By Christopher Byrd for The Barnes and Noble Review
Of the many things that draw us to literature, I suspect no quality outright eclipses the appeal of sustained rapture. In this most exalted state, when a text cements us in its circle and coaxes us to absorb its thoughts - not just sympathize or argue with them - we do not devour a book. It devours us. Pierre Michon's The Eleven - the 2009 winner of the French Academy's Grand Prix du Roman - is such a beast. This thin novel takes the form of a monologue directed toward a silent gentleman who's made his way to one of the Louvre's innermost galleries.
On the wall before him, behind bulletproof glass, rests a portrait of eleven members of the Committee for Public Safety - the tight-fisted organization that steered France into the period of terror associated with the French Revolution. (Lacking among the depictions of Robespierre, Saint-Juste, Couthon, and the rest is Marie-Jean Herault de Sechelle, who fell afoul of his fellow Committee members and was guillotined on April 5, 1794.)
According to the narrator, this imposing masterwork - attributed to Francois-Elise Corentin - is an exquisite fluke of history: "a painting - that Robespierre did not want at any price that the others hardly wanted, that maybe ten out of eleven did not want (Are we tyrants, that our Images be worshipped the abhorred place of tyrants?), but which was ordered, paid for, and made. Because even Robespierre feared the Hotel de Ville, because History has a pocket for luck in its belt, a special purse to pay for impossible things."
Given the iconic status of the French Revolution, the narrator's confidence in retelling Corentin's path towards "The Eleven" is remarkable:
"Finally, Sir, I want to repeat here the reason for the commission, its small necessary and sufficient cause, the design of its sponsors. Who they are. And I know very well that you have read it - but I know you, Sir, you and your kind: in your reading you go immediately to what shines and what you crave, the skirts of maman- putain [mother-whore], the plume, the gold coins; or what is perfectly matte black, the guillotine, Shakespeare; but the political quibbling you find tiresome, you skim over it. The drab history and theory, the class struggle and the infighting, you tell yourself you will read all that tomorrow. …