Thursday, August 6, 2009

More true than authentic

From Hillary Mantel's review of David Lawday's Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror (Cape, 2009), in the London Review of Books, August 6, 2009:
In Troyes, Danton was given the best of modern educations by the Oratorian order. Later, he built up an extensive library, and he spoke, or at least read, both English and Italian. He was 20 when he went to try his luck in Paris. He clerked for a Maître Vinot on the Ile Saint-Louis. Rather than sit the Parisian bar exams, he took a pragmatic trip to Reims, where the diploma could be picked up for a fee on proof of a few days' residence. In 1787, in one of those arrangements so French that they almost defy translation, he bought the legal office of avocat au Conseil du Roi from a man called Huet de Paisy, who was engaged to marry his long-time mistress, Françoise Duhauttoir; Françoise herself lent Danton some of the purchase price.
Danton lived by the word, but not the written word. He never wrote his speeches; he grew them extempore, and fed them on the emotion of his audience. All his life he was at the mercy of patchy note-takers. Alphonse Aulard, who held the first chair in revolutionary studies at the Sorbonne, investigated the problem in 1922: are Danton's famous phrases real, or are they later inventions, are they what historians think he ought to have said? 'It is probable that he said them. One hopes that he said them. Historically speaking, one cannot be sure. Perhaps they are more true than authentic.'
On 2 September 1792 Danton delivered his finest speech, 'the charge against the enemies of the patrie', who must be met with 'l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace'. This was happy and forceful phrasemaking; like much revolutionary rhetoric, it loses some impact in translation, but all the same it is helpful that Lawday translates everything, and does it easily and idiomatically. That day of boldness was, Lawday says, the best and worst of Danton; his speech had a galvanising effect, but it acted as a call for direct action among the citizens, as well as a strike against the external enemy.
The whole review lives here.