My wife and I are still reading Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, a fat and satisfying novel about the French Revolution, and I thought I’d pass on this paragraph from page 400 of my Penguin paperback (the narrator is Danton):
I looked at his [Robespierre’s] books. Jean-Jacques Rousseau by the yard; few other modern authors. Cicero, Tacitus, the usual: all well-thumbed. I wonder — if we go to war with England, will I have to hide my books of Shakespeare, and my Adam Smith? I guess that Robespierre reads no modern language but his own, which seems a pity. Camille, by the way, thinks modern languages beneath his notice; he is studying Hebrew, and looking for someone to teach him Sanskrit.
A few sentences about books and languages say something interesting about three of the main figures of the Revolution (making a dry joke about Desmoulins in the process) and provide a quick meditation on what happens to international cultural relations in time of war. A good writer, Mantel is.