Tag Archives: French revolution

A Climate of Fear: Fred Vargas

“You don’t just go killing people left and right, for want of anything better to do.”

In A Climate of Fear from Fred Vargas, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg returns to investigate a series of connected murders. Adamsberg is dragged into the death of an older, terminally ill woman who appears to be a suicide. It seems to be an open and shut case, but there are some niggling problems that gnaw at the edges of Adamsberg’s mind: Why was the woman so determined to post a letter shortly before her death? Who was the letter to and what did it contain? Finally what is the relevance of a sign drawn at the scene of the woman’s death? Then a helpful citizen steps forward with information about the letter, and Adamsberg goes to talk to the recipient only to find a second ‘suicide’ and the same sign left next to the dead man.

At the scene of the second ‘suicide,’ Adamsberg is told a strange, chilling story about a trip made to Iceland more than ten years earlier. The trip went horribly wrong and ended up like some frozen version of Lord of the Flies. The two ‘suicides’ were both people on the trip, and it seems that those former tourists are being bumped off one by one.

a climate of fear

While attempting to puzzle through the Iceland Tourists murders in his own inimitable way, Adamsberg begins investigating a second series of murders occurring within the secretive “Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre.” It turns out that Danglard, a walking encyclopedia, who “knows things that you won’t learn in thirty lifetimes,” is very familiar with the writings and speeches of Robespierre, and Danglard looks like a natural dressed in an elegant 18th century purple frock coat.

With two parallel investigations, Adamsberg’s team is stretched to the limit, and when the investigations stall, Adamsberg comes under criticism from some squad members–including the ever-faithful Danglard. Vargas shows most effectively that thought processes, which are unique to each individual (especially Adamsberg who tends to approach crime in an intuitive way,) isolate and in this case, frustrates many of Adamsberg’s fellow officers.

At 415 pages this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a tightly plotted crime novel, but I loved every page. For example, there’s a long section with Adamsberg and Danglard interviewing the woman who picked by a letter dropped by the first victim. This woman, Marie-France, has a dreamy, yet very specific thought process which Adamsberg relates to:

‘After that I thought it over, seven times, not any more.’

‘Seven times,’ Adamsberg murmured,

How could you count the number of times you thought something over?

‘Not five and not twenty. My father always said you should think something over seven times in your head, before you act, not less, because you might do something silly, but especially not more, or you’d go around and around in circles. And end up corkscrewed into the ground. Then you’re stuck. So I thought: this lady went out on her own to post this letter. So it must have been important, don’t you think?’

Vargas takes her time developing the crimes, the solutions and the dynamics of each crime milieu–in particular the Robespierre society. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: crime fiction, for its focus on the transgressive,  is a great way to infiltrate a foreign culture, and in A Climate of Fear, we are cast back into the French Revolution. I had no idea that Robespierre was such a controversial figure, and Vargas explores the nuances of Robespierre’s character and why some people worship him and why others find him an object of hate.  The psychology of historical reenactments as “an arena for people’s fantasies” is explored very well, and there are plenty of details about Robespierre, his downfall and death in this rich crime novel.

A Climate of Fear is the eighth in the Commissaire Adamsberg series (if you don’t count the graphic novel). It’s possible to jump in with this one if you feel so inclined as there’s not a great deal of information about Adamsberg’s personal life, and the relationships he has with his squad members is fairly self-explanatory. A couple of mentions are made of the past, and there are returning characters, but there’s not much that should interfere with enjoying this crime novel on its own.

Thanks to Emma for turning me onto Vargas in the first place

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy

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The Recruit by Balzac

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about reading my way though Balzac is his take on the French Revolution–specifically its fallout and the impact on various characters. History classes follow the dates, the deeds and some of the more famous names, and I grew up with the images of Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head & Robespierre’s Head of Secret Police, Citizen Camembert  “keeping a watchful eye out for queue jumpers.”

But back to Balzac and his story The Recruit (The Conscript). This is a poignant tale set in 1793–the story of a mother’s love for her son. Madame de Dey, a widow of a Lieutenant-General, a Comte and a Chevalier of the Orders, and the mother of an only son, decided to remain in France during the Revolution. She’s moved to the small town of Carenton “hoping that the influence of the Terror would be little felt there.” Balzac tells us that this was a reasonable supposition as “The Revolution committed but few ravages in Lower Normandy.” Since moving to Carenton, Madame de Dey has found it “advisable to open her house to the principle bourgeois of the town and to the new governmental authorities; trying to make them pleased at obtaining her society, without arousing either hatred or jealousy.” Interesting idea and one that perhaps plays into the idea that these less fervent citizens will be flattered to be invited into her home and rub elbows with a member of the aristocracy.

So we have a delicate scenario. Obviously, Madame de Dey is guillotine material, but she hopes that by establishing relationships with people she normally would have ignored, she will form ties, allay suspicion, and indicate, subtly, that she is ready and willing to accept the new social order. Of course, while Madame de Dey’s strategy is probably the only one open to a woman in her circumstances, nonetheless, she could be inviting a viper into her drawing room. And aren’t all those social evenings laced with feelings of unease, and then if anyone asks questions beyond the lightest social banter, wouldn’t the conversation have a dangerous edge?

