Bakunin, An Invention

“Bakunin, An Intervention” is an “interesting” fictional book about the famous anarchist Bakunin.

A while back, I was surfing the net, and following random impulses (as you do). I was looking for interesting reading material when the question popped into my mind: Hey, I wonder if there’s any sort of historical fiction about the life of Bakunin. That would make for some interesting reading.

I did a couple of searches on Amazon, and this is the only thing I came up with. So I decided to give it a try and ordered it.

It is….an interesting book, if nothing else. It’s so full of randomness, it’s a bit difficult to describe succinctly. The cover jacket contains a quotation reading, “This is not just a documentary, not research, nor is it a novel. The quotation which Bienek uses to open the book probably sums the whole book up as well as anything. “The story of this book amounts to this: that the story it was to tell doesn’t get told.”

The Voice of the People

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This book is a historical novel based on the Paris Commune. It may be compared with The Debacle by Emile Zola, although only the last quarter of The Debacle actually dealt with the Paris Commune (the rest of the book being about the Franco-Prussian war that preceded it.)

In The Voice of the People the rise and fall of the Commune plays a much more integral part to the story. The very first scenes of the book take place on the first day of the Commune uprising on March 17th, and the very last scene deals with the fall of the Commune. Numerous historical characters from the Paris Commune also make appearances and interact with the book’s fictional characters.

The plot is a bit complex and slightly Victor Hugo-esque. Grondin is an ex-convict prisoner who has escaped from his past and become a police commissioner under an assumed identity. He seeks revenge on Tarpagnan, who he believes killed his heir. Tarpagnan is a former army officer who turns over and joins the Paris Commune on the March 17th Revolution. He also falls in love with Gabriella Pucci, who is the mistress of the most powerful crime underlord in Paris. The three paths eventually converge on the barricades during the fall of the Paris Commune (okay, maybe that’s more than slightly Hugo-esque).

The first confrontation between Grondin and Tarpagnan is cleverly woven in with the historical March 17th uprising on the Butte Montmarte. The final scenes are again interwoven flawlessly with the collapse of the Commune and the fighting on the barricade.

Although the book starts with a bang and finishes with a bang, it lags a little in the middle as the plot turns towards the Paris criminal underworld, and moves under the radar of the politics of the Paris Commune. I suppose the meeting rooms of the Central Committee and the Paris Commune government debates don’t make for as exciting a back drop as the barricade scenes, but it would have been nice if the book had explored a little more about life under the Commune rather than simply using the rise and fall of the Paris Commune as a way to book end the plot.

Nevertheless numerous historical characters from the Paris Commune pop up during the book. Louise Michel is prominent at the beginning of the book during the initial uprising, and she is referenced repeatedly throughout the story. Dombrowski, the Polish general who was in charge of the defense of the Paris Commune (and became a symbol of the Commune’s internationalism) is also featured in this book and fights alongside the fictional Tarpagnan. Gustave Courbet, the Communard artist who was accused of organizing the destruction of Napoleon’s Vendome Column, pops up as another friend of Tarpagnan.

But of the historical Communards it is Jules Valles who figures most prominently in this book as a kind of mentor to Tarpagnan.

Jean Vautrin has obviously read Valles’s memoirs, and at times seems to be trying to show off his knowledge by cramming to many biographical references into all of Valles’s conversations. This book provides a fictional explanation for why Valles chose to write his memoirs under the roman-a-clef name Jacques Vingtras, although that part is also slightly overdone. It should have just been a throw away joke, but it is really over emphasized as if the author is afraid we won’t catch the reference.

Valles also seems to serve as a mouthpiece for Vautrin’s own views about the Commune. Although most of the views Vautrin puts in Valles’s mouth fall short of profound analysis and are are more vague and cryptic. When describing the reasons for the fall of the Commune, for example, Valles answers, “It’s because philosophers and artists confuse their dreams, their cigar smoke and the range of their spectacles with the hopes of hands distorted by toil!”

On the whole though, Valles comes off more or less how I pictured him after reading his books, and his dramatic escape from the massacre at the end of the Commune is also integrated into this story.

While this book may fall short of analysis about the Paris Commune, it does attempt to give it a fitting eulogy. Vautrin laments the slaughter of the poor by the Versailles army. He has several scenes depicting the slaughter, and even integrates Victor Hugo’s famous poem about a Communard boy who asks to return his watch to his mother before being executed. That said, I’m not sure he entirely succeeds in this either. Maybe I’m just unromantic, but I thought the systematic listing of the Versailles atrocities by Lissagary in his “History of the Paris Commune” made the massacres seem a lot more real than Vautrin’s or Hugo’s poetic interpretations.

Stylistically the book is a bit confusing. I’m not sure if it is the author’s fault or the translator’s fault, but here is a typical example:

“Thirty-six years old, a townsman born and bred, he was along pallid beanpole of a man, dressed in dark blue and at present giving a fair imitation of a heron being mobbed by rooks. He was sticking his head out from behind the timber piling.”

This is further compounded by Vautrin’s aversion to using the same name for a character twice on the same page. Vautrin might refer to a character once by his given name, once by his family name, once by his rank or position, and then once by his height, hair style, or home town before he feels comfortable reverting back to the proper name again. It’s a bit confusing at the beginning remembering who is who, but it got better as I read through the book. The style also grew on me as I progressed through the book.

All in all, a good read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It requires a bit of patience at first, but if you stick with it you do get caught up in the story and forget about the clunky prose. Also it should probably be supplemented with a non-fiction history of the Paris Commune.

Jean Vautrin, The Voice of the People, (Phoenix House, 2002).

