You should read this book if you really liked Wolf Hall but thought, man, that should have been longer and more complex.
This book is a trip though. It’s a 750 page novel about the French Revolution, told from a kind of both eagle-eye perspective and from a really getting into the muck and blood, kind of perspective.
Told through long vignettes, long scenes of dialog, court-room records, historical transcripts, omniscient narration, first-person narration, and other weird snippets, and with a very wry tone, this novel tells the story of the French Revolution mostly through the eyes of Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins as the coordinate, orchestrate and then desperately try to hold on to the reins of the revolution.
Throughout this book there’s a severe criticism of those who take power not really having thought through the cost of power. Mantel is known kind of for savaging Royals, especially in Wolf Hall and Bringing out the Bodies, but this novel suggests, it’s more about the corrupting influence of power more than the specifics of who holds that power that she’s interested in. It turns out that not only most people not thought about what it means, what it costs, and what it takes to run an empire, most people are both terrible at it and also shouldn’t do it.
There’s something horribly narcissistic and corrupt in power anyway…the desire to spend lives and control and move forward on decisions that is deeply unsavory. And she gives you every weird, crazy little imaginative detail of it.
Here’s some quotes:
“The weight of the old world is stifling, and trying to shovel its weight off your life is tiring just to think about. The constant shuttling of opinions is tiring, and the shuffling of papers across desks, the chopping of logic and the trimming of attitudes. There must, somewhere, be a simpler, more violent world.”
“This revolution – will it be a living?’
‘We must hope so. Look, I have to go, I’m visiting a client. He’s going to be hanged tomorrow.’
‘Is that usual?’
‘Oh, they always hang my clients. Even in property and matrimonial cases.”
“As Danton sees it, the most bizarre aspect of Camille’s character is his desire to scribble over every blank surface; he sees a guileless piece of paper, virgin and harmless, and persecutes it till it is black with words, and then besmirches its sister, and so on, through the quire.”
“The maid found a handkerchief of hers, under the bed in which she had died. A ring that had been missing turned up in his own writing desk. A tradesman arrived with fabric she had ordered three weeks ago. Each day, some further evidence of a task half finished, a scheme incomplete. He found a novel, with her place marked.
And this is it.”
“He looked the Prince up and down, like a hangman taking his measurements. ‘Of course there will be a revolution,’ he said. ‘You are making a nation of Cromwells. But we can go beyond Cromwell, I hope. In fifteen years you tyrants and parasites will be gone. We shall have set up a republic, on the purest Roman model.”