Instead of chapters, sequences,"" with ""a desire to enter into the psychology of each person--whatever his role in the Revolution,"" that is, the 1774-78 prelude to the French upheaval. In 98 chronological vignettes, Manceron plumbs the ancien regime and some of its challengers. Civic life has definitely deteriorated in 1774; Jean-Paul Marat is thinking of taking British citizenship and, though the Abbe de l'Epee has founded a school for the deaf and dumb, the Court enjoys torturing lame dogs. Louis XVI, it appears, is ill-trained for government and resentful of his Queen, not genitally impaired; his brother-in-law Joseph of Austria, the enlightened despot, thinks he simply ""needs to be beaten."" The whole of France reeks of ""rotting flesh,"" gibbets, sodomy, riots. Benjamin Franklin arrives, but he and the young Lafayette turn out to be lukewarm republicans and the American Revolution is excessively concerned with the stodgy mechanics of ""sharing power, wielding influence."" On the perimeter are Goethe and lesser literary figures, while the pedigree and undertakings of de Sade, along with the escapades of Mirabeau and his lover Sophie, appear in regular installments. Manceron's chic, hectic, staccato style would become insufferable during this first volume of his 5,000 pages on the French Revolution, if a certain good humor and subtlety did not redeem his gory Robbe-Grilletean rigors; but the line of vision, however extended, remains on the level of a hairdresser's apercu, and so the psychological insights are limited, not to mention our historic measure of all this decadence. A French best-seller.