Friday, April 14, 2006

Hilary Mantel on Robespierre

at the London Review of Books:

Robespierre thought about pain and death with an unflinching intensity which would have destabilised lesser beings. It's a mistake to think he possessed an awful prescience, or that he had a power, quite unsuspected by those about him, to organise the next decade on a pattern he had predetermined. Perhaps his dreams were different in intensity, though not in kind, from the dreams of those around him. It was an era for the young, clutching their copies of La Nouvelle Heloise, to look for something interesting to die of: love, or something else. The young dream of transcending their circumstances, of shaming the mediocrities around them; of saving lives, of being martyrs. When you have so much future before you, life seems cheap; perhaps you cannot fully imagine, as older people can, being extinguished, simply coming to nothing.

For most people, the era of selfless risk-taking is a phase. It irritates their elders while it lasts; though sometimes, in political movements, those elders find a way to exploit it. But then, if young persons survive their ideals, something happens which surprises them: they learn a trade, they develop ambitions, they fall in love, they get a stake in life. Or simply time passes, and middle age beckons, with its shoddy compromises. But for the Incorruptible, idealism was not a phase. He kept his vision carefully in his head through his twenties and carried it carefully to Versailles, where he arrived a few days before his 31st birthday. Because he was perfectly attuned to the times he lived in, because there was a real cause to be served, his wishfulness hardened into conviction, his dreams set in stone. Still, he sounds more like a priest, a saint-in-training, than the seasoned political operator he would become. 'My life's task,' he said, according to his sister, ‘will be to help those who suffer.’

The book she's reviewing is Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, which sounds wonderfully good (something I must get and read as soon as possible, it counts as work-related and also I feel that I am always reading a bit too much Burke as far as French Revolution stuff goes, it's hardly fair...); I also recommend Mantel's own French Revolution novel very highly, A Place of Greatr Safety (it is not a warm novel, but a very interesting one & really exceptional on history and politics and stuff).

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