[identity profile] ephaistion85.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] revolution_fr
City of Darkness, City of Light
Marge Piercy

(Beware the spoilers!)

Overall judgment: 3/5

I promised some times ago to write my thoughts on this book, which I am doing now as I finally have time and as some weeks are passed from my reading (aka my head cooled down).
I appreciated the novel, but I didn't really enjoy it.

Historical facts: As far as my knowledge goes (which for some of the characters is quite superficial), it seems to me that the facts were quite well documented and well exsposed, at least in the first part. What I find slightly annoying was the heavy use of anecdotes / gossips drawn from mémoires and such without any innovative narration (but I guess that is more or less compulsory if you want to get your book published; more on this later).
I was a bit disappointed by the distribution of the historical facts - but that seems to be a tendency in French Revolution fiction- with much more attention put on the period before the Revolution and on the first years and less from 1793 onward. In the last part the fiction is too quick, too much `list style', it looks like the author engaged with the historical facts leaving her imagination aside.

Language and style: that's my main problem. I know in the preface the author talks about the struggle and decision she had to make regarding the style and the language…but in my opinion she pretty much failed at that. The language is very flat, characters are not very distinguished in their style/speech. Overall, it is all too modern. I mean, I do not pretend that a writer should precisely imitate the language of the described time, but at least s/he can create some sort of style that symbolizes it. In this book there is none of that and I found it quiet annoying. Moreover I found the general style really bland. In this sense, Hilary mantel's POGS was far well written. (on a side note: am I the only one to find the constant use of "Max" for Robespierre laughable? I don't know why, but immediately the image of an American 13 y.o. teenager came to my mind and I couldn't make it go away for the whole reading).
As for the use of memoirs: I understand that it is a great temptation and up to a point inevitable because these are the only sources for most of the characters' private lives and they should have some reality in it. However what an author must do is to take those events and, respecting their factuality, give to them her/his personal interpretation and twist, not merely re-telling them - which I felt Piercy did in the case of both Robespierre and Danton. There was no sparkling touch in most of the cases.

Narration and characters: I liked very much the first part of the book, especially the women's povs (I think those were the highlights of the book, although Manon becomes a bit shallow in the second part), probably because I know less about them, but also because the author seemed closer to them, empathizing in certain case. Condorcet's character is also quite good, I think Piercy gives a credible interpretation of his character; still sometimes he seems rather dull (especially in the end).
Two things disappointed me: the sex scene. I mean, do we really need to know about Danton's sexual activities? I don't, thank you. It is not a matter of decency, it is just that they look out of place to me and quite reader-service. Also I would have expected more strength irradiating from Danton's character.
Robespierre: at least he is not the monster here, although after the first two chapters on him I labelled him "Emo!pierre". Seriously, I think she gets a bit too much into `romantic' style depicting him, sometimes he looks as if he comes from Foscolo's Iacopo Ortis. I could have accepted this kind of characterization for Saint-Just, not for Robespierre, who definitely (imho) suits well with the rousseauvian sensibility.
Spoiler! Now the ending really got to my nerves and almost made me throw the book in rage. Yes, I mean the lesbian part. It was absolutely ill-conducted, cliché and out-of-character; also slightly offensive (the message, whether voluntarily or not, was `you became a lesbian after very bad experience with men' and also `feminists after all are lesbians'). Don't let me start it on the whole portrayal of the two women story/sexuality or I'll get on ranting forever. Also in the economy of the narration it was completely unnecessary and out-of-place.

Overall, not a bad book not a good book. I was expecting more than that, to be honest because I cannot be satisfied with a book that it is historical quite accurate, but leaves the entertainment aside.

So lovely people of the community, I hope some of you will write some short stories/ novels better than that!

p.s. This week I just re-read some English academic books on the FR (I'm finishing the first draft of my article and my supervisor asked me to put some more `English stuff'on bibliography because the peer-reviewers will be British and will not like something based mostly on French/Italian books ..she probably not meant that I had to read them, but I am not good at faking). So basically I digested Fatal Purity and Lucifer!Hampson again (ok, I admit I just skipped over Schama's Citizens, couldn't really be bother to read it all twice). So fellow citizens, please suggest me a good/fairly recent academic book on the French Revolution (any aspect) that you like to recover.
p.s. 2 Anyone has read "Saint-Just: Sohn, Denker und Protagonist der Revolution"?

Date: 2012-01-25 02:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
It's interesting to hear your thoughts on this book, as while I wouldn't say it's a particular favorite of mine, it is one of the better offerings in English, if not from a literary perspective, at least from a historical perspective (not perfect there either, mind...)

I agree that the style is too modern (Robespierre as "Max" really grated on me too) and often too summary - I think Piercy spread herself too thin trying to write about so many characters over such a long period of time, and would have done better to focus on one or two of them. I agree as well that in the second part especially, the book almost reads like a summary of a more fleshed-out literary telling. I did find Danton rather bland, in particular, and certainly Piercy's take on Robespierre is nothing original (though, as I've said before, I do like her handing of his relationship with Éléonore Duplay). Apart from the lesbian bit at the end, I thought Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe were the best handled, though once again too modern. Piercy didn't really manage to capture Manon Roland's voice, in my view (though ironically this makes her much more sympathetic at times, since she can be very grating in her memoirs). Condorcet was portrayed overly sympathetically as well, though I rather expected this - these days he seems to be everyone's hero.

What I appreciate most about this book is Piercy's respect for her characters and their ideals. Now, sometimes this is carried too far: Mme Roland is largely portrayed as I think she would have wanted to be. There is a difference between narrating from a person's point of view and always (or at least most of the time) making them appear to be in the right. Piercy accomplishes this with Robespierre (often in ways I don't agree with), why not with Mme Roland? Still, I have to give Piercy credit for not sitting down and writing a novel with the intent of proving how misguided the Revolution was and smugly setting it out as an example of good intentions gone wrong, the way certain novelists (or for that matter, historians) do.

As for Robespierre's emoness, I do think Piercy may have overdone it. Certainly she seems to take his probable depression/dejectedness of the last few years of his life and project it back over the whole of it. (It makes me wonder whether she had seen "La Terreur et la Vertu," actually, since Robespierre seemed a bit overly emo in that too.) I had more of a problem with the emphasis on his supposed disconnection with reality towards the end - I think is last speech rather belies that idea, but I suppose that's up for interpretation.

The sex scenes didn't bother me that much. I think Piercy wanted to show us every aspect of her characters lives, I though generally speaking I think she could have handled it better (her portrayals of most of the characters most of the time are fairly simplistic and summary, as noted), I think it's a perfectly valid choice. Granted, showing us everything a character does is not a substitute for psychological depth, but in and of itself I don't think there's much wrong with it. (I'm not sure about the reader-service aspect you see it though - perhaps my imagination is limited, but how many people out there who really want to read about Danton's sexual exploits, as such?)

All in all, I suppose I agree with your assessment. The fact that it's one of the best out there in English says a great deal more about the dearth of decent literature on the Revolution, in particular in English, than it does about the quality of this book in particular.

Date: 2012-01-25 03:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
Re: recommendations. There aren't too many English books on the Revolution that I can whole-heartedly recommend. Timothy Tackett's not bad. Certain of Marie-Hélène Huet's articles in "Mourning Glory" are fairly good: especially the one on the monster-ization of Robespierre and Danton which I posted on a few years ago. I can be more helpful if I know what kind of books you're looking for though. For example, Suzanne Desan's book on social legislation during the Revolution is very good, but I don't know if it's relevant for your purposes.

And sorry, I've not read anything on the Revolution (or any other subject, for that matter) in German. I am currently reading J-P Gross's wonderfully well documented (if somewhat dry) book on Saint-Just, which I highly recommend, if you don't know it.


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