The Age of Magnificence: Memoirs of the Court of Louis XIV
by the Duc de Saint-Simon, selected, edited, and translated by Sanche de Gramont
Putnam, 315 pp., $5.95
There have been many strange and exemplary periods in French history, but none more puzzling and fascinating than the reign of Louis XIV, the Roi-Soleil. It is referred to as le grand siècle, although the expression is not appropriate to the whole of the seventeenth century, nor even to the total span of Louis XIV’s reign, but only to the comparatively short period of his heyday. It has remained in the national consciousness as the time when French culture achieved its most characteristic expression, when French literature and styles of living were at once so universal and so profoundly idiomatic that they were to leave a permanent mark on the mind of Europe. Yet the French themselves have never really decided whether it was the best of times or the worst of times. Scratch almost any Frenchman—including General de Gaulle, if you dare—and you will find that he has an equal respect for Louis XIV and for the Revolution, in spite of the fact that the Revolution aimed to destroy all those features which Louis had brought to their highest point.
The explanation is, no doubt, that the “Age of Magnificence” or the “Age of Splendor,” as it has also been called, was a thoroughgoing paradox—a reality and a fraud, an incredible mixture of the new, centralized nation-state and of pseudo-mediaevalism, of aristocratic panache and bourgeois materialism, of religious passion and total irreligion, of decorum and indecency, of elegance and vulgarity. The complexities of the age cannot be immediately appreciated from a reading of the official classics, such as Racine or even Molière, because it takes practice to see beyond their smooth and symmetrical façades. The sour and fragmentary La Bruyère is more revealing, but the best guide to the period is the Duc de Saint-Simon, courtier turned secret memorialist, and gossip-columnist of genius before the gossip-column was invented, who spent thirty years taking notes and another ten writing them up in retirement for posthumous publication. Thanks to his three thousand pages, we can enjoy the illusion of living at Versailles from day to day. As the serried volumes of the complete edition may appear daunting to the average reader, they are often anthologized. M. Sanche de Gramont, a descendent of one of the noble families mentioned in the Memoirs, has done a good job on this particular version; he seems to have inherited from his more disreputable forebears the cynical intelligence appropriate to the task. In making his selections, M. de Gramont does not follow the chronological sequence of events or of Saint-Simon’s narration. He has grouped the extracts according to subject—and made suitable omissions to bring each item down to manageable proportions. He whets the reader’s appetite by a first section entitled “Scenes and Glances,” which presents some of the more eccentric figures and happenings of the period, then he makes more systematic selections dealing with Saint-Simon and politics, Saint-Simon and the King, etc. The only fault I can find with …