Geoffrey Fox

RABBLE! – Readers’ comments

Reviews originally posted on Goodreads, and NetGalley have been collected and reposted on the Troubador website, here. (Scroll down to “Book Reviews”). Also, check out the section “Press Coverage” for another extensive review.

And here, the most recent review by novelist/mathematician Michèle Audin, en français.

Below are other reactions to the novel that readers have been kind enough to send me.

From Bob Kolodney, in Washington, DC

Geoffrey Fox does a marvelous job of making the 19th Century come alive through participants in the ill-fated Paris Commune of 1871.

Following the French loss in the Franco Prussian War, there was a brief chance for working class Parisians to organize themselves into a system that exercised the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood in a meaningful way. Fox portrays the struggles of his characters to make their ways in life at a time when life was hard for most people, when the contrasts in living conditions between the upper class and nascent bourgeoisie and everyone else were extreme. The Second Empire ended with Louis Napoleon a prisoner of war, but the government which succeeded him was not sympathetic to the rights of the common people and suppressed the commune with great brutality..

Soldiers themselves were little more than cannon fodder at that time when new technology was starting to make war particularly savage. It was also a time when printing facilitated political struggles and was even starting to enable books to reach the masses; in “Rabble” we see this evolution through journalists, an apprentice bookbinder, and two idealistic women who founded a school.
In a sense this book is a study of what can happen when there is a political vacuum in a police state, because the lives of Fox’s characters are constrained and controlled by the government and by a rigid social system to a remarkable extent.  It took a long time for communism to take hold, but the characters in Rabble are aware of the activities of the first international workers’ movement and the thinking of Karl Marx that animated it.
Unfortunately, in our days of the “unthinkable” Russian War in Ukraine, human nature doesn’t seem to have improved, and despite all of the experiences of the 20th century, the characters who people Rabble, could probably teach us many valuable lessons.

From writer and photographer Max Kozloff.

I read “Rabble” with pleasure, the scope of it and the historical interest! I was particularly struck by the way the narrative broadened to include the lives of the otherwise unknown, especially the last third, which provoked the reader to consider our current situation. In fact, it gives us intimate details about the naïveté of violence that characterized that historical epoch.
Yours, Max

Excerpts from a longer review in Facebook by Dutch novelist Pim Wiersinga, author of The Pavillion of Forgotten Concubines and other books.

Rabble! offers a panorama of Paris in the 1870s, sizeable swaths of it at least, and it’s a great travel companion into the mists of the past. The novel contains most things you’d care to know about that brief period, March through May 1871, during which the city of Paris was truly run by Parisian commoners, until the Powers That Be crushed the movement for good. …

By following the Parisian adventures of Étienne Bonin, an apprentice-bookbinder hailing from Lyon, as well as the paths of a growing number of male and female comrades, the author convinced me the Commune had almost succeeded, indeed that it did succeed, at least in the spirit… were it not for the unnecessary violence that crushed it. …

Shady members of the press, some of whom police informers as well, or pretending to be this to the police, are always on the prowl, preferably in bars or back-offices, as they’d been since the days of Diderot. This fraternity of ‘ink-shitters’, so soon in the novel, is a felicitous touch indeed: even back then, truth was manufactured rather than observed with the naked eye.

The Rabble! story is straightforward, but never simple.

Monsieur Hippolyte Mireau, for instance, the police chief who almost caringly lords it over his quartier, a poor and ‘unruly’ Parisian neighbourhood still known as Quinze-Vingts, is not a brute; not at first glance, at any rate. Soon, he turns out to be an astute observer of human nature, who prefers to rule by stealth and by bribing hack writers and pamphleteers – if only because this approach will pave the way, or so he hopes, to a coveted position in the Sûreté (founded in 1812; forerunner of FBI, Scotland Yard etc). Not devoid of human feelings, Hippolyte Mireau – Polo to his friends, or ‘friends’ – and he cherishes civilised culture. Indeed,

“… when he permitted himself, [he] could understand and perhaps even share the concerns of the Republicans, their general disillusionment with the Empire that was his employer. [But] he could not allow himself to flag in his duty to defend his Emperor. [p.88]”======

Whatever else one might say of the commissaire, such is the stuff real people (and credible characters in novels) are made of. Yet we can’t let him off the hook without noting that he stands for all things, traits, virtues, in brief for the oppression the communards desire to make short shrift of; which they almost did.

