Reading: “A Place of Greater Safety” by Hilary Mantel

Law of Suspects. Suspects are those: who have in any way aided tyranny (royal tyranny, Brissotin tyranny ...); who cannot show that they have performed their civic duties; who do not starve, and yet have no visible means of support; who have been refused certificates of citizenship by their Sections; who have been removed from public office by the Convention or its representatives; who belong to an aristocratic family, and have not given proof of constant and extraordinary fervor; or who have emigrated.

It will be alleged later (by Citizen Desmoulins) that 200,000 people are detained under this law. The Watch Committee in each Section is to draw up lists of suspects, take away their papers and detain them in a secure place. These places will be called “National Buildings”—convents, vacated châteaux, empty warehouses. Collot d’Herbois has a better idea. He suggests that suspects be herded into mined houses, which can then be blown up.

***

Decree of the National Convention: “The government of France is revolutionary until the peace ... Terror is the order of the day.”
— Hilary Mantel

Historical fiction, this is, and it weighs a ton. For two weeks this book has haunted me, and I wanted to give up halfway through. Halfway through when I reached the one short paragraph devoted to the Princess de Lamballe, noted friend of Marie Antoinette, notable for the horrific manner of her death (ugh, I'll lead you this far but no farther). I read that one paragraph—Mantel, with a pitiless instinct for detail, chooses the grisliest of the rumors and adds a swipe of dialogue, shouted to the former Queen of France from the streets below her prison cell, something like "Come to the window and say hallo to your friend"—and that night when I turned out the lights and rolled over in the dark, I swear to god I felt a hand stretch across my face. On went the lights and into a cupboard went the book. As if it could be unread! Fiction didn't do this: history did this. And did you know that a 30-year-old stuffed animal—a French dog, by the way, a childhood Le Mutt named Floppy—is no safeguard against the ghosts of the September Massacres? Stupid frog dog. Off with your head!

There was no sleep that night, my friends—there is no place of greater safety—and I'm not sure why I was surprised. Turns out all my favorite places were once prisons! Tuileries: prison! Luxembourg Gardens: prison! This busy square, where a bright red tour bus sat parked in July, 99% of the people in this book were guillotined there! And not gently! How any sort of democratic society crawled out of the bumblefuck that was this revolution may be one of the greatest miracles ever invented by man. We are talking about a monumental circle jerk of idiocy and hubris—has no one heard the phrase "power vacuum"?—and Mantel feeds it out at a steady, relentless pace, over 750 pages, like the beating of the telltale heart. Never in my life have I been so glad to reach The End.

Early New Year's resolution: find a new writerly/punctuational tic, or change my name to Emdash.

A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel
$16.29
By Hilary Mantel