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BOOK REVIEW : Cinematic Tale of French Revolution : A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY by Hilary Mantel Atheneum: $25; 749 pages

March 18, 1993|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

History is not so much a play as a stage, available for all manner of performances. It would be natural to regard a new 750-page novel about the French Revolution with a certain lassitude. We've already been there, surely. But that would be like grumbling at an invitation to the theater on the grounds that we had been to that particular theater before.

By that not entirely sound analogy then: Hilary Mantel's "A Place of Greater Safety" is being put on at The French Revolution this month. Judging by its quality, it should be there for quite a few months to come.

Mantel, an English novelist, writes with a powerful historical intelligence. She knows that the current is much stronger than anyone who, paddling downstream, believes he is the current until--hitting a rock or trying a cross-channel maneuver--he is splintered or swamped. But she knows the paddlers, too, and renders each in stubborn detail.

Finally, joining paddler to stream, she knows that character is also motion, and that too much significant detail stops motion. If you paint a general at full gallop or falling off his horse, you will blur or distort medals, coattails and features, or you will have a wax doll.

At times, we see the book's triad--the lion Danton, the chilly unicorn Robespierre and the journalist Camille Desmoulins, that fiery swallow who swoops between them--in acute human focus. At other times each is, by turns, unclear, enigmatic, half-seen. Finally, these three distinctive personalities and historical agents--they would be tripolar, if there were such a thing--are swirled together and away. The guillotine made all its victims not just equal but anonymous.

Mantel follows the three from their rural childhoods through their arrivals in Paris, each as a young lawyer; through the personal and political connections that joined them and the personal differences and political choices that finally separated them. Her method is conspicuously photographic. Sometimes it is cinematography: quiet dialogue sequences, broad tracking-shots of public happenings, chaotic jump-cuts. Sometimes she is like a paparazzo who intrudes awkwardly on the intimacies of public figures. Sometimes, she is the video-camera amateur who happens to be on the scene and whose footage is both revealing and misleading.

It is all purposeful. As she goes back and forth between the great public events and the private or interior movements of her characters, Mantel conveys how things actually seem to happen: the disjointed way we learn of a riot or a political change, the confused simultaneity of the actors' contradictory motives and choices.

The public events are presented in all their feverishness: the crowds, lethargic, inflamed, revolutionary and--in their atrocities--revolting.

We see Desmoulins, pushed up on a cafe table on July 14 and, despite his stutter, setting off the surging riot that ended at the Bastille. We see Danton, slow at first, but a prodigy of purposeful energy once engaged, organizing the overthrow and arrest of Louis XVI and the setting up of the Republic.

We see Robespierre methodically writing letters during the great events, organizing his following and quietly taking over in a series of moderate and prudent steps that were so numerous and unstoppable that he ended up outdistancing his allies. At the end, on the road to the guillotine, Danton and Desmoulins outdistanced him, but only by a few months.

At no time, though, are we far from the individual presence that Mantel, wryly, acidly and sometimes touchingly, constructs for each of them. Danton is fire and calculation. He works night and day to manage the overthrow of the monarchy; at the end, he crows: "Life is just a series of wonderful opportunities." Ugly but alluring--both Desmoulins, who is bisexual, and Desmoulins' wife, Lucile, are attracted to him--he is ultimately opaque.

Robespierre is drawn more sharply. He is generous and idealistic, even sweet at times; but his idealism comes in small, tight packages. Control is everything; and to keep the Revolution from being taken over by the radicals, he becomes implacably radical. Mantel makes us believe the anguish with which he allows Desmoulins, whom he loves and admires, to be executed. It is not hypocrisy, but the weakness of extreme rigidity.

Desmoulins, unstable and impassioned, is rendered only a little less vividly. His wife, the book's true heroine, is its most complex and attractive figure. There are vivid sketches of Lafayette, the opportunistic Duc d'Orleans, who hopes to replace his brother, King Louis and many others.

Although it is a little long, Mantel's novel is subtle and ironic, while keeping up a sweeping excitement. It manages to construct and to deconstruct at the same time. The author gives both the sharpness of a particular version of history and the sense that it is only a possible version. She is convincing and inconclusive. The stage has been dazzlingly filled and is empty for another version.

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