SOME YEARS AGO Claude Manceron set out to write a discursive and impressionistic account of the French Revolution in five volumes. But the more material he accumulated the more books he felt he needed. This is the fourth, and the Bastille has not yet been stormed; there are six more volumes yet to come. So expansive a treatment has enabled Manceron to digress to his heart's content, to introduce characters almost forgotten by history, to enliven his scenes with all manner of telling detail. There are readers who will feel his style inflated and, on occasions, exasperating. He was once an historical novelist, and while the authenticity of his wide-ranging sources is undeniable, the uses he makes of them are sometimes peculiarly idiosyncratic. His texts are littered with obtrusive asides such as "can you imagine!" "big joke!" "oh, the nasty man!" "oh, come now!" "Oh, I say, I say!" "I should think so!"--all of these, and many others, occur in the first 50-odd pages. To emphasize a point Manceron will also add here a "whew!" there a "wow!" a "gee!" or a "huh!" "and how!"(!).
He uses slang frequently, not always effectively and from time to time anachronistically: the translation by Nancy Amphoux seems to be an accurate and faithful one. Friends are chums, policemen coppers, food grub, feasts are bang-up, tricky devices are gimmicks, screwballs go off their rockers or lose their marbles, courtiers play hooky, a cardinal swallows all this malarkey, an abb,e gets his comeuppance, the king doesn't have the foggiest. One early chapter ends with the question, "Who on earth told them to put Figaro in a prison for Ch,erubins?" And the next begins, "Who? Why, Louis XVI, that's who. The King, our good King Louis himself . . ." This, then, is the style; and, as Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon assures us (not in this book, though he appears in it, of course), "Le style est l'homme m.eme." It must be added, however, that in Claude Manceron's case, while the style might be the man himself, it is far from being the whole man.
Indeed, Manceron, for all his oddities, is an intriguing and serious historian whose books are deservedly popular. He may not go about his craft in a conventional way, but it cannot be doubted that he is an accomplished craftsman. He manages by the pointilliste treatment of his vast canvas, by revealing apparently trivial details, to highlight important aspects of pre-revolutionary France. We learn much, for instance, of the life of the poor in the swampy lands of the Pointevin bocage from the observations of Jean-Gabriel Gallot, the doctor, to whom Manceron introduces us in the little village of Saint-Maurice-le-Girard; we also learn much about bourgeois life in Lyons from the intelligent, passionate Manon Roland, wife of the local inspector of manufactures, who is to appear, in another setting, in the volumes of this history yet to come.
This volume opens in 1785, when Beaumarchais, whose comedies have given offense by their criticism of aristocratic privilege, is incarcerated in the prison of Saint-Lazare by the king who writes the order on the back of a seven of spades. It ends in February 1787, when the Assembly of Notables is called in a vain attempt to resolve the intractable problems of the ancien r,egime. In the 450 pages between these two events, Manceron ushers onto his stage a cast of characters huge enough to match the ambition of his project.
The presence of some of these characters in the preliminary scenes is scarcely necessary to the unfolding of the drama. The rich young English esthete, William Beckford, makes his appearance as a possible husband of Germaine Necker, daughter of the Swiss banker and eventually wife of Baron de Stael, only to vanish a few pages later; and in Vienna, Mozart aged 30 comes momentarily onto the stage in crimson coat and gold- braided hat to conduct a rehearsal of his Nozze de Figaro and to acknowledge the applause of the excited orchestra.
But if these men and their interests seem far removed from the revolution which is about to erupt in France, there are others, carefully and sympathetically presented, who are to play essential parts in it. There are the men and women, villains and dupes, involved in the tangled intrigue known as the affair of the queen's necklace. We meet Brissot, the ambitious, impulsive son of an innkeeper, who is to be a leader of the Girondins; H,erault de S,echelles, handsome and debonair, who is to die on the scaffold with Danton; the clever, remorseless Saint-Just who is to die with Robespierre but is now running off with the family silver; Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the obscure attorney who will achieve notoriety as the Committee of Public Safety's agent in Nantes where 2,000 captives are to be towed out in barges into the middle of the Loire and sunk; that ugly, overbearing, fascinating force de la nature, Mirabeau, who is to carry away with him, so he proclaims as he dies, the last shreds of the monarchy; and Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, whose name is ever to be remembered for the machine of death he is to recommend, "an imposing combination of mildness and firmness of character, 'his eyes keen, his physiognomy expressive, his conversation charming and often merry . . .' supplemented by beautifully polished manners acquired in his native province of Charentes; he wears a long-tailed coat, powdered wig and top hat. He treats many poor people for nothing."
Skillful as he is in depicting character, so also is Manceron adept at setting a scene. Here, for example, is the celebration of the Feast of the Virgin at Versailles:
"The weather is sultry; heavy clouds plod past overhead. From the carriages parked by the hundreds in the court of honor descend ladies in silk and satin, encumbered by their huge paniers (still worn on ceremonial occasions), delicately balancing the scaffoldings of their hairdos as humbler women would balance their jugs; and men of the sword, in long brilliant-hued coats over waistcoats fastened with gold or diamond buttons, fine lace jabots, breeches pinched at the knee, white hose, and pumps with jeweled buckles. Everything that governs France is here and, after passing between the soldiers, proceeds along at a stately pace in front of short- wigged footmen dressed predominantly in blue who could be mistaken for gentlemen except that their immobility makes them look like pieces of furniture instead."
Such scenes so well depicted have no need of those interjections, those jarring and knowing asides by which Manceron so often blemishes what would otherwise be a colorful narrative history of the highest quality. Right? Right!