbe Maury becomes preacher to Louis XVI, who is "swimming in sacred molasses." After Necker's successes, Maury the opportunist thinks it is time to update his own message. In a sermon on charity he dares to describe the inadequacy of the hospitals of Paris, where the poor are dying like flies. He names names and cites wrongdoings. He is promptly slapped by the grand almoner. "'Avoid bringing foreign matter into your speeches and things relating to the administration of which you should have no knowledge....'" Manceron drops Maury at this point; no doubt subsequent volumes will pick him up again, defending the Ancien Regime, serving Louis XVIII, ending up in prison.
Manceron's history is the lengthened shadow of a man, or rather many men. He evidently has socialist leanings, but is light years away from the Marxist principle that history must illustrate some fundamental law.
Does his chatty system work? Can serious history be written in this way? Certainly Manceron's pungent anecdotes are great entertainment. My own favorite, from Volume I, is the high comedy of young Louis XVI isolated from his whole government by small-pox quarantine. (Louis XV has died of the pox, and Catholic law in France forbids vaccination.)
Manceron's present-tense prose, peppered with vulgarisms such as Ques-a-co ? (translated as "Whozzat?") is disconcertingly relaxed. His new translator, Nancy Amphoux, catches his manner and sometimes goes him one better ("Necessite fait loi " becomes "If ya gotta go ya gotta go"!) Interjections threaten to get out of hand, and do. One asks, can this hurtling stream of lively verbiage really describe reality, or is reality drowning in Manceron's hell-for-leather style?
I say it works. Manceron's thumbnall studies are always brilliant and do illuminate his period, as he fronizes on the connubial idealism of La Fayette, commiserates with Mirabeau's mistress, despises the Comte de Provence (the future Louis XVIII).
Warts aside, this book is generally a marvel of wit, and the choice of episodes, however offbeat, is happy. We are informed and moved.
Can he keep this up for six more volumes?