Twilight of the Old Order: 1774-1778

by Claude Manceron.Knopf, $15.95. Mr. Manceron presents history in the antique way, as the result of individual character and action rather than of general pressures and trends. It is, as it always was, a lively, immediate way of revealing the past. The reader who might well drowse over a survey of eighteenth-century educational methods stays wide awake while young Danton plays hookey to attend the coronation and then turns his delinquency into a prizewinning essay. While this runaway schoolboy seems an odd item in a large history, he neatly illustrates Mr. Manceron’s method, which is to pursue the king, the criminal, the fiscal policy, and the hairstyle with equal energy. In short, vivid chapters, meaty with detail, he displays the enormously varied, eccentric, contradictory ragout of people and ideas that seethed in eighteenth-century France. This book is the first of eight projected volumes. Mr. Manceron will need them, and readers hooked by his intellectual soap opera will love them. Notes, index. Translated by Patricia Wolf.