A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
Picador, New York, 2006 (First published in 1992)
Borrowed from the library.
If I were an author, I would want to write like Hilary Mantel. After reading Wolf Hall I forced myself to hold off on reading her earlier novel, A Place of Greater Safety, because I have many other books to read and the book is 700 plus pages long. Then it showed up at the library and I couldn’t stop myself.
Not being a history major, I don’t know how much of this novel is fact and how much is fiction. Mantel has taken one of the most tumultuous times in French and European history and brought it to life through her characters. No small task, her cast of characters runs to over one hundred individuals.
The novel’s main focus is on three historic figures, Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, lawyers, journalists and revolutionaries. Robespierre is the familiar to me because of the Reign of Terror. I know a bit about Danton because of the Gerard Depardieu film. These historic figures, and their families, form the core of the novel and the other characters move among them in a dance both graceful and chaotic. But the main force behind this time of violent change is the people of France and their need to survive.
Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a women of the capital will say: “Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood. From page 27.
I love the way the big scenes play out, as if Mantel were standing in the crowd reporting the events. Then, suddenly, I am in a character’s head, thinking their thoughts, feeling their fear.
Camille’s precipitate entry into history came about in this fashion. He was standing in the doorway of the Cafe du Foy, hot, elated, slightly frightened by the pres of people. Someone behind him said that he might try to address the crouds and so a table had been pushed into the cafe doorway. For a moment he felt faint. He leaned against this table, bodies hemming him in…
…He was now at a dizzying height above the crowd. A fetid breeze drifted across the gardens. Another fifteen seconds had passed. He was able to identify certain faces, and suprise at this made him blink: ONE WORD, he thought. There were the police, and there were their spies and informers, men who had been watching him for weeks, the colleagues and accomplices of the men who only a few days before had been cornered and beaten by the crowds and half-drowned in the fountains. But now it is the killing time; there were armed men behind him. In sheer fright, he began. From pages 188/190.
There are also the women, wives, mothers, lovers, strong in their thoughts and perceptions. They know the men.
I thought, he talks like a man who has circumstances by the throat, but really he is making his calculations, he is carefully weighing the odds. He has only once made a mistake — last summer, when we had to run away. You will say, what was it, after all? A few weeks skulking out of Paris, and then an amnesty, and things go on as before. But picture me, that summer night at Fortenay, trying to keep my self control and put a good face on things, knowing that he is going to ngland and fearing he might never come back. And it shows, doesn’t it, how much worse things can get when you think you’ve hit rock bottom? Life has more complications in store than you can ever formulate or imagine. There are many ways of losing a husband. You can do it on several levels, the figurative and the actual. I operate on all of them, it seems. From pages 368/369.
I could go on quoting pages and pages. The novel is long, but moves rapidly. The language is dense, astute, brilliant. Filled with intrigues, petty grievances, terror and the politics of betrayal, it covers events in European history that ushered in the modern age. I loved it.