Monday, December 12, 2016

Julien's Terror - Imagining the French Revolution

Julien's Terror, my latest novel, is the story of a haunting - a haunting that is either metaphysical or psychological, or is it both? 

Set in the dramatic period of the French Revolution, culminating into Napoleon's empire, it revolves around a young couple from different walks of life. Yet both have lived tragedy and both are touched by it. 

Julien's Terror features impressive figures of the French Revolution, including Charette, the Vendée counter-revolutionary and Marie Anne Lenormand, the celebrated Parisian fortuneteller.

Historical figures who play a minor role in the story but which I place on a pedestal, are the author, Madame de Staël who Napoleon hated, and the famed Austrian physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, whose works laid the foundation for hypnotism and psychotherapy.

The novel is dedicated to Charette.

While some dates around Charette’s presence in the Gralas forest may have been modified or blurred to aid the narrative, the events of the Vendée war depicted in Julien's Terror and the tragic massacres that unfolded in Western France are historical. 

When I was a teen, enamoured of art, I reproduced a centuries old drawing depicting Charette’s entry into Nantes on February 1795. At this young age, I knew not the significance of this drawing and its relation to the French Revolution.

Many years later, I learned the meaning of this drawing. It was a truce (not in the novel). Charette had agreed to a truce with the Republic and one of the secret conditions of this truce was that the revolutionaries would free the young king, Louis Charles. The truce was later ignored, as more fighting between Republicans and the Vendéens insued. 

Meanwhile, the young King, Louis Charles died in the Tower of the Temple in Paris. He was neglected and suffered the worst conditions. 

Ah, I almost forgot. Louis Charles is a central figure in Julien's Terror. 

There are many things that drove me to write Julien's Terror. On the one hand I was unsettled by the disturbing fate which an eight year old was forced to suffer until his death.  I wondered at times whether Louis Charles' soul might not haunt Le Temple had Napoleon not demolished it... 

There were also personal reasons - my awe for Charette is one of them.

Recently, while researching my Breton and French genealogy, I discovered that one of my 18th century ancestors, had hidden Charette in the area of Montaigu, south of Nantes. It was that perilous time, prior to Charette’s capture in 1796, when the Vendée general had been abandoned by most, and erred from farm to farm in search of an asylum. I was proud of my ancestor for hiding Charette.

There was also the urge to tell the world of something tragic, to reveal a past...

Nantes is my home city in France, the city of my ancestors and a place that I have returned to many times since childhood. But when I visited in 2013, I experienced an urge to write about the drownings, the “noyades”, and to depict the tragedy that befell Nantes during the Terror.

And then, there was a fascination for the psychology of the people of France in those times. 

More than simply creating a character who had lived those events of the Revolution, I wanted to create a dynamic between two people, both damaged by their experience of the reign of terror. I examined the psychology of that period. What was fascinating was the increased resort to fortune telling services; the arts practiced by Marie Anne Lenormand were never more popular than from the revolution to the First Empire, where people sought answers and were deeply anxious about their future, and the future of France.

Delving into the past, with a psychological lens, I envisaged these historical events as a major cause for the rise in suicides, the growing number of asylum patients and the rise in depression. And then I remembered the majority. The majority which in all appearances seemed to not exhibit mental problems. If they did, then these poor souls never sought help, because such psychological help did not exist as it does today. This majority whose mental illness would remain concealed in a domestic realm, would resume living, but it would forever hide wounds.

That’s when I realised that this majority, it was an entire nation. And perhaps just as France’s wounds were never healed completely, so too, there exists today, in most parts of the world, wounds that have not healed and psyches that are forever marked by historical events. In essence, it is the psychohistorical dimension of this novel which most drove me to write.