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Talleyrand’s Cut

Talleyrand: The Art of Survival

by Jean Orieux, translated by Patricia Wolf
Knopf, 676 pp., $12.95

Talleyrand once asked a lady friend: “What do you think posterity’s opinion of me will be?” She replied: “That you set out to stir up controversy about yourself.” Staring at her in amazement, he said: “You are right, you are absolutely right. I want people to go on for centuries debating what I was like, what I believed, what I stood for.” This only shows that a man will go to any lengths in order to impress the woman he happens to be pursuing. For there is no mystery about Talleyrand except that created by writers who wish to turn an honest penny. He liked women; he liked money; he liked an easy comfortable life. To his misfortune he was caught in the storm of the French Revolution. He waited for it to blow over and sometimes tried to help on the process. He said many things that were esteemed witty at the time. His career was unusual even in a revolutionary epoch. But a great man? A statesman? It is hard to believe it.

M. Orieux, however, has no doubts. His book is in the worst style of French writing—rhapsodical, disorderly, overblown, more a cheap romantic novel than a work of history. Perhaps it is tolerable in French; it is unreadable in English. M. Orieux is given to addressing his characters. Here is an early example. Talleyrand’s foot was injured at birth. His mother thought this disqualified him from becoming head of the family and turned him into a priest, remarking, “My son is well adjusted to his new profession.” On which M. Orieux breaks out:

What profession? Buttoning a cassock over one’s ordinary dress and playing choirboy is not a profession, Madam, it is a travesty…. You did an astounding thing, Madam: without knowing it, you turned your rejected son into the most illustrious member of your race…. Measured against a mother’s initial betrayal, all subsequent betrayals were insignificant.

At any rate Talleyrand became a bishop, duly collecting the rewards in money and women which this brought. In 1789 he went with the Revolution, perhaps from conviction. When his acts provoked the disapproval of the Pope, he wrote to a friend: “You know about my excommunication. Come cheer me up and dine with me. As no one will offer me fire or water, we will have to make do tonight with cold meat and iced wine.” Comment by M. Orieux: “A flippant statement if there ever was one.” M. Orieux also remarks:

His critics never mention that one major failing of his, far more serious than his love of gambling, women and money: a flabby will that brought his worst instincts into play. Napoleon forgave all his faults except his alarming pliability—and he knew the man he was dealing with.

If Talleyrand had not been pliable, he would have been guillotined during the French Revolution and no one would have heard of him. As it was, he celebrated an open-air mass on the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille and whispered, as he clambered onto the platform: “Don’t make me laugh.” He left France before the Terror, first for England and then for the United States, where he ran some successful land speculation. His favorite American word, he said, was “sweetener,” and when later he squeezed £50,000 out of American negotiators, remarked that since the Americans had invented such an appropriate word they must know how to use it.

Talleyrand returned to France under the Directory when the worst days of the Revolution were over. He made love to Mme de Staël, and she thrust him on the Directors. When asked who she was, he replied: “An intriguer, to such a degree that I am here in the foreign ministry because of her.” And in answer to a further question whether she was a good friend: “Friend? She would toss her friends in the river in order to fish them out.” Being without a carriage, he drove to meet the Directors in Mme de Staël’s and, as he did so, muttered under his breath that he would make “une fortune immense, une immense fortune.”

So he did. Probably no foreign minister has ever made so much money while in office or continued his activities over so long a time. He was paid by everybody—by Napoleon, by German princes, by Tsar Alexander I, by the British government. His foreign policy, so far as he had one, was often directed to the best interests of France, but he saw no reason why he should not be paid for promoting them. With this fortune he acquired a great landed estate and the vast château of Valençay. He was also a compulsive gambler, running through millions of francs.

Napoleon Bonaparte was the decisive figure in Talleyrand’s life. Talleyrand helped Bonaparte up the ladder, served him as emperor, and then engineered his overthrow. Even after this he wrote: “I loved Napoleon. I became personally attached to him despite his faults; at the start of his career I felt drawn to him by the irresistible magnetism exerted by all great geniuses.” It was Talleyrand who encouraged Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt. M. Orieux accepts Talleyrand’s explanation that the expedition was intended to “turn official thoughts and acts away from revolutionary ideas which would have convulsed Europe”—an unlikely proposition. The Egyptian expedition was a quick alternative to the invasion of England which had proved impossible.

A transaction just before Bonaparte left was characteristic of both men. Bonaparte was short of money, and Talleyrand lent him 100,000 francs. On his return Bonaparte repaid the money and asked: “Why did you lend it to me? I have often wondered about it and could never understand your motive.” Talleyrand replied: “I had no motive; you were young and made such a vital, intense impression on me that I wanted to help you without any ulterior purpose.” To which Bonaparte remarked: “In that case you acted deceitfully.”

Talleyrand’s great days came when he was Napoleon’s foreign minister—great at any rate from the point of view of making money. He began well. When Napoleon asked him how he had made so much money, he replied: “Oh, that’s simple. I bought bonds on the 17th Brumaire and sold them three days later.” 17th Brumaire was the day before Bonaparte seized power. Thereafter Napoleon used to say: “His great ancestry makes up for everything.” There was little skill or originality in Talleyrand’s policy: he did what he was told and pocketed his percentage. Napoleon summed up his qualifications: “Sophistication, first-hand knowledge of the courts of Europe, a shrewd tongue that says just enough and no more, an inscrutable countenance that never changes, and finally a great name.” In later years Talleyrand made out that he had always opposed Napoleon’s pursuit of conquest. He did so only when it began to go wrong.

Even then his opposition was confined to private mutterings. The idea that he contributed to Napoleon’s overthrow is pure myth, partly manufactured by himself and partly by Metternich, who was another character of the same kind. In 1809 Metternich reported from Paris that Talleyrand and Fouché were preparing to resist Napoleon. They “are firmly resolved to seize the opportunity if the opportunity arises, lacking courage to provoke it.” The opportunity never arose. Talleyrand and Fouché contributed to Napoleon’s overthrow only in the sense that the so-called German Resistance contributed to Hitler’s. Napoleon ruined himself by his limitless ambitions; his overthrow stemmed from the Russian army. When all was over Talleyrand stepped on to the scene and headed the French Provisional Government. He said with some excusable exaggeration: “The only conspiring I have ever done was when I had the majority of France as an accomplice and was seeking hand in hand with her the salvation of my country.”

Talleyrand did not long remain in power. The restored King Louis XVIII no doubt disliked him. M. Orieux remarks that he was not Cardinal Richelieu or even Mazarin. He lacked strength of character and needed a master. Also he was lazy: alert in a crisis and off on pleasure the next day. Talleyrand made some stir at the Congress of Vienna, though circumstances made this easy, when all the victorious powers except Prussia wanted to keep France active in the balance of power. After this he departed to a profitable retirement until the French Revolution of 1830 when he became French ambassador in London and secured the independence of Belgium. His last negotiation was a prolonged bargaining whereby he made his peace with the Church a few hours before he died. When he received extreme unction he held out his clenched fists instead of his palms and said: “Do not forget that I am a bishop.” He had received episcopal unction on January 16, 1789. Much had happened since then including the secularization of church lands on Talleyrand’s initiative and his own marriage. However the Church was ready to welcome the belatedly repentant sinner.

Considerable ingenuity is needed to deduce any significant principles of foreign policy from Talleyrand’s career. He was an adroit and unscrupulous negotiator. He never conducted a negotiation without financial profit for himself. He distrusted the arrogance of power and did not regret the loss of Napoleon’s conquests. If pressed to define what he believed in he would have answered with his favorite refrain: “Une fortune immense, une immense fortune.”

Talleyrand had unparalleled success with women despite his lameness and clumsy figure. He shared Madame de Flahaut with Gouverneur Morris, the American minister in Paris, and of course with her husband. Their son, the comte de Flahaut, following his father’s fashion, had a son by Queen Hortense, Napoleon’s step-daughter, and their offspring, the duc de Morny, was able to boast: “I am the great-grandson of a king, grandson of a bishop, son of a queen, and half-brother of an emperor.” Morny’s daughter married a marquis of Lansdowne, and their son became the British foreign secretary who created the Entente Cordiale—altogether a distinguished record for Talleyrand’s descendants. When Talleyrand became foreign minister he ousted his predecessor from the marriage bed as well as from office. The outcome of this was Eugene Delacroix, the great Romantic painter, whose career Talleyrand followed with paternal solicitude.

Talleyrand’s last mistress was his niece by marriage, Dorothy, whose mother the duchess of Courland was also his mistress whenever she could afford the time to come to France. Yet even his lovemaking was pursued with indifference. He was a voluptuary, not a seducer, and Madame de Flahaut complained that, though sauviter in modo, he lacked fortiter in re. Talleyrand would probably have accepted this as a flattering verdict. He never did anything with energy or conviction except of course when he laid his hands on money. If indifference, lack of principle, and self-interest are the essential qualities for diplomacy, Talleyrand was perhaps a model diplomat after all.

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