29 NOVEMBER 1968, Page 23

Kind hearts and coronets


Historical Memoirs Volume II 1710-1715 Duc de Saint-Simon translated by Lucy Norton (Hamish Hamilton 70s) Once President Kennedy quipped that he could not sleep in the White House for the scratching of Arthur Schlesinger's pen: Louis XIV would have been less disturbed had he heard Saint- Simon's, but he would have had far more cause for alarm. Perhaps great men get the memorial- ists they deserve. Of course, times have changed. Saint-Simon, like his great English contempor- ary Lord Hervey, had no hope of immediate publication, no thought of millions of francs pouring in to replenish his estates. The com- merce of intimacy was an invention of a later age. Saint-Simon wrote, perhaps to instruct his family, largely to justify and inflate his own ego as well as vent his bile, certainly to bid for im- mortality like a Froissart and doubtless with the hopeful determination to make his vision of Louis XIV's world ultimately that of mankind.

Only a hard, tough, blinkered, self-centred, passionate egotist could have gone on day after day, month after month, year after year, recol- lecting the hideous court life of Louis XIV (the full edition of Saint-Simon's Memoirs by Boislisle runs to forty-three volumes and took forty-nine years to publish). The result is a literary monument: a ziggurat of letters domi- nating the history of France of the late seven- teenth and early eighteenth centuries. One may hate it or love it, no one can ignore it, which is exactly what Saint-Simon wanted.

Like Lord Hervey, Saint-Simon was a dis- agreeable man, but for totally different reasons. Hervey, ambivalent, waspish, a scorner of bishops and a mocker of monarchs, malicious and homosexual, presents a remarkable contrast to his French rival. Saint-Simon was a pillar of moral rectitude, happily married, conven- tionally pious, full of awe for the monarchy, aroused to paeans of indignation only by cir- cumstances which would have dissolved Hervey into hysterical laughter. Two matters which stirred Saint-Simon to the very marrow of his bones were genealogy and privilege. He could not forgive Madame de Maintenon because, in his opinion, she was born in the gutter and had been Scarron's wife. Hence her presence in the royal bed was an affront to the universe, no disdain was too great and the venomous words drip from Saint-Simon's pen whenever he is forced to mention her. The discretion, the piety, the reticence and modesty of Madame de Maintenon, who was, after all, Louis XIV's wife, meant nothing to Saint-Simon. She came from the wrong womb. However, when he wrote of the Dauphin, his heart warmed with love and charity, for the Dauphin was not only indisputably royal but also the declared friend of Saint-Simon—at least at the time of his death which sent Saint- Simon into paroxysms of verbiage that bordered on blasphemy : 'What a reflection of the Divinity appeared in his pure soul, so strong, so simple, retaining in as high a degree as is permitted here below the image of its Creator.'

After several more pages of rhapsody he likens the sufferings of the Dauphin to those of Christ on the Cross.

Yet at the beginning of this portrait Saint- Simon began soberly enough recalling the Dauphin's violent temper 'subject to transports of rage even against inanimate objects,' and not glossing the fact that he was 'mad for all kinds of amusements, a woman-lover and at the same time, which is rare, with an equally strong pro- pensity in another direction.' However, the panegyrics splurge like wild fireworks as soon as Saint-Simon recalls that the degradation of the nobility was odious to the Dauphin and `that all were equal within its ranks wholly abominable.'

The Dauphin, it seems, was rigorous as to who should have the privilege of a hassock at a royal funeral or to whom the heralds would deign to give a sprinkler of holy water. And naturally the desire of Louis XIV to see his bastards treated as princes of the blood was a violation of nature, a tragedy to the Dauphin more horrid to contemplate than the slaughter of Malplaquet and France's starving millions. Therefore, to quote Saint-Simon again, 'In his death France suffered her final punishment, when God disclosed to her the prince whom she did not deserve. Earth was not worthy of him.' And this after France had been crucified by war for nearly twenty years in the vain pursuit of Louis XIV's dynastic ambitions and national glory!

True, the great battles appear in Saint- Simon's memoirs and he occasionally refers to the suffering of France, but his lamentations quickly slide into a moan for the plight of the aristocracy, particularly the old aristocracy, t.

whose rightful profession of war and diplomacy are being usurped by men from the gutter (the gutter for Saint-Simon started at the ducal

portcullis). Even in an age of snobs, Saint- Simon must be awarded the laurel, for agita-

tion about rank, precedent and the exact pro-

cedure of the protocol is the backbone of his Memoirs. It gives them many longueurs (skil- fully pruned in this excellent new translation by Lucy Norton) and, in the period covered by this volume, the affair of the bonnet preoccu- pied Saint-Simon's pen for scores of pages which he filled with rancorous prose.

The grave issue was whether or not the President de Parlement should or should not doff his hat to dukes as well as princes of the blood. Yet rightly Miss Norton keeps most of this in her edition, cutting mainly the wealth of historical justification which Saint-Simon lavished on his case. Indeed these matters of the bonnet or the tabourer, or the elevation by

Louis of his bastards to the rank of Princes of the Blood are not trivial once they are seen in

their historical context and Saint-Simon does us a great service in making us teel the pas- sionate horror associated with breaches of pro- tocol in the hierarchical society which Louis XIV had done so much to create. One has only to read his account in this volume of Louis XIV calling his courtiers about him and grant- ing the same privileges to the sons of his bastard, the Duc de Maine, as he had granted to their father. The atmosphere of tension, em- barrassment, the spreading sense of shame is vividly portrayed by Saint-Simon.

And gradually as one reads one begins to savour what a wonderful instrument a complex etiquette is for conveying malice, envy, grati- tude or sympathy, and how skilfully the

courtiers of Louis XIV played on it. Gradually- those weird heraldic beasts, cavorting in their

complex dances, take on the lineaments of humanity; Saint-Simon, the artist, overcomes Saint-Simon, the apostle of protocol, and the court of Louis XIV comes alive with an inten- sity that is unmatched in any other memoirs of kings or princes. Saint-Simon is rarely generous: _ he looked, unless the object was royal and not always then, at the baser side of human nature —its greed for money, place and honour, but

he also had an eye for dignity, for courage, for the capacity of man to support the terrible trials

of death (there is grandeur in his description of Louis XIV's slow death from gangrene that rises to the proportions of tragetiy).

Doubtless, as Louis XIV told him, he talked too much and certainly he wrote too much, but little was missed by those large spider eyes watching from his little web in Versailles, dart- ing out at the least ruffle on the glassy surface of the court and seizing his victims and wrap- ping them up in the endless coils of his prose to preserve them for all time. And so he achieved the immortality and fame that he thought was his by rank. Without his skill, his enormous dedication and stamina, greater even than the clerks he despised, he would be but a name in a genealogy. A cynical thought that he would not have enjoyed.

However, there he is, detestable as a man, yet great as an artist. His macabre picture of the court of the ageing King of France is as lurid and as drama-ridden as a landscape by Salvator Rosa and, perhaps, no closer to reality. At least, this is how a literary artist of genius saw his world. And it will, as great art should, hold the mind and trouble the heart of anyone who rea it.