Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Lives, loves and ambitions in the Paris Commune


Comme une rivière bleueComme une rivière bleue by Michèle Audin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Comme une rivière bleue” was journalist Jules Vallès’s description of the collective excitement of many, probably most, Parisians on the day their long-dreamed of commune was made a reality, 28 March 1871. For Michèle Audin, the flow of the “blue river” is the exhilaration and emotional entanglements of the men and women who did not hesitate to risk everything, including their lives, to realize the dream of a just, egalitarian society where officers were elected and recallable by their mostly working-class and artisan electorate, education would be free and laic, and all resources devoted to the common good. Theirs was a revolution, they declared, greater than any that had preceded it, because they were breaking not only with imperial and class rule but also with ancient gender rules and the mind-control attempted by the police state and the Church.
Audin follows the lives of many historical figures, having discovered enough surprising detail about their personal as well as professional lives as to imagine their plausible dialogues and thoughts. She is especially interested in those defending and promoting the Commune as journalists, including Vallès, founder and principal author of the Commune’s biggest-selling daily, Le cri du peuple; the much younger Maxime Vuillaume, one of the trio putting out the sensationalist and profanity-laced Le Père Duchesne; Prosper-Ollivier Lissagaray, founder of short-lived dailies that were serious and impassioned but with scant sales; and Charles Longuet, editor of the Journal officielle, which reported not only decrees and pronouncements of the elected Commune but also concerts, art exhibits, and even summaries of sessions of the Academy of Sciences — which, surprisingly, continued to function even under bombardment during the brief life of the Commune.
But there is no single protagonist whose actions define Audin’s story. Rather, the central figure is the “blue river,” the interactions of many human currents, their mutual dependencies, antagonisms, rivalry and support that determine the rush of events. What justifies calling this book about real, non-invented people a novel (un roman, she calls it) rather than an academic history is that Audin has allowed herself to imagine vividly intimate relationships and dialogues, often resorting to slurred slang and colorful expressions and calembours (word-plays) that give their interactions vivacity.
The story ends, as we know, in the terrible massacres of the “week of blood” (la Semaine sanglante, May 21-28, 1871) by the numerically vastly superior army of the conservative government in Versailles. But the dream of a just, egalitarian society, where all resources are devoted to the common good? Some of us, Audin among us, still hold to it.
There are many moving events in Audin’s accounts of these lives. Especially poignant is her depiction of the Marx family at the breakfast table, all of them — Karl, Jenny and their daughters — anxious and disturbed and eager for news from Paris, where many of their close friends (including two future sons-in-law) are engaged in life-and-death struggle. And she also is present herself, walking or taking métro and tram to key sites of the struggle or spending hours working through microfilms of Commune documents in the National Library.
In one dream-like passage, Audin walks arm-in-arm with Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, “Lissa”, the journalist and activist who has left us the most vivid, impassioned yet carefully documented and objective account of the Commune. He was an eyewitness and probably a combatant at the last barricade, but somehow survived the massacre and found his way to London, where he became an intimate of the Marx family and even for a time courted the Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor — who translated his Histoire de la Commune into English. He died in 1901, but Michèle Audin knows him and his work so well she can bring him back to life in 2016. Lissa is a courteous and very well-informed guide, telling her where he saw which barricades and other details.
Michèle Audin is a mathematician and author of several papers and books (including even a novel) about mathematical problems, all the while developing a rich blog on her research of personalities and crises in the Paris Commune. For more on her and the possible source of her passionate interest in the Commune, see her website (if you read French)… or check out my note,…

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