Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pg. 69: "Fatal Purity"

Ruth Scurr studied at Oxford and Cambridge, where she currently teaches politics and history. A prominent literary critic, she has written for the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

Her first book is Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.

I asked Ruth to put the book to the "page 69 test," and here is what she reported:
Fatal Purity tells a frightening story. It follows Maximilien Robespierre on his journey from obscure origins in provincial Arras, where he worked as a young lawyer, into the heart of the French Revolution, where he became infamous for organising and enforcing the Terror. Robespierre was not a villain like Hitler or Stalin. Many of his ideas are ones we recognise today: liberty, equality, democracy and improving the lives of the poor. He has always sharply divided historians: his friends claim he has become the Revolution’s scapegoat and his valuable contribution to the world we now live in has been forgotten; his enemies say it is not by his principles, but by the bloody consequences of his actions, that Robespierre must be judged. When I began my book, I wanted to be fair to him, to see things from his point of view, but never to excuse him.

On p.69 (Chatto & Windus edition) Robespierre is leaving Arras for Paris at the beginning of the Revolution in 1789. He has packed: “some very clean linen (six shirts, six collars, six handkerchiefs); three pairs of stockings (one almost new); one pair of well-worn shoes and a newer pair; a satin waistcoat (probably pink) and waistcoat of raz de Saint-Maur (a very fine shaven cloth) which was threadbare; a black cloth coat and his lawyer’s gown. There were also clothes brushes, shoe brushes, needles and thread (his mother had taught him to sew as well as to make lace before she died). Everything fitted easily into the trunk he borrowed from one of his sister’s friends.”

Robespierre and his siblings were orphans. They were not destitute, but his meagre possessions inside a borrowed trunk contrast strongly with the grand ideas and principles that inflamed his heart. Lots what we know about him is apocryphal: rumours, exaggerations, embellished memoirs. On p.69 there are two examples:

“According to one story, he turned to the servant who carried his bag to the coach for him and boasted that he would one day make him mayor of Arras. In another version Robespierre threw a celebratory dinner for his friends before leaving and said to a servant nicknamed Lantillette: “Remember, my dear friend, that everything is going to change in France. Yes! … the Lantillettes of this world will become mayors and the mayors will be Lantillettes.” There is more personal spite in this than revolutionary foresight, yet when he left Arras in 1789, Robespierre had reason to expect that he would return to find it dramatically altered.”

In fact, it was not until September 1791 that Robespierre went home again. By then he had become a nationally recognised political hero, crowned with laurel leaves by jubilant crowds. How did his life and career go so badly wrong in the next few years, to end beneath the guillotine in 1794, when he was still only 36?
Many thanks to Ruth for the input.

Read an excerpt from Fatal Purity.

Among the praise for Fatal Purity:
"Ruth Scurr does for Robespierre and the French Revolution what Quentin Bell did for Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: she apprehends the complete personality of the man, the moment, and the movement. A work of genuine scholarship and political literature, Fatal Purity is an electrifying biography of an epoch's vaulting ambitions and wounded pride, radical vision and terrifying uncertainty, bracing heroism and decimating energies."
-- Corey Robin, author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea

"[A] chillingly brilliant biography of Robespierre .... As well as telling the story of how a mild, puritanical provincial lawyer became the inventor of the first modern Murder State, and the forerunner of horrors of the 20th century, Dr Scurr gives a very succinct history of the Revolution itself – no easy thing to do.... I can't recommend her book too highly."
-- A.N. Wilson

"Fatal Purity provides an excellent vantage point from which to observe the period between 1789 and 1794, during which Robespierre’s austere and virtuous Republicanism became dominant.... Scurr deftly shows how Robespierre’s brand of radical popular politics rose to the fore, with its commitment to mass mobilization, social regeneration through virtue, and popular sovereignty."
-- Sudhir Hazareesingh, Times Literary Supplement

Scurr's "book is a straightforward narrative history, and she is a steady guide through complex events. It is judicious, balanced, and admirably clear at every point. Her explanations are economical and precise, her examples well chosen and imaginative, and her quotations from original sources pointed and apt. It is quite the calmest and least abusive history of the Revolution you will ever read. It works well as a general history of the years 1789-94, besides being a succinct guide to one of its dominant figures."
-- Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books

"Ruth Scurr's aim, in this well-written first book, is to provide an accessible, up-to-date biography that draws on all this work, and presents Robespierre as a human being rather than as the monster of legend. She succeeds impressively."
-- Munro Price, Telegraph

"[L]ively and well-written..."
-- David Gilmour, New York Times Book Review

"The life of Robespierre presents an extraordinary challenge for the biographer: right about many things he may have been at the start but he was appallingly wrong about others as he gained power, and a great many of his deeds are surely indefensible.... Ruth Scurr...accepts the challenge with verve. This is a biography that will stimulate all those interested in the subject of state terror and how it develops out of seemingly idealistic origins."
-- Antonia Frasier, (London) Times

"Ruth Scurr allows the evidence of Robespierre's insanity to seep out gradually: his savage, gloating letters to men whose political careers he destroyed; his creation of a rational cult of the 'Supreme Being', who bore a striking resemblance to Citizen Robespierre; the little shrine in which he lived, surrounded by statuettes and pictures of himself.... This splendidly balanced account of an unbalanced mind proves that there are monsters of virtue as well as monsters of vice. It also shows that Robespierre was posterity's scapegoat. He was never a dictator; in fact, he was executed as a moderate. It was not the best of times for a mad idealist."
-- Graham Robb, Telegraph
Previous "page 69 tests:"
Neal Pollack, Alternadad
Bella DePaulo, Singled Out
Steve Hamilton, A Stolen Season
Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air
Donna Moore, ...Go to Helena Handbasket
Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye
Neal Thompson, Riding with the Devil
Sherry Argov, Why Men Marry Bitches
P.J. Parrish, An Unquiet Grave
Tyler Knox, Kockroach
Andrew Rehfeld, The Concept of Constituency
Laura Wiess, Such a Pretty Girl
Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer
Andrew Pyper, The Wildfire Season
Wendy Werris, An Alphabetical Life
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
Meghan Daum, The Quality of Life Report
Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin' Man
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue