From the center of the maelstrom of the Paris Commune

Mes cahiers rouges: souvenirs de la communeMes cahiers rouges: souvenirs de la commune by Maxime Vuillaume
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maxime Vuillaume’s “red notebooks” (cahiers rouges) contain some of the most vivid first hand testimony of all the writings on the Paris Commune. Vuillaume knew almost all the major players, some of them very well, and was himself an important actor, as a founder and editor of one of the most popular newspapers of the Commune, Le Père Duchêne.

Only 26 when he barely escaped execution in the bloody final week of the Commune (May 20-28, 1871), Vuillaume wrote the first post-commune reports in clandestine documents from his exile in Switzerland, before the amnesty (1880) permitted him to return to France. For years, he was reluctant to publish his notes, for fear of injuring people still living or being sued by their descendants. But finally, some 30 years after the annihilation of the commune, a younger journalist, Lucien Descaves, persuaded him to put them into shape and publish them, and Vuillaume then also began to compose and publish additional "cahiers", sometimes correcting things in the earlier ones or adding detail, and sometimes taking on aspects of the Commune that he had not personally experienced but researched through documents and interviews. All of these, the earliest and most personal and the later researched reports, have been gathered together in this edition of the “red notebooks.”

Vuillaume's Père Duchêne was a foul-mouthed, rabble-rousing, over-the-top scandal sheet, in imitation of the original Père Duchesne of Jacques-René Hébert that rallied the sans-culottes from 1790 until Hébert was guillotined in 1794. As in the original version, the "Old Man" or "Père" of the title was the fictional voice of a man of the "people", i.e., the unprivileged, lambasting the rich, the clergy, and anybody else seen as an oppressor. Its readers probably knew the paper was not to be trusted — reporting events that may or may not have occurred — but they bought it anyway, so many of them that the paper made more money than expected. They must have delighted in the invective against the “jeanfoutres” and “bougres” (gross insults, common in speech but rarely seen in print in those days), meaning all those opposed to the Commune, including Catholic clergy, local bourgeois and the government in Versailles.

The more mature Vuillaume, traumatized by the horrific bloodshed and prolonged repression of the end of the commune, became a much more serious, careful and responsible reporter, but without losing his capacity for vivid and impassioned description. Thus all these reports or “notebooks” are well worth reading, even those that go over material also covered by his journalist contemporaries Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray and Jules Vallès (both of whom Vuillaume knew well). But by far the liveliest cahiers are those on the experiences closest to him: Cahier I, “Une journée à la cour martiale de Luxembourg,” describes the army's systematic killing of suspected communards after their final defeat and Vuillaume’s own very narrow escape from execution; III, “Quand nous faisions Le Père Duchêne,” about all that he and his equally young partners, Eugène Vermersch and Alphonse Humbert, had to go through to get the capital together, write and distribute a daily paper in that period of intense debate, street agitation and combats, and IV, “Quelques-uns de la Commune”, intimate portraits of communards including Raoul Rigault, who in his last days was the commune’s chief prosecutor. Samples from some of those sharp-tongued articles are included in this book, but for the most part, the mature Vuillaume writes a more temperate prose, but still with passion for the lost cause of the Commune.

See also my reviews of Jules Vallès' fictionalized account, L'Insurgé,  and Lissagaray's Histoire de la Commune de 1871

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