Louise Michel, A travers la Mori. Memoires Inedits, 1886-1890.
Paris: La Decouverte, 2015; 353pp; ISBN 978-2-7071-8686-7
The first volume of the memoirs of famed French revolutionary Louise Michel, dealing with her early years, was published in 1886. Readers interested in the more momentous events of her later life can discover, 129 years later, the second volume thanks to the painstaking work of research and editing conducted by Claude Retat, a researcher working at the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique. Actually, this second instalment of Louise Michel's reflections first appeared starting in 1890, but only in a relatively little-known socialist newspaper, L'Egalite, and split into sixty-nine episodes. The whole is now available in one volume for the very first time.
Louise Michel was a very prolific writer, who tried her hand quite successfully at fiction (three of her novels were also co-edited by Claude Retat in 2013 with the Presses universitaires de Lyon), poetry and of course political commentary, apart from autobiographical writing. But as the editor points out in the very informative introduction, Michel was also a master at salvaging and reusing, never leaving a note or an article unexploited if it could be successfully integrated or recycled within a new project. At the same time, this second instalment of her life story is said to have been written and then destroyed at least twice, before this last surviving version. Louise Michel's writings appear then, as she herself presents them, tightly linked to death and obliteration, but always being born again like the mythological Phoenix, and like Revolution itself.
These memoirs can be read for different purposes: as historical documents, bringing back to life a slew of revolutionary figures, some significant, most ordinary militants; as psychological testimony of the life and ideals of one of the most important figures of the Paris Commune and of the libertarian movement; as evidence of what it meant to be an anarchist activist infin-de-siecle France; and finally also as a literary work, written in a tight, crisp and imaginative prose that is at times a true pleasure to read. Michel's writing follows a brisk tempo.
Practically each sentence forms a separate paragraph, and the words fall like hammer blows.
Her writing is also representative of a time when the Revolution seemed to be just around the corner, when one could honestly write: Nul ne peut empecher le soleil de demain ('No one can prevent the sun from rising tomorrow') (p60), firmly believing that soon the general strike would wash away the last remains of capitalist society like the ocean's rising tide. The tone is often prophetic, the words are chosen to move the reader, to raise their indignation, much more than they are at the service of the dissemination of knowledge or information. Louise Michel is not a theorist.
She is a human conscience, eternally shocked in front of the crass abuses committed by the bourgeoisie, the police, the army and the courts against the people, whether in the towns of France, the Chicago of the Haymarket martyrs, or the islands of New Caledonia to where she had been deported after the defeat of the Commune. Her memoirs are therefore first and foremost the memoirs of her time, of the miserable masses whose desperate lives she observed, of the crimes of colonisation she witnessed in the Pacific islands, of the sham trials in which she so often found herself involved as a fiery actor and a compassionate observer. They are worth reading even just to realise how much things have not changed, in spite of appearances, and to see the extent to which her denunciations of injustice still ring true today.
Vittorio Frigerio, Dalhousie University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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