Louise Michel’s writings are a strange mix of literary brilliance and serious disarray. Many of her published works were issued with serious inconsistencies and basic proofreading problems uncorrected. The conditions under which she composed them—including imprisonment and attempts on her life—naturally created problems. But there is another aspect of Michel’s writings—an apparently intentional element—which introduces confusion: throughout her writings, she recycled character names and situations, often with minor variations, so that readers encounter elements which are at once familiar and unfamiliar, again and again.
The stories in The Crimes of the Era incorporate names and plot elements that are also present in The Claque-Dents, and at least two of her plays are retellings of events from her novels. The drama Nadine parallels events from novel The Imperial Bastard, and I just realized that the drama The Strike is a reworking of characters and events from The Claque-Dents. The Claque-Dents itself may or may not be part of the science-fiction series that began with The Human Microbes and The New World—perhaps the novel announced as The Debacle, or the Nightmare of Life—or it may be a recasting of elements from that series. And the fiction constantly draws on Michel’s own experiences.
Patterns of similarity and difference pile up, and key tropes are repeated. Some of the repetition is clearly literary in nature and aim, while in other cases it is clearly an artefact of the circumstances of composition and publication. But whether it is intentional or accidental, the accumulation of near-repetition parallels in very interesting ways the model of revolutionary change that informs Michel’s writing.
Louise Michel obviously developed much of the imagery she used to describe revolution in New Caledonia. Change comes by way of “cyclones” and “tempests,” or by the steady action of “waves.” When the novels pass over major revolutionary events in a matter of a few lines, while focusing on the trials of individuals, it seems to be in large part intentional. Michel’s world is peopled by tortured masses, which are ready to rise, but not ready to make the transition from capitalist Civilization to anarchistic Harmony in a single uprising—nor are we Civilized readers perhaps ready to take in the depth of our present oppression or the promise of the New Era that must soon dawn in a single telling.
My own experience of reading across these strangely interconnected narratives is that the echoes and repetitions have rapidly drawn me into an analysis of just what really ties all these tales together, and the inconsistencies raise some of the most interesting questions. Villains are transformed into victims, or at least bear their names, and that already problematic distinction gets another intriguing troubling.
Admittedly, I’m the sort of reader who enjoyed the interplay of parallel worlds long before any of the various Crises on Infinite Earths, but I doubt I am the only one for whom this sort of approach to Louise Michel’s writings contains some interest.
[This post originally appeared at Contr’un, January 10, 2013.]