The Eleven


In The Eleven, Michon lets us into the world of Corentin, a painter shaoed by—and who eventually shapes—history. Brought up among provincial aristocracy to become a favorite of Parisian society—his paintings are commissioned by Louis XV’s mistress—Corentin’s career rides the Tides of the French Revolution. His masterpiece, "The Eleven," is an enigmatic Last Supper, representing the eleven members of the Committee of Public Safety (including Robespierre and Saint Just) during the Reign of Terror. Corentin and ...

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The Eleven

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In The Eleven, Michon lets us into the world of Corentin, a painter shaoed by—and who eventually shapes—history. Brought up among provincial aristocracy to become a favorite of Parisian society—his paintings are commissioned by Louis XV’s mistress—Corentin’s career rides the Tides of the French Revolution. His masterpiece, "The Eleven," is an enigmatic Last Supper, representing the eleven members of the Committee of Public Safety (including Robespierre and Saint Just) during the Reign of Terror. Corentin and company, his work of art, and the historical tableau of the French Revolution come to life in dazzling, even painterly, detail. A potent blend of fact and fiction, The Eleven is a beautifully written, astute meditation on the nature of history itself and the artist’s role in it.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A brilliant, surprising book, "The Eleven" is historical fiction at its best: a wholly imagined work that scrutinizes and reconceives how we construct history, time and experience. — Martin Riker, The Wall Street Journal

It will bring you to your knees. —Le Nouvel Observateur

An astonishingly rich, mythic new direction in modern French narrative. —Guy Davenport

Reading Small Lives, I felt profoundly that Michon was carrying on the mark of a true writer: one who speaks in his own voice while conveying with all its immediacy and flesh-and-blood possibility of what it means to be human. —The Review of Contemporary Fiction

The emotion, the forceful claims of the imagery . . . Michon achieves what other writers wouldn’t try, licensed as he is by keen regret and transfigured loss. Michon misses the poetry of the past, and in missing it he possesses it. —Benjamin Lytal Michon’s prose tends to slow down in order to oblige you to hear its rhythms and also to see and touch and smell what is happening beneath it.—Harper’s Magazine

Michon describes with such precision, with such force, that you start to think [it] exists. —Liberation

[Michon's] aesthetic integrity and strict austerity have earned him the adoration of critics and made him worth teaching in every university. —L'Express

A great book that, in an honest language, honed with gueuloir, was delivered to the world after years of labor, says the story. —Le Magazine Litteraire

This limpid, beautifully understated novel, winner of the French Academy’s Grand Prix duRoman, recounts the rise from humble origins of painter François-Élie Corentin, who eventually produces a masterpiece called The Eleven that represents the members of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror.  Library Journal (Best Fiction in Translation 2013)

The Barnes & Noble Review

Of the many things that draw us to literature, I suspect no quality outright eclipses the appeal of sustained rapture. In this most exalted state, when a text cements us in its circle and coaxes us to absorb its thoughts — not just sympathize or argue with them — we do not devour a book. It devours us. Pierre Michon's The Eleven — the winner of the French Academy's Grand Prix du Roman — is such a beast. This thin novel takes the form of a monologue directed toward a silent gentleman who's made his way to one of the Louvre's innermost galleries.

On the wall before him, behind bulletproof glass, rests a portrait of eleven members of the Committee for Public Safety — the tight- fisted organization that steered France into the period of terror associated with the French Revolution. (Lacking among the depictions of Robespierre, Saint-Juste, Couthon, and the rest is Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelle, who fell afoul of his fellow Committee members and was guillotined on April 5, 1794.) According to the narrator, this imposing masterwork — attributed to François-Élise Corentin — is an exquisite fluke of history: "a painting — that Robespierre did not want at any price that the others hardly wanted, that maybe ten out of eleven did not want (Are we tyrants, that our Images be worshipped the abhorred place of tyrants?), but which was ordered, paid for, and made. Because even Robespierre feared the Hôtel de Ville, because History has a pocket for luck in its belt, a special purse to pay for impossible things."

Given the iconic status of the French Revolution, the narrator's confidence in retelling Corentin's path toward The Eleven is remarkable:

Finally, Sir, I want to repeat here the reason for the commission, its small necessary and sufficient cause, the design of its sponsors. Who they are. And I know very well that you have read it — but I know you, Sir, you and your kind: in your reading you go immediately to what shines and what you crave, the skirts of maman-putain [mother- whore], the plume, the gold coins; or what is perfectly matte black, the guillotine, Shakespeare; but the political quibbling you find tiresome, you skim over it. The drab history and theory, the class struggle and the infighting, you tell yourself you will read all that tomorrow. And I know very well that you do not need to hear it, but I need to tell you.
But so engrossing is the narrator's representation of Corentin's world — his childhood and his family history — that I found myself on Wikipedia double-checking his status as a fictional character. Indeed, there are passages in the book that give off the pungency of a lived truth. For instance, here is a sketch of the artist as a boy:
As for myself, knowing him a little from my long familiarity with The Eleven, I can hardly believe that he suffered as a child from the absence of his father, as has so often been said; no, the father's departure, the loss of the father, was not a cause of suffering for him, but an extraordinary relief, an unhoped-for crown? That father was the only notable rival, the living one, the one who speaks in your presence and is not of your opinion; and, with this rival overcome, transformed with the wave of a magic wand into a shadow one spoke of with disapproval and regret, he, François-Élise, had entirely at his disposal ? well, almost ? those two skirts [his mother and grandmother] for whom he was the single object.

That is exorbitant, Sir: whoever has not experienced it does not know the pleasure of living. He has not the slightest idea what a reign is, that is, the gift of having at his disposal and under his command not chimeras or specters, or what amounts to the same thing, the bodies of constrained slaves, as we all do, but living souls in living bodies — a gift, truly obtained without the least violence, without effort or toil, by sole virtue of the Holy Spirit, or by the more mechanical virtue of one of those celestial decrees that were idolized at that time, the Universal Law of Attraction, the Fall of Earthly Bodies.
The many wonderful aspects of this passage — its feeling for art, its psychological acuity, its inclination for the grand statement, and its appeal to the lofty — are multiplied throughoutThe Eleven to glorious ends. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.

Christopher Byrd is a writer who lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The American Prospect, The Believer, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Wilson Quarterly.

Reviewer: Christopher Byrd

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781935744627
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 1/18/2013
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Pierre Michon, born in Cards, France in 1945, is one of France's foremost contemporary writers. He was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman for The Eleven, the Prix Decembre for his short novels Abbes and Corps du roi, the Prix Louis Guilloux for La grande beaune (The Origin of the World), and the Prix de la Ville de Paris in 1996 for his body of work.

Jody Gladding is a poet and translator. Her most recent collection of poetry is Rooms and Their Airs. She has translated over twenty books from French, including Serpent of Stars by Jean Giono. She teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Vermont.

After devoting a part of her life to specialized horticulture, Elizabeth Deshays now works as a teacher and translator. She is the author of a study on bilingual education, L'Enfant Bilingue. In addition to Michon’s novels, she translated Julien Gracq’s La Presqu’ile (The Peninsula). She lives in Provence.

Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays were awarded the French-American Foundation for Translatio Prize in 2008 for their rendering o Pierre Michon’s Vies Minuscules (Small Lives).

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Read an Excerpt

He was not tall, unobtrusive, but he held your attention with his fever- ish silence, his dark cheer, his alternately arrogant and oblique manner – grim, as they said. At least that was how he was seen later in life. None of that appears on the Würzburg ceilings, on the south wall of the Kaisersaal to be precise, in the wedding procession of Frederick Barbarossa, in the portrait Tiepolo left of him, when the model was twenty years old: he is there, so they say, and you can go see him, perched among a hundred princes, a hundred constables and ushers, as many slaves and merchants, porters, putti and animals, gods, merchan- dise, clouds, the four seasons and the four continents, and two incon- testable painters, the ones who assembled the world that way in its exhaustive recension and are nevertheless of the world, Giambattista

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