JACQUES-LOUIS Me'ne'tra was an 18th-century French artisan and bon vivant who, in his brief and unconventional autobiography, presents himself, not always convincingly, as "a Hercules of love." Perhaps he could not imagine any other reason why a reader should find his life interesting. The son of a master glazier, he was born in 1738 in Paris, where he grew up. At the age of 19, he left the city to seek his fortune, spending seven years tramping across France as a journeyman glazier. Returning to Paris in 1764, he took a wife, raised a family and established a successful business of his own cutting and painting glass. Until Me'ne'tra was swept up in the French Revolution, his life was relatively uneventful, apart from his continuing feats of amorous conquest. In truth, there is little to distinguish him from any other French artisan of the era -- except, of course, the sheer existence of these memoirs.
It was extraordinary for a man of Me'ne'tra's class to commit his thoughts to paper. Though literacy was common among the artisans of Paris, to devote such attention to writing was to evince an unusual taste for solitude and introspection; and to write an autobiography was to assume that the life of a common man merited retelling -- an audacious, even insolent assumption. But as his journal makes abundantly clear, Me'ne'tra was not a diffident soul. He took pride in himself. He loved to brag. And his autobiography, awkward though much of the writing is, amounts to one man's immodest declaration of independence.
Me'ne'tra began his journal in 1764. He completed it, after rewriting the entire text, in 1803. It is not an easy book to read. He deliberately avoided using punctuation; his narrative is chronologically incoherent; and some of his language is hermetic. For nearly two centuries, his manuscript was forgotten. But its recent rediscovery in the Bibliothe que Historique of the city of Paris is reason to rejoice: It conveys, as no church or court documents can, something of the flavor and shape of a working-class life in 18th-century Paris.
The fluent English translation, by Arthur Goldhammer, eases the reader's way by spacing sentences and indenting paragraphs. And the significance of the text is explained at length in a detailed and fascinating commentary by Daniel Roche, a historian at the University of Paris. Roche spent several years tracking Me'ne'tra through official records, seeking to date and confirm his story, not always with success -- among his other talents, Me'ne'tra was a practiced teller of tall tales.
Roughly two-thirds of the journal is composed of episodes from Me'ne'tra's youthful tour of France. It is a fantastic saga replete with sex and violence. In his lively short preface to this edition, Princeton historian Robert Darnton, writing with his customary wit and rigor, counts 52 seductions before Me'ne'tra's wedding. Corpses accumulate at an even more startling clip. An unhappy wife hangs herself; a friend drowns in the Seine; a jewelry setter accidentally poisons himself; and so on. When a farmer's dog runs after him, Me'ne'tra draws his pistol and casually kills the animal. When he uses the word "cruelty" in his text and accuses a man of being a "monster," it is not because the fellow has murdered his mistress -- a routine occurence -- but rather because he has cut out her heart, grilled it, eaten it, and then boasted to a police lieutenant that "if you tasted it once you wouldn't be able to get enough." THE SEX and violence are all the more remarkable given Me'ne'tra's professed interest in moral philosophy. "I injure no one," he writes solemnly (and inaccurately): "I do not seek to lead anyone astray." His journal is sprinkled with edifying aperc,us: "Some men lord it over others by making them believe in chimeras and that we're dumb enough to believe in all their talk." "Man is not made to humble himself before another man but only before God." Throughout, Me'ne'tra rails at the hypocrisy and deceit of organized religion, "the product of ignorance sustained by lies."
While comments like this suggest the influence of the Enlightenment, most of the text remains firmly rooted in a more ancient and unfamiliar world of palmistry, credulous piety and wild superstition. Darnton speculates that Me'ne'tra drew freely from the popular literature of his day, "which featured the sort of thing that he passed off as everyday occurrences on his travels: hideous crimes, encounters with ghosts, black magic, dramatic rescues, practical jokes (the funniest at the expense of priests), and orgies (the juiciest in nunneries)." At the same time, Me'ne'tra claims to have read The Social Contract, the great masterpiece of political philosophy by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His journal includes an interesting and apparently authentic account of a chance meeting with Rousseau in 1771. The two men took a walk together and played checkers. "I lost," reports Me'ne'tra: "Both of us had the same clothes but not at all the same knowledge. Between us was like night and day."
The final pages of the journal plod along until 1789. "I was enjoying myself and watching my days go by when the French Revolution came suddenly and revived all our spirits. And the word liberty so often repeated had an almost supernatural effect and invigorated us all." Unruly and imaginative by temperament, with an intuitive affinity for Jacobin ideology, Me'ne'tra became a commited sans-culottes. "I never liked to be fenced in," he writes, "and liked even less losing my freedom." Out of such sentiments the ideal of modern democracy was forged -- in an epochal revolution that unleashed the culture of violence that Me'ne'tra also describes so well.
He emerged from Robespierre's Reign of Terror a chastened and wary man. Proud though he was, Me'ne'tra was no fool. His account of the Revolution is garbled and confusing, in part because he was trying to hide the extent of his own involvement. And at the close of his memoir, he openly worries about his own limitations. "How simple you are my mind," he laments. By what right, he wonders, do "you hold our father's faith up to ridicule"? He feared that his "pages are full of illusion . . . renounce erase and cross out what you have written."
We are lucky that Me'ne'tra overcame such qualms. For these strange and affecting memoirs offer an unforgettable glimpse, "from below," of French society at the dawn of its modern history. James Miller is the author of "Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy" and the forthcoming "Changing America," a study of the New Left.