American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation

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Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was one of the key works of the Beat Generation and its debut at the famed Six Gallery reading in 1955 marked the coming out of a new dissent in American poetry and culture. In American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin analyzes both the text of the poem and its key themes to demonstrate how they reflect the Beats’ uncertainty about and critique of American society. The Beats’ critique and departure from the stifling conformity of the 1950s represented the start of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and provided the initial glimpses of the radicalism that would become prominent during the decade of the sixties.

The Beats had an important influence on American society, and from the start of the Beat movement, many of the Beats most prominent writers identified themselves with the strong non-conformist literary figures and traditions in the United States, drawing their own parallels with poets such as Walt Whitman, and eventually, becoming nearly as influential. The Beats were profoundly influenced by the realities of the 1950s-they lived in the shadow of the nuclear bomb and were haunted by the possibility of death at the hands of nuclear machinery and by the state of the world. The major themes identified in Howl–madness, nakedness, and secrecy, were omnipresent features of the United States in the 1950s and the Beats took it upon themselves to recognize and challenge these themes through art. The Beats hoped that they could foster a generalized awakening of the populace and Ginsberg specifically sought to “jolt America awake” with the content and form of Howl, and in many ways, Howl would both echo cultural changes already under way and usher in new ones as the 1950s moved into the 1960s.

Aside from the historical realities, Howl was also influenced extensively by Ginsberg’s personal life. In his personal life and in his relationships, both with his parents and his fellow writings, a sense of madness pervaded-Ginsberg’s mother was in a mental institution, Ginsberg himself spent time in one, and numerous acquaintances committed suicide. As Raskin points, out “madness was the Beat badge of honor in a world gone insane with bombs, dictators, terror, and tyranny,” and Ginsberg, like many other Beats embraced the madness in his life and in the world and incorporated it into Howl. Ginsberg’s philosophy of personal liberation and desire to break down boundaries of expected behavior also influenced Howl, as did his life among the bohemians and political radicals in San Francisco.

Fans of Allen Ginsberg will find much to enjoy in American Scream, as Raskin does an excellent job collecting material from a variety of sources–Ginsberg’s journals, interviews with Ginsberg’s psychiatrist, and psychiatric reports from the 1950s–all of which contribute towards a clear and complete analysis of Howl and the milieu from which it came forth. For the casual reader who has not had considerable exposure to Ginsberg or the history of the Beat Generation, Raskin has included some history, a history that is necessary to fully understand Howl. Unfortunately, some of the historical information is fairly superficial and lacks the detail that readers not familiar with the period would likely desire. Nevertheless, American Scream provides an insightful look at the roots of the Beat Generation and the period of dissent that followed in the 1960s.

Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, (University of California Press, 2004).

Love in the Days of Rage

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I was pleased to find this book, a fictional account of two lovers living in France during the revolutionary period of May-June 1968. One of them is an anarchist banker, with all the contradictions that such a title implies, and the other is a professor at L’Acadamie des Beaux Arts in Paris. Much of the book traces the tension between different views of how one best can participate in and support the revolutionary students.

I have to admit, the primary reason I enjoyed this book was its setting–I find the May-June events to be fascinating. The book captures the spirit of the events pretty well, including many of the famous graffiti slogans that were found on Paris walls, incorporating many of the events that took place, and relaying the overall context of the events quite well. As a piece of historical fiction, it works well and for people who are familiar with the events, it is an entertaining read–I found myself reading it in one sitting (it’s short at 118 pages), eagerly turning the pages to see how Ferlinghetti would work in the various philosophies present in May-June 1968.

However, like most works of fiction, there are some errors. The most striking error is found in a passage where Annie, the professor, finds herself marching in the middle of a group of International Situationist marching under the banner of philosopher Henri LeFebvre, who had planted the early seeds of revolt among his students in Strasbourg with his manifesto “on the misery of student life.” While there is no date given to verify the accuracy of this statement, it seems highly unlikely as the Situationists had a falling out with LeFebvre in the early 1960s and the “manifesto” being referred to is most likely the Situationists’ own pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life.

Even with a few errors, this was an entertaining and fast read, one that will be especially enjoyable for people who are fascinated by France in May-June 1968.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Love in the Days of Rage, (E.P. Dutton, 1988).

Seven Red Sundays

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While I am generally not a fan of fiction, I often find myself gravitating towards novels that have a “radical” undercurrent in them or that take place within revolutionary periods. It was for this reason that I picked up Sender’s a href=”″>Seven Red Sundays, a novel written in 1936 during the revolutionary upheaval in Spain and the Spanish Civil War.

The subject of the novel is a group of revolutionaries in Madrid who are affiliated with the FAI (a Spanish anarchist organization) and what happens after a seven-day period. The upheaval begins with the murder of their comrades at a syndicalist meeting, followed by a general strike that throws the countries into a chaos–a situation in which it is unclear as to whether or not there will be a revolution or if things will return to normal. During this period, the characters engage in various tactics including sabotage and distribution of literature, all while working towards the goal of a libertarian (anarchist) Spain.

The book does an excellent job of capturing the revolutionary spirit of Spain and the periods of euphoric hope and despair that often accompany revolutionary periods. There are passages that are intensely beautiful in the novel, but there are also many that are rather bland, although this could be a conscious effort by the author to capture both the hopes and disappointments of revolutionary periods. While this novel is by no means bad, and indeed has a rather innovative writing and narrative style for the time, I think that George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a much better work for those that are searching for a fictional treatment of the revolutionary Spain.

Ramon J. Sender, Seven Red Sundays, (Elephent Paperback, 1990).