CITIZENS: A CHRONICLE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, by Simon Schama. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 875 pp. $29.95. HOW has an event so central to the Western experience as the French Revolution remained so undigested for so long?
For all the importance of France's role as a significant economic, cultural, intellectual, and military power over the centuries - can we imagine Western civilization without France? - we sometimes forget how much political instability it has known.
The revolution whose bicentennial is being observed today has informed the tradition of revolutionary politics everywhere. And yet it took several tries before the French got it right, with a detour into Bonapartism, reversions to monarchism, and further revolutions along the way.
And as they went, they kept tinkering with their interpretation of history, never quite reaching a national consensus.
We have to remember that the French are currently in their Fifth Republic, and that it is only some 30 years old. Only within the last few years have the French discovered that they could cope with having a president of the left and a parliament of the right. But the habit of polarization, especially within the political and intellectual classes, has died slowly.
As they began to notice the bicentennial of the 1789 revolution looming, the French were somewhat concerned that the anniversary would reopen old wounds. These fears have more recently proved largely unfounded. The newly mature body politic that managed under ``cohabitation,'' or divided government as it is less racily known in America, is calmer now, though still ambivalent about the revolution's violent legacy.
This calmer mood is perhaps a better one in which to consider Simon Schama's sweeping narrative, ``Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.'' Schama is a Cambridge-educated Londoner who now teaches at Harvard. He is part of a school of thought that traces its antecedents back to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, but has flowered more recently in the work of the ``new philosophers.'' These scholars burst onto the French scene some 10 years ago, revising the standard Marxist or Marxist-influenced interpretations of the events of 1789.
Schama's central theses are that the revolution was not an agent of France's modernization, but an obstacle thereto; and that the horrific violence was not a sign of the revolutionary process gone out of control, but was inherent in that process from the beginning.
``If one had to look for one indisputable story of transformation in the French Revolution, it would be the creation of the juridical entity of the citizen,'' the author says in his epilogue. ``But no sooner had this hypothetically free person been invented than his liberties were circumscribed by the police power of the state.''
He paints a picture of an ancien r'egime characterized by a surprisingly liberal nobility, active in new economic ventures based on developing technologies such as metallurgy, and receptive to new ideas such as human rights. Inventions such as the Montgolfier brothers' balloon could upstage the king himself, and so had an inherently democratizing effect.
The society Schama portrays was not ossified into rigid class distinction but was rather a fluid one in which nobles and commoners mingled and intermarried freely.
He describes a tension, though, between such ideas as the free market, as embraced by entrepreneurs and liberal nobles, and the older concept of ``just price'' to which the urban artisans clung, and which they wanted their government to enforce.
Schama portrays Louis XVI sympathetically. He was a man interested in such modern, technical pursuits as mathematics and maritime engineering, and a trained watchmaker to boot; he might have blended in well with the current British royal family. Marie Antoinette is likewise redeemed as a tender mother and faithful wife.
The book uses the Marquis de Lafayette and Talleyrand as complementary opposites - the idealist of the liberal revolution, who somehow managed to spend some of France's bloodiest years in an Austrian prison, and the worldly disciple of Voltaire, who was nonetheless the Bishop of Autun.
Malesherbes, too - sometime royal official, inveterate traveler between stints in office, enthusiastic naturalist, and eventually the man who tried to make a legal defense of the king - is a thread of continuity through the narrative, illustrating the benevolent, liberalizing tendencies present under the ancien r'egime.
Schama has a keen sense of the theater of politics. He relates how Lafayette, helping to install a constitutional monarch in July 1830, ``draped Louis-Philippe in the tricolor as though it were the toga of his constitutionalism and shoved him unceremoniously to the balcony [of the Hotel de Ville]. In that one vaudeville gesture, Lafayette stole the show and drew the teeth of republicanism. He undoubtedly remembered the dismay of Louis XVI when a mere cockade was stuck on his hat in the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille. For a king who would survive, nothing less than a great tricolor winding sheet was necessary.''
Schama reports that there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said, ``Let them eat cake,'' but cites chapter and verse for the likely origin of another famous line, ``Sire, it's not a riot, it's a revolution.''
Professor Schama's expressed intent was to write a book for the general reader, a book that ``may well strike the reader as story rather than history.'' It is certainly a readable tome, as well it needs to be at nearly 900 pages.
Still, the general reader might have benefitted from a time line showing major events, a ready reference list of the major dramatis personae, and perhaps a table to help keep straight the various parliaments and assemblies.
This is a grand and engaging book, sad at the end, as indeed were the events it describes. Some will be troubled at the author's suggestion that all that blood was shed in vain. But it would be more troubling still to believe that natural liberty must come from the cannon's mouth or the sword.