Credible revolutionaries are harder to write than convincing villains. Rabble! achieves this feat time after time. Fox’s communards never conform to a pre-ordained model of conduct, nor to a strict ideology. This revolution won’t ever follow a blueprint: what stands out is genuine humanity; people’s jokes and rituals, the talent to enjoy one another’s company. Small wonder. After a hungry winter, their lives are on the line, as they all know. And they celebrate. Anything, whenever they can.

As a writer, … I tend to shun multiple perspectives and many story-lines; at the same time, I enjoyed the book’s panoramic vistas. …The scale of Paris! The sheer number of streets and ’hoods, each with their distinct history! The endless zooming in and out of minds! The unnerving heaviness of the endless stalemate preceding the final ‘Bloody Week’!

All these close-knit scenes have an effect on the whole texture. Somehow, shared experiences intimate that the characters, most of whom belong to the literate echelons of the working class, intuit one another wordlessly, indeed viscerally. This such moments engender magic. Which isn’t so miraculous, all things considered. All communards are in the same plight. They all want better lives, and to live with dignity. Their cultural dna was forged in the Revolution of 1793, as well as in uprisings ever since; and because of the tales their parents (Rose’s parents especially) told them, and they’re all aware of it. Many hope their newly discovered truths will soon speak to power, or speak out against power; truths that church, clergy, and Jesuits sought to silence for decades.

Private worlds aren’t absent in Rabble! but hardly at stake. At stake is to keep reaching out, to join forces, to give mutual support. Not characters per se but their juxtaposition in various settings is what enhances this book’s marvels, as does the sheer magic that suffuses haunts like La Marmite (a cooperative workers’ restaurant) or Dragon Court (a boarding house for workers “more or less identified with the International”); or Belleville, where Jules and Juliet live, Rose’s parents, who kept the flame burning all their lives.

Very moving is the backstory of Angelique (aka Lique), a schoolteacher who lost her husband during a miners’ strike back home, and who shares an ill-fated (but not terribly fatal) fling with protagonist Étienne.

“Mystery. The idea that Angelique had a story intrigued him all morning as he worked trimming pages, stealing glances at the girls at the sewing racks. They were all attractive, he thought, but if he could choose, he wanted Rose. Maybe just because she had been the first to speak to him. Or maybe because, something about her, the laughter in her eyes, the fact that she seemed to know about books.” [p.170-171]===

To me, such episodes seem brimming with – not only ‘woman-ness’, as Étienne dubs it, but human-ness. Rabble! is laced with luminous episodes; it’s just that the corridors connecting these episodes are trying at times; chiefly due to many names and facts; which tallies with the book’s forbidding ambition and the overwhelming world these young workers live in.

Reading Rabble! is like being lowered in a mineshaft of lost time. And as the gondola descends, one is surrounded by the dazzling images of the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition, sketched by an anonymous reporter of ‘The Illustrated London News’.

The finale is sublime and truly moving.. Uplifting even, in spite of all the blood and tears and tragedy. Here, the panoramic narrative mode of Rabble! truly comes into its own.

In the midst of the mayhem of May 1871 (the enemy, including commissaire Mireau, has shown its true face at last), the protagonist feels at one with all his dear ones, although he lost sight of them in the din of barricades and gunfire, as he faces defeat and maybe death. Never does his loyalty to the cause waver, simply because his dear ones all deserve to live. Like he deserves this… Hope and certainty vanish; he seems beyond hope; he knows and he knows not.