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Michel

A reader asks, "You said some parts of The General's Mistress were written years and years ago. Are there any that are still in the book? How old are they? I'm curious."

I started writing what would become the Age of Revolution books in 1992, when I was twenty-four. Yes, there are some of the earliest pieces still in, though I think the oldest ones remaining are in the third book. The oldest piece in The General's Mistress dates from 1995, and it is more or less as I wrote it then. Elza and Michel are having dinner together -- they haven't slept together, but the interest is mutual. However, there is a wide gap between. She's a sophisticated courtesan and actress, and he's a young brigadier, a country boy from Saar-Louis with an eighth grade education propelled by the Revolution to unexpected heights.

I'd love to hear what you guys think. This is essential Michel.



“In Saar-Louis, vice is having a baby six months after the wedding. We’re wholesome people. Salt of the earth. Hardworking and early rising and all that. We love our vineyards and our farms and orchards and wells, and our big families and our excellent ham.”

“And you?”

His smile faded. He leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “I never belonged there. I’ve always been in love with blood.”

A chill ran down me.

“As a child I always wanted the darkest stories. When the old men would sit around in the tavern talking about the Seven Years War, I wanted to see the stumps of their arms, to touch them. And wondered how I would feel, knowing my arm wasn’t there, how it would feel to lose it, half frightened and half fascinated.” He picked up his glass, the light playing on the stem, on his clear, passionate eyes. “I ran away to the army when I was sixteen. I’d never wanted anything else. This was in ’85, when if I served all my life, I might end a sergeant. A half-lettered thug with a really big sword.” Michel raised an eyebrow at me. “I was a sergeant at twenty. Then the Revolution came. And suddenly it was a good time to be a thug with a really big sword.”

“I think you’re more than that,” I said. “You couldn’t look at yourself with irony if you weren’t. Man of blood you may be, but you’re a good deal more than a thug.”

“If so, it’s because I chose to be,” he said, lifting the glass again. “If there’s one thing that the Revolution taught me, it’s that we’re all inches from savages. It’s just that I know it more than most. I can’t dress it up in pretty explanations when the blood lust is on me, pretend that I’m fighting for anything else than the joy in it. That’s why I have to be so careful. And trust in God to help me moderate these passions.”

“You believe in God?” I got up to fetch the chicken and its accompaniments and bring them to the table. “That’s very dated.”

Michel didn’t seem offended. “I do. I believe in God and the teachings of Christ, in the brotherhood of mankind and the inexpressible love of the Holy Spirit.”

I looked at him, as shocked as if he had muttered obscenities. I couldn’t remember hearing anything of the kind before, except as a pious platitude or a clever mockery. It simply wasn’t said in society by intelligent people. But he sat there perfectly composed, getting ready to carve the chicken.

I sat down across from him. “I am only wondering how you can be anything but a rationalist after what you have seen,” I said.

"Like Moreau?" he asked, looking at me, one eyebrow cocked.

I didn’t rise to that bait. Instead I sat back down on the edge of my chair, my fragile muslin dress looking the color of old blood in the light.

"How can you be anything but a cynic after the things you have seen? How can you really believe that, other than some vague humanistic aim of good government and freedom from foreign oppression, that there is any greater good in all of this?"

He looked at me, startled. "How can I not?" Michel asked with a shrug.

Two years ago I had fancied him my eternal love. Instead he was a stranger, a man I didn’t know. Not really. I wanted to reach out and touch him, for him to tell me something, to know it all and understand. But he was a stranger.

"Don't you believe in anything?" he asked quietly. "Not gods or destiny? Not justice or beauty or Heaven?"

I took a quick gulp of the wine. It stung my throat and my eyes. "Heaven is no comfort for me," I said lightly, "I hope it does not exist, as I never plan to reside there. Which is just as well, I suppose. It would be awfully boring, sitting around with Augustine and the Church Fathers, playing the harp and wearing a little white chiton. I'm all fumbles with stringed instruments anyway. Can't you just see me taking up foot washing in the St. Mary Magdalene room? Seen the error of my ways? Forgiven, but only so much?" I spread my finger and thumb apart.

He raised his chin. "How many men have you killed?"

