TALLIEN: A Brief Romance by Frederic Tuten

TALLIEN: A Brief Romance

Age Range: 1772 - 1820
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I would like to tell my father the story of the French revolutionary Jean Lambert Tallien."" So writes the unnamed narrator of this short modernist novel, who--in an opening chapter--recalls the bitter life-and-death of his long-estranged father, an ""all-American radical, the John Wayne of socialism,"" who ended up betrayed and disappointed. As a sort of commentary or sermon on his father's life, then, the narrator recounts--sometimes straightforwardly, sometimes with anachronistic irony and earthiness--the life of Tallien (1772-1820), son of a nobleman's butler. Intellectually precocious, encouraged in his studies by his father's aristocratic boss, Tallien shrugged off this patronage circa 1791, writing and printing inflammatory radical broadsheets. He rose in power and prestige, despite his protests against the massacres contrived by Marat and Danton. He eventually joined those ruthless Jacobins, having been skillfully coopted by Danton--who ""was getting beaucoup heat for the killings in the prisons."" Meanwhile, bookish Tallien endured years of loneliness. (""How did young people meet one another in the eighteenth century?. . .You couldn't just go to a movie. . .with your friends and sort of make eye contact with someone you'd like to take up to the balcony and try to feel up."") But then he fell hard for Spanish beauty ThÉrèse, widow of a guillotined count. He got her--and many of her friends--released from prison. Inspired by love (""in a woman's thighs he had found his life""), he moved center-stage in the Revolution--leading the Thermidorians in the revolt against Robespierre. Ultimately, however, Tallien ended up ignored by Napoleon and scorned by mercenary ThÉrèse, ""left emptier than the spaces between the stars--his own metaphor."" And the narrator ends up imagining Tallien as the star of a bloody music-video: "". . .Sing, you widower of the Revolution, the chant d'amour of when you first stuffed your radical cock into her perfumed sex--the first shot of the Year One."" Tuten (The Adventures of Mao on the Long March) extracts some sardonic vitality from a streetwise approach to political history; moreover, even in offbeat digest form, there's inherent drama in the Revolutionary chronicle. As a fable of political activism's futility, however, this is crude, unpersuasive, faintly adolescent; and most readers will wish that Tuten had devoted his whole book to the more immediate material--Bronx childhood, family tensions, American radicalism--on brief (about 20 pp.), compelling display here.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1988
ISBN: 1580730353
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux