GADZOOKS! ANOTHER VOLUME in the lively, teeming compendium that is Manceron's history of the French Revolution. This one is as welcome as the previous two, as well-researched and as full of surprises. We are here in the third of eight large tomes, and we haven't yet arrived at the revolution proper. It is 1782-1785, a time of apparent stability before the storm. The only revolution going is the one in Geneva, which most right-thinking respectable folk characterized as a mere "prise d'armes." But it turned out to be serious, and Louis XVI had to instruct his minister Vergennes to send troops to put it down. We can't have a popular republic on our doorstep.
Manceron's method continues to work: his "intersecting biographies," slices of individual lives, stitched together by nothing but the thread of the hour in which they happened, are a continuation of those encountered in previous volumes, and new ones introduced here. He hopes his reader will "be able to walk straight into each volume in the series and not have to wade through the previous ones to find out where he is." Yes, all right, but it certainly helps to have a fair amount of background knowledge of the events of the period. Manceron takes that knowledge for granted in his audience.
For this is no conventional history book, with interesting details inserted to keep it moving. Here are the details themselves, living, disparate, far-flung, immediate, intimate, so intimate that the reader forgets he is not getting a "historian's overview" to explain all. He swims with the tide, jerking from scene to scene, country to country, in the surge of the times. It helps to know who Rossignol, Carnot, Buznot were, if one wishes to appreciate the chapters on their early days. But as for Robespierre, Marat, Mirabeau, the chapters on their impassioned struggles to make their way, before history put the finger on them and stuck them on center-stage, are accessible to anybody of merely anglo-phone culture.
The method palls occasionally. The book is perhaps too rich. And Manceron's jaunty style can be fatiguing. But stay with it; the gems are worth it. His slangy lapses are not lapses but deliberate, and often felicitous. And he is very lucky in his translator Nancy Amphoux; the tone comes through. Example: Manceron writes that the 2-year-old dauphin was reported in the press as "showing a keen interest" in the technology of balloon flight, and "deigning to express his benevolent solicitude." How do you dismiss such fatuous nonsense? Manceron uses baby-talk. His "Areu, areu, guili, guili" comes out in English as "Goo-goo. Kootchikoo."
Once in a while his style seems too hyper for the material. One wonders how interesting the Geneva revolution would be without it. But he renders the society of the period with a quivering exactitude, as he gets us into the bedrooms, the finances, the hearts and heads of his numerous personages. If the color is heightened unnaturally here and there, he is never cheaply melodramatic. He engages in intellectual tricks with the material, even inviting complicity, but he never lies or sentimentalizes. Even when he is stretching the story with lush asides or supposed dialogue, the events are respected.
The story continues as before, a world-wide circus, jammed with sideshows. In this volume we see, for example, the founding of the city of Los Angeles by a shrewd and dedicated Spanish priest, the bombing of Gilbraltar by the French and Spanish in concert, using the first-ever armored warships. (It proved to be a disaster. The British dumped molten fireballs on them from the rocky heights and the ammunition on their warships exploded with the heat.) We hear Robespierre's first court case: defending the use of lightning rods, with an endless fund of scientific proofs to paralyze the opposition. We see Napoleon as a schoolboy, learning to be a military leader. And there are portraits of the literati: Beaumarchais getting Figaro on the stage in spite of the king's opposition; Choderlos de Laclos whose scandalous Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a mirror of the age's corrupt grimace, was read by Marie Antoinette in plain brown wrapper; Diderot at his most human, in the correspondence with Sophie Volland; Schiller in flight from the garrison after the success of The Robbers. These literary figures are not there merely to lighten the tale. They are all of them highly political, and therefore part of the revolution, too. Though we see them in their intimate frame, the social origins and effects of their works are made to count.
Naval battles abound, as in all good history; Grasse in the West Indies, Suffren in Ceylon, both engaged with the English. Grasse loses, Suffren wins, by a hair. Lafayette, of course, is still here, living it up in Versailles after the American revolution (for which credit is given to Vergennes and Louis XVI), and then returning to a true hero's welcome in America.
The most delightful of all the splinters in this kaleidoscope is undoubtedly the account of the raising of the earliest balloons. Montgolfier's went up first, in 1783, most improbably projected into the sky by hot air from a fire of straw in the bucket below the globe. Hard on his heels came Alexander Charles, with a balloon filled with the newly discovered hydrogen gas. Their competition was intense but not unfriendly. Manceron delights us with the publicity efforts surrounding these experiments, which had to be "protected" by various princes. And he gives us the crowd reactions on the very public occasions when a balloon went up. "There were more than a hundred thousand that day, drinking the rain with mouths agape." Charles' balloon floated up from the Champ de Mars in Paris, up into the clouds, to descend to earth an hour later in the center of the tiny town of Gonesse, where it terrified the local peasants as a supernatural visitation -- but from God or the devil, who knew? -- and which only a priest could exorcize with Latin and holy water. The creature hissed gas, the priest took flight, the brave peasantry attacked it with pitchforks and gunshot, until it belched forth the last of its hydrogen, collapsed and died.
Someone asked Mr. Benjamin Franklin, at a dinner party in Passy soon after this event, "But really . . . what is the use of such balloons?" Franklin looks up from his plate: "What is the use, my friend, of the child born today?"
Manceron's crisscrossing method shows to good advantage in the treatment of the balloon story, for he intercalates it with the sordid tale of Marat's efforts to get a position as a scientist with the Spanish government. The whole job-campaign is exposed to us, the groveling overtures, the anxious follow-up, and finally, when he was turned down because of his seditious writings, the overwhelming self-justifications, spilling venom on the philosophes who were his teachers, blasting all his own deepest convictions -- for what? For a flunky's job that he didn't even get. This, Manceron reminds us, is how you had to be, in the political atmosphere of the ancien regime.
So much for Marat, but what has the battle of the balloons to do with the French Revolution? Everything, of course, because the political events, culminating in the wrecking of the whole social order, were engendered by angers and frustrations which were the underside of a nascent technological optimism, impatient to manifest itself. Living in an ossified society, where a man could not even be a junior officer in the army without so many quarrels of nobility, where nothing in the government worked any more, where the new was outlawed, the balloons taught them all -- that the sky was no longer the limit, no longer a lid pressing down on all humankind. The future was born from the balloon as well as from the bile of Marat. Society must face it, or explode.