Understanding the society that produced the Commune

Paris Babylon: the Story of the Paris Commune Paris Babylon: the Story of the Paris Commune by Rupert Christiansen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wittily told and extensively researched, this brief account of the Second Empire, the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune has two special merits. First, it is more sociological than ideological: Christiansen aims neither to condemn nor exalt the revolutionary Communards or the Versaillais who tried (and ultimately succeeded) to destroy them, but rather to understand all sides. He is of course appalled by the atrocities, a few by the communards (much exaggerated by Versailles propaganda, but there were some) and far more by the Versailles government troops, especially during the semaine sanglante and following, but such horrors by one side do not necessarily justify the decisions and confusions by the other. The book's second great virtue is its descriptions of curious aspects of Paris and Louis Napoleon's II Empire on the eve of the series of disasters that destroyed it: war with Prussia, then the siege of Paris and finally the Commune. There is a brief account of Baron Haussmann's transformation of the city's space, and its unintended social and economic consequences. And the chapter, "The Spermal Economy," on French medical opinion and prejudices about sex (how much to indulge and how, and how upper-class men used the Opéra as their exclusive brothel) is very amusing, though of doubtful relevance to the Commune, whose proletarian defenders' sexual behavior surely had little to do with such official notions. The account of the war is too brief to understand it, and the intense debates among Blanquistes, Prudhonniens and Marxistes, Républicains, and monarchists and other conservatives, are merely alluded to.

For readers new to the subject, this book provides a lively and fair overview of events, with bibliographic notes for those who want to understand more. And for anyone, its anecdotes and portraits, e.g. of the Empress Eugénie and of the pathetic and mysteriously uncommunicative Emperor, or Haussmann and even of the young and insolent Rimbaud (who may or may not have got to Paris during the Commune — we don't really know) make it a lively and suggestive addition to the bibliography.

For me, as I continue developing my new novel around this dramatic episode, it will be more helpful for portraying the bourgeois, in the middle between the great revolutionary and reactionary forces. 

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