Madame de Dey is bravely trying her best. She’s only 38 years old, and still “preserved” Balzac tells us. It’s no wonder then that Madame de Dey’s strategy of ‘keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer’ is working–perhaps working too well. The poor woman has a couple of unwanted suitors sniffing around.

The first four of these personages, being bachelors, courted her with the hope of marriage, furthering their cause by either letting her see the evils they could do her, or those from which they could protect her. The public prosecutor, previously an attorney at Caen, and the manager of the countess’s affairs, tried to inspire her with love by an appearance of generosity and devotion, a dangerous attempt for her. He was the most to be feared among her suitors. He alone knew the exact condition of the property of his former client. His passion was increased by cupidity, and his cause was backed by enormous power, the power of life and death throughout the district.

It’s a horrible position for the young widow. So far, Madame de Dey has juggled these suitors by setting them against each other, but how long can this last? How long before words of love, threats and offers of protection morph into something darker?

I found myself comparing Madame de Dey to Penelope. Penelope was also surrounded by pushy suitors, but in her case she waited for Odysseus to come home, so she spent her days weaving a tapestry–promising to pick a new husband when it was completed, and she spent her nights undoing her daytime work. Madame de Dey, however, longs for her son–not a lover, and she has chosen to stay in France, in spite of great personal danger, for her son’s sake. She knows that if she joins him in exile, all their property will be confiscated, so she imagines that she has made the best choice open to her–her son is safe in exile, and she is safely guarding the property and hoping that in time he will be able to return safely and claim his wealth. Again, this is an interesting strategy, so we see that Madame de Dey is intelligent and capable of conceiving of a long-term strategy.

Of course, since there’s a story here, the story lies in what goes wrong with Madame de Dey’s plan. I really liked how Balzac constructed this because he shows so clearly that you can plan what you want but that plan will always be impacted by the unpredictable actions of other people. In other words, you can plan for what you can see coming. Madame de Dey’s greatest treasure is her son, and she will do anything to keep him safe. It doesn’t sound like it’s too much to ask, does it? And she’s a very sympathetic character–married off young to some nasty old man, and yet somehow she’s come to terms with all the bad stuff in her life. She’s calm, gentle, kind–just a good person–but a woman whose life is swept up in events not of her making.

The story is book-ended by a mystical concept regarding “intellectual space,” the ability to “abolish space in its two forms of Time and Distance,” and “sympathies” that transcend our static notions regarding “the laws of space.”

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and FREE for the kindle.

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An Episode Under the Terror by Balzac

An Episode Under the Terror, according to my copy, was published in 1831. This  story takes place in January 1793 in Paris, and you don’t need to be a student of French history to know that this was a time of turmoil. France had become a Republic, and on January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. The story An Episode Under the Terror begins the day after the execution of Louis as a fearful old lady walks through the streets of Paris at night:

It had snowed so heavily all day long that the lady’s footsteps were scarcely audible; the streets were deserted, and a feeling of dread, not unnatural amid the silence, was further increased by the whole extent of the Terror beneath which France was groaning in those days; what was more, the old lady so far had met no one by the way.

Hearing footsteps steadily behind her, the old lady imagines that she’s being followed by a spy. She is not, however, deterred from her mission, and she continues on her errand to a pastry-cook’s shop. The old woman is dressed plainly with no powder on her hair, but in spite of this, it’s very easy for the pastry-cook and his wife to spot their customer as a noble woman:

The manners and habits of people of condition were so different from those of other classes in former times that a noble was easily known, and the shopkeeper’s wife felt persuaded that her customer was a ci-devant, and that she had been about the court.

The old lady pays her last gold louis for the contents of a small pastry box and returns home to a cold garret she shares with two other people. She’s followed home by the same man who followed her to the shop. Is he a spy? Will he denounce the old woman and the two other residents who are hiding under the most miserable of circumstances?

Even though this is a very simple story, Balzac gives a sense of the uncertainty unleashed by Reign of Terror. The shopkeepers feel some pity for the old lady but they are “drawn two ways by pity and self-interest.” As usual there are some marvellous observations from Balzac on the subject of human behaviour and money–this is seen through the behaviour of the pastry cook who fleeces the old lady and feels a momentary prick of conscience for his thievery.

One of the issues Balzac brings up is that the priest, a Jansenist, in the story refused to take “the Oath.” Another issue that emerges in the story, and one of quite surprising prescient is the subject of individual responsibility. The priest discusses the current “wickedness” and the stranger asks if he will be punished for his “indirect participation.” 

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” The stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line–is he actually responsible?”

The priest hesitated. The stranger was glad; he had put the Royalist precisian in a dilemma, between the dogma of passive obedience on the one hand (for the upholders of the Monarchy maintained that obedience was the first principle of military law), and the equally important dogma which turns respect for the person of a king into a matter of religion. 

While I wasn’t that interested in the wrestling of religious dogma, the stranger’s question–just how responsible was he for ‘following orders’ resonates today. How can loyalty or obedience to a king, a president or a general trump individual conscience or morality?

Balzac was born in 1799, so he hadn’t been born when the events of the story take place. Balzac’s mother gave birth to a first son in 1798, nursed him herself, and he died a few weeks later. Honoré Balzac was sent off to a wet nurse, the wife of a gendarme at Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire. He was four years old when he returned home to his parents in Tours, and this separation from his mother set the tone for his relationship with her–and perhaps all women.

My copy came free on the kindle, but it’s also available on Project Gutenberg.

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