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 …

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