Illustrious Lives: The Blind Resistance Fighter, Sartre's Fellow Traveler, and the Coup That Ushered in the Terror

06/25/2015 08:52 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

Jérôme Garcin has completed his heroic trilogy. Twenty years ago he gave us Pour Jean Prévost. In 2013, Bleus horizons resurrected poet Jean de La Ville de Mirmont, who was killed at age 28 during the first months of the First World War. And now, Le voyant (The Seer, Gallimard, 2015), with, as hero, thinker Jacques Lusseyran, blind from age eight, whose blindness did not prevent him--indeed, it helped him--found the network known as the Volunteers of Liberty and become, at age seventeen, a hero of Free France. His blindness helped him? Yes, indeed: The light of the idea. A medium's eye or a horse's eye (which, for Garcin, amounts to nearly the same thing). The conviction that it is within us, in that secret space where the living and the dead mingle, that the true power of sight resides. The talent he had, when faced with a new recruit, of detecting a strong spirit or a waffling nature. Or the beautiful passage in which we see him, at Buchenwald, borrowing the eyes of a fellow prisoner until the SS took him away. Garcin believes in greatness. He may be one of the last authors still to be interested in that hidden power that enables all of us, some in an exemplary way, to become greater than ourselves. I love these "illustrious lives" (here made all the more illustrious by Garcin and his pen) that prove, again and again, that human excellence, fellow feeling, and courage can be of this world. I love the thread that he stretches from book to book above the gulf of mediocrity that is too often the backdrop of our age. You have a choice this summer between the second volume of the correspondence between Paul Morand and Jacques Chardonne, a monument to base triviality that is also getting a lot of attention, or the revival of a forgotten writer, great in life as well as in his books, who spent the last half of his life teaching literature in the United States because the French Republic neglected, in 1945, to repeal the Vichyite law denying public employment to "the handicapped."

A second fine book of recognition and respect is Les Valises du professeur Jeanson (Professor Jeanson's Baggage, Ovadia, 2015), which Dominique-Emmanuel Blanchard has written about his friend Francis Jeanson. Who remembers Francis Jeanson? He was a colleague of Sartre's in running Les Temps modernes. During the war in Algeria, his eponymous network smuggled funds to the FLN. He was also the editor or author of several books--including La vraie vérité (The Real Truth), a cult classic still passed around, fifteen years after its publication, by the Normaliens of the late 1960s. And he was still there, during the war in Bosnia, alongside younger colleagues who once again were fighting the combined forces of willful blindness, Munich-style appeasement, and, in Serbia, neo-fascism. That this man should be so completely forgotten, that the name of a thinker who could occasionally be wrong, as in his 1952 "execution" of Albert Camus's L'homme révolté (The Rebel), but who missed none of the appointments that history made for the men and women of his generation (Blanchard emphasizes Jeanson's commitment, late in life, to the field of psychiatry and social welfare), says a great deal about the programmed amnesia that seems to be one of the laws of our dark age. But that a younger writer should have devoted years of his own life to reassembling the puzzle of that life, to restoring its coherence as well as its mystery and folly, to recording Jeanson's last testament, made when he was more than 80 years old, the testament of the young thinker and man of action that Jeanson remained to the end--that is one of those beautiful and noble gestures that reconcile me to our era.

And, while I'm feeling contrite, here's another book that I've been meaning for months to take note of: the study by the founder and long-time editor of El Mundo, Pedro J. Ramirez, of the French Revolution, and particularly of that very peculiar moment when the "bloc" splits and the insurrection that began in the name of the rights of man gives birth to the Terror. Ramirez's El primer naufragio: El golpe de Estado de Robespierre, Danton y Marat (La Esfera de los Libros, 2014, translated into French as Le Coup d'état: Robespierre, Danton et Marat contre la démocratie) unfolds over 1,300 pages. It is a stunning work of an erudition unexpected from one who is neither a professional historian nor (in view of the topic) French. But it has everything, the great episodes as well as apparently insignificant incidents. The motivations of one cabal; the concealed intentions of another. Plots. Conspiracies. Vengeance. The echoes of the battlefield sounding in the salons; those of the salons in the networks of the secret police. Marat entering the tribune wearing a laurel wreath like a triumphant Roman. The naïveté of Vergniaud, who nevertheless knew better than anyone that only the losers are guilty. The opportunism of Hérault de Séchelles. The coldness of a certain Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, barely out of his adolescence but manifesting the "tranquil inhumanity" found in the child soldiers of today. The obsession with tearing away masks. Generalized suspicion racing like a runaway train. Madame Roland's fatal error. Deputy Genissieu's evening at the theater. The question of whether Dumouriez is a latter-day Brennus and the true nature of his ties with Brissot. The influence of the salary demands of Sanson the executioner on the accelerating pace of the guillotine. Hate everywhere. Alliances made and broken in the name of virtue. The moment of distraction when Danton dreams of his marriage to a young girl as his fate is sealed by the National Convention. Food for thought if you share the author's belief, as I do, that passions are a necessary part of great history. And a must-read if you believe in the role of great figures and of chance in shaping history.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy