In high school, I learned that those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat History in the summer. An affecting new novel about the French revolution, by Chantal Thomas, encourages me to hope that the day must not be far off when desperately bored students will storm the bastille of textbook publishers and usher in a new era of history education. It's time heads rolled, instead of resting on the desk.
"Farewell, My Queen," translated by Moishe Black, takes us to Versailles on July 14, 15, and 16, 1789, a particularly bad time to be caught playing croquet en haute couture.
Though 21 years have passed, Madame Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, a reader for Marie-Antoinette, can still recall those frantic 72 hours when news of revolt sent the decadent court royals scurrying away from their king and queen.
Thomas is a feminist historian who wrote a book in 1999 called "The Wicked Queen," which argued that the popular view of Marie-Antoinette is the result of "a misogynist demonization of woman's power." Offered critical jargon like that, most of us would rather eat cake, of course, but by analyzing revolutionary era pamphlets, Thomas demonstrated that the young queen imported from Austria never had a chance to defeat the prejudices arrayed against her.
"Farewell, My Queen," which won France's prestigious Prix Femina, is hardly an apology for Marie- Antoinette, but it's a fascinating portrayal of the truly bizarre world in which she lived and the way people cling to untenable positions in the face of violent progress.
The details surrounding Versailles are irresistibly symbolic for fiction, and Thomas strings them through this ominous narrative for maximum effect. A quarter of a mile long with 1,300 rooms, the spectacular palace sits in a fetid swamp that nauseates all the residents with the smell of rotting flesh. Armies of rats scurry through the halls at night chewing away at the furniture and clothing. Nonetheless, the aristocrats fortunate enough to orbit the reluctant king and queen carry on with the ceremonies of The Perfect Day, designed by Louis XIV a hundred years earlier. They live in the nucleus from which all power and fashion emanate, "the model par excellence toward which the eyes of every capital city were turned."
Madame Laborde begins determined to defend her beloved mistress against "a campaign of propaganda tending to stigmatize Versailles as a bottomless pit of needless expenses." At that impossible task, her testimony fails completely, but as a record of the way people react - or fail to react - to changes that threaten their lifestyle, this little book is an unsettling success.
Contrary to the crude portraits drawn by enemies, Laborde recalls Marie-Antoinette as a goddess of grace and compassion. Summoned to her side on the morning of July 14, she bows as the queen says, "How good of you to have walked all this way in order to come and read to me here at Trianon. I don't know how to thank you."
Wrapped in rapture at the queen's beauty, Laborde is, of course, a narrator of questionable reliability, but her guileless testimony provides a story steeped in dramatic irony. In her kindest descriptions, we can see the queen's pathetic triteness and desperate loneliness. She floats in a fog of privilege and artificial expectations, flattered into a state of intoxication, through which she can perceive none of the events around her clearly. Even when the severity of their situation rudely interrupts the Perfect Day, her effete husband and a sense of royal duty force her to abort an escape.
Like most of the royals and exalted servants at Versailles, Laborde has no real duties to perform, which places her in a perfect position to move around the palace, gathering shreds of gossip for a fascinating collection of vignettes that capture the peculiar characters residing at Versailles.
The king emerges as a dull-witted man trying to do right by his enflamed nation, but more interested in his new thermometer. The Captain-Custodian of the Menagerie is convinced that bathing would reduce his vital spirit, a practice that renders him a human stink bomb. In the bushes outside her window, an insane courtier has been stalking the queen for 10 years.
Having discovered their names on a list of royals to be executed, one family puts on a costume party in the dying light of Versailles. Even as beheadings begin in Paris, the court historian is sure that if he phrases a pastoral letter just right, the trouble will evaporate.
Ordinary events that shock Laborde give an eerie sense of how artificial this world is. For instance, on the morning of July 15, when they should all be running for their lives, the entire court is alarmed that someone dared disturb the king's sleep. And in one of the saddest scenes, Laborde expresses her horror at seeing Marie-Antoinette opening a door herself. Quel scandale!
But the most frightening moment isn't the arrival of an angry mob or even the surreal appearance of a bloody hag who storms through the palace like an angel of death. It's the silence, a never-before-heard stillness in the palace when all the peasants, workers, guards, attendants, secretaries, and minor royals have abandoned their king and queen - a haunting moment, perfectly captured, that conveys the tragedy of this collapse and its necessity.
Besides the novel's gorgeous and grotesque historical details, Thomas provides a provocative discussion about the burdens of this new sense of freedom consuming the nation.
It's comforting to imagine that the lessons here aren't relevant unless your peasants are demanding more bread, but Thomas has reenacted this earthquake in a way that should remind us all of the deadly cost of clinging to the past.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.