Historical Memoirs, 1691-1709
by Duc de Saint-Simon, edited and translated by Lucy Norton
McGraw-Hill, 2 vols, Vol. I, 535, Vol. II, 525 pp., $20.00 the set
As far as I know, there has never been a complete translation of Saint-Simon’s Memoirs into the English language, and there probably never will be, unless some American foundation is especially established for that purpose. What publisher would face the uneconomic prospect of bringing out an adequately annotated edition of those hundreds of thousands of words about the court of Louis XIV? What translator would devote the major part of a lifetime to unraveling, then re-raveling, all that racy, knotty, idiosyncratic French, full of unexplained allusions to the details of a vanished world? The most that has been achieved until now has been the quarrying out of certain fragments under such titles as “The Age of Magnificence” or “Saint-Simon at Versailles,” in the hope that the picturesqueness of the anecdotes will make up for the disjointed nature of the text.
Miss Lucy Norton has been rather more ambitious; she has spent several years on the preparation of two large volumes, dedicated to Nancy Mitford and prefaced by Sir Denis Brogan, which attempt to follow through Saint-Simon’s account of the main events from 1691 to the death of the King in 1715, with the emphasis on political implications rather than on court scandal. On the whole, the result is quite satisfactory. These volumes will give the English-speaking reader some feeling of the extent and ramifications of Saint-Simon’s immense monologue.
If I have a quibble, it is that Miss Norton herself occasionally seems to get lost in the complexities. She does not always eliminate Saint-Simon’s unnecessary reiterations and, unaccountably, she repeats some of the illustrations of Volume I in Volume II. Nor is her translation absolutely impeccable; she may fall into a Gallic turn of phrase or get the meaning slightly wrong. For instance, one is surprised to discover that a gentleman who has been “assassinated” on one occasion dies a natural death some years later, until one remembers that assassiné, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French, can simply mean to be the victim of an assault. However, these are minor matters in comparison with the size of the achievement. We now have a Saint-Simon that the English-speaking reader can browse upon or wander through, with the rich sensation of being back at Versailles under Louis XIV and of living from day to day in that extraordinary human ant-heap or bee-hive. There were only a few workers, but an immense number of buzzing drones surrounding the King Bee, whose very breathing regulated the collective life. Saint-Simon himself was an exceptionally busy, buzzing drone who, from the age of nineteen onward, made daily notes on court life, which he was later to work up, in retirement, into the 2,854 finely written pages of the complete manuscript.
“It has been my chief endeavor to preserve the flow of history,” says Miss Norton in presenting her extracts. But, of course, from the modern point of view, the story hardly flows at all. Saint-Simon proceeds doggedly from year to year, since he …