Saturday, February 26, 2011

"A Place of Greater Safety," by Hilary Mantel

"A Place of Greater Safety" proposes that revolution is a deadly game, even when you win it.

Hilary Mantel uses brushstrokes broad, thin, short, and long in rendering the French Revolution's three main characters: Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, along with enough secondary and minor characters to fill a 1940s period film.

The novel depicts the desperation of those who want to be the protagonists of recorded history. For these hallowed names are certainly larger when attached to their political achievements than when cleaved to their actual personalities.

The author confects the expansive Danton, master orator, accumulator of wealth in defense of the people, slave to his appetites. Desmoulins is stripped down to an uneven boy who craves his father's love, but can write a mean-streak across genres. The in-house scribe to the bloody insurrection.

And then there's Robespierre: ascetic, asexual, emotionally economical, but increasingly haunted by conspiracies and complots, both real and imagined.

Each of them dreams a society the world might adore and imitate.

Robespierre dreams of "a free people, gentle bucolic, and learned. The darkness of superstition had drained away from the people's lives: brackish water, vanishing soil. In its place flourished the rational, jocund, worship of the Supreme Being. These people were happy; their hearts were not wracked or their flesh tormented by questions without answers or desires without resolution. Men came with gravity and wit to matters of government; they instructed their children, and harvested plain and plentiful food from their own land."

But the only gravity in matters of government visible is that pulling guillotine's blade down on some poor, and second rank, royal's neck as the radicals' dreams usher in something infinitely more ghastly, something they'd like to purge from their resumes, but can't, because they are its architects.

"A Place of Greater Safety," is a behind-the-scenes tale that takes the reader from the house of one member of the troika to another, imagines what the wives and lovers of these famed players might have thought, what those drawn to their political strength saw in them, what their nasty habits were and how they impacted the course of Western civilization.

Lady Mantel loves her politics.

If "Wolf Hall: A Novel" is mostly consigned to the inner workings of the English court and a reduced company of players, "A Place of Greater Safety," takes in the sweep of raging Paris. There are many sly and slippery exchanges among the wittiest men and women of their time, detailing the policy stuff that drove these manic activists.

The piece's tone oscillates dramatically with heroic descriptions of the terrible riots and rampages the revolution unleashed, while dishing up small-bore details like the little red chokers women took to wearing as the terror and guillotine became fixtures of city life.

"Greater Safety" is long and meandering, begging a reader's complete commitment, taking the time for multiple characters to affect one another in organic ways, for planting the deep seeds of their ultimate antagonisms, cutting the sails so that all the windy power of this historical chapter can be captured and drive events forward.