"What?" There was, unbidden, falling past me, the bandit on the road with no face, the other whose face I had never seen.

"How many men have you killed?" he demanded again, leaning forward, nothing nonchalant in his pose now, just intensity of line and feature.

"One or two, perhaps,” I stammered. “Does it matter?"

"451 dead at Heinsberg, 72 at Maastricht, 967 at Altenkirchen, 244 at Winterthur, close to 1,200 in other actions. These are my casualties, my troops killed by my orders. Close to seven thousand of the enemy. Hundreds who have lost legs or arms or their sight." His voice was perfectly steady and terribly precise. "So you have shared men's beds. You have not dismembered them, or seen your own wounded hacked to pieces by surgeons in a futile attempt to save their lives. You have not written the letters. 'Dear Madame: I send you your son Jean-Paul in three pieces. I am dreadfully sorry. I made a stupid mistake in the disposition of my left flank!'"

Michel reached for the wine and poured again. "So when I am here, safe and sound, where there is only the guillotine and a crowd of mad ex-Jacobins to fear, please forgive me if I do not die of guilt at the thought of spending the night with a woman I am not married to, or in some other sophisticated vice. It pales next to more than 9,000 counts of murder."

I sat there in stunned silence while he poured carefully and drained his glass. "And you believe in God?" I asked.

He looked up at me over the gilded rim of the glass. "Of course I believe in God. I have come within inches of death more times than I can count. Men have fallen at my back stricken with the bullets aimed for me. A saber once turned in the air above my head as though it had been stopped by a blade I couldn’t see. I believe in God. I must. In all these slaughters I am spared. God has something else in mind for me. And given the slaughters to which I aspire, I can only say," he paused and took a sip of the golden wine. "He delights in it."

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
chiliarch
Jan. 4th, 2012 02:34 pm (UTC)
This is absolutely awesome! A wonderful piece of writing. Thanks for posting it.

And the chiton? Is that a reminiscence of an earlier life?
jo_graham
Jan. 5th, 2012 11:51 am (UTC)
Thank you! Yes, I think that is a small piece of memory, one that she hasn't attached to anything yet.
(Deleted comment)
jo_graham
Jan. 5th, 2012 11:51 am (UTC)
Thank you!
cadenzamuse
Jan. 4th, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
*flails* This is riveting, and terrifying, and I love how much the opinions of the day influence each of them. Of course one does not believe in God, that's so outdated! I imagine Elza will have a harder time with her oracular abilities than her previous incarnations, since she won't be inclined to believe in them at all.
jo_graham
Jan. 5th, 2012 12:33 pm (UTC)
Elza is having a much harder time with her oracular abilities, yes. Seeing things makes you crazy. It's simply insane. We know that, right? And most of all you have to stop.

She's a child of her time, a material girl in a material world who's hungry for something she can't even name. What is there besides bling? A hot body, a rich man, beautiful clothes, great parties.... Surely, the part of her that was Charmian says, there's something more. Some reason for all this.

True love that transcends centuries? That belongs in novels. And someone like Michel can't possibly exist....
m_nivalis
Jan. 4th, 2012 09:31 pm (UTC)
A saber once turned in the air above my head as though it had been stopped by a blade I couldn’t see.
His namesake protecting him, I assume?
jo_graham
Jan. 5th, 2012 12:34 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly! :) Just like the stab wound in Byblos.
tielan
Jan. 5th, 2012 08:21 am (UTC)
Disturbing and powerful, I think, becaues it's disturbing.

The strength of Michel's belief comes through beautifully - so simple and sparing - as does Elza's shock at his lack of 'rationalism'.
jo_graham
Jan. 5th, 2012 12:37 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It is kind of disturbing. Michel is unique. She's never met anyone like him before. Of course, he's never met anyone like her!
linneasr
Jan. 14th, 2012 11:01 pm (UTC)
Hm. Very interesting. Very different from the war-weary Emrys / whoever Emrys is in this incarnation. I can feel Neas in the directness, the simplicity of his genius (genius in the Roman sense of the word).

Geh! I wish these books were already published!
jo_graham
Jan. 15th, 2012 11:30 am (UTC)
Very much Neas! Direct, simple, and more complex beneath the surface than he appears to be. He knows who he is.

Not long now!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )