What happens when the only world you know disappears? In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the days of the week, the months of the year, and even the years themselves were replaced. New names were attributed to familiar places. A Christian God was supplanted by a Supreme Being of reason, spouting the Rights of Man. The king was reduced to a citizen, was tried as an ordinary person, and was sentenced to the same death that many others would subsequently face. These radical changes were compounded by the Reign of Terror’s violent decimation of all that opposed the new regime.
Anatole France’s 1912 novel Les dieux ont soif explores both the impact of these extraordinary events on the people of Paris and the underlying ideological battles that surrounded them. Douglas Parmée’s new translation of the novel, The Gods Want Blood (2013), reintroduces this fascinating work to a modern English-speaking audience. Written during a period of intense academic interest in the Revolution following its centenary, France meticulously researched the novel. It interweaves a lively fictional narrative with actual events and features prominent historical figures. Parmée’s extensive yet unobtrusive notes ensure that none of this intricate detail is lost on the readership.
The world that France creates is still in its infancy with references to places often including former names, whilst characters are addressed by the appellations ‘citizen’ or ‘citizeness’ as if to remind us of this new social order’s fraternal and equal foundations. A Rousseauian ideal of nature’s guiding role is espoused and aesthetic value is placed upon the classic and the simple: social thought and artistic endeavours reflect one another. The protagonist Évariste Gamelin is a penniless painter whose political engagement leads him to act as a juror for the Revolutionary Tribunal — the Terror’s brutal system of justice. In Gamelin’s hands is the fate of the masses who have committed enemy acts or simply failed to display the required ‘public-spiritedness’. In addition to Gamelin, France portrays a cast of diverse individuals, representing every rung of the former hierarchy: his elderly mother, confused by the new dates appearing on her cobbler’s bill; his sister Julie who fled to England with her upper-class lover; his mistress Élodie, previously mistreated by an amorous aristocrat; the nobleman turned puppet-maker Brotteaux who reads Lucretius religiously; Father Longuemare with his unfailing devotion to the church; and the scheming citizeness Rochemaure who is suspected of having links to the English government. Each of these characters offers a different perspective on this turbulent historical context, yet it is the young Gamelin himself who holds the most interest.
Swept up in the excitement of the Revolution and standing firm in his belief of its righteousness, Gamelin remains faithful to the cause despite the apathy that is spreading throughout Paris in 1793 — the year that the novel begins. Throughout the narrative, Gamelin never loses sight of a promised, brighter future, yet realises that his actions mean that he can never be a part of it. ‘To save the country, we need blood’, he reflects. Gamelin’s role as a juror facilitates this merciless process of bloodletting that he believes will allow France to regenerate itself. Justice, then, becomes less a case of deciding whether someone is innocent or guilty, but rather a ritual purging of blood that seeks to erase even the slightest form of resistance. Gamelin acknowledges the Terror’s cruelty but emphasises its necessity, telling a small boy in the Tuileries Garden: ‘I’ve been a loathsome man so that you’ll be happy.’ In his eyes, the Terror is a sacrificial process that is destroying him for the good of his country. Even when the time comes for those with blood on their hands — Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, members of the commune, jurors — to be guillotined, Gamelin proclaims, ‘I’ve not shed enough blood, and it’s right that now my own blood is going to be shed!’
As Gamelin’s masterpiece of Orestes and Electra hangs in a second-hand shop window after his death, one of his former acquaintances remarks on how Orestes seems to resemble his creator. Whilst Gamelin possesses the matricidal Orestes’s capabilities to kill his family, neither he nor France has a father to avenge. His reasoning — and the Revolution’s — becomes lost in the unrestrained bloodshed.
From the novel’s classical references and accurate tracking of historical events to its developed characters and intriguing plot, France’s craftsmanship is evident. The result is an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking read that would appeal to the eighteenth-century scholar and a more general reader alike.
The Gods Want Blood was published by Alma Books in 2013.