The Art of Malice

In his Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV (originally published in French in 1997) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie aspires, he says, to provide “a systematic and comprehensive interpretation of Saint-Simon’s thought and work (but not of his writing or style).” The “work” referred to is the Duc de Saint-Simon’s vast and posthumously published Memoirs, and Ladurie wants to insist (for reasons I shall come to later) that the man himself, chronicler of the court of the roi soleil and of the Regency, was an “archaic specimen,” an “archaeological artifact in the most fundamental sense,” “a ruin, ripe for excavation.”

Can one, or ought one even to try to, separate Saint-Simon’s “work” from his “writing or style”? Perhaps it would be possible with some authors, but it seems perilous to attempt with this remarkable work of historical art—one that is more alive for us than Suetonius or Tacitus and that, in important respects, helped to inspire Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The “style” and the “work” would seem to be one.

But can one separate the “work” from the man? This sounds more hopeful, yet it runs into difficulties too. For one of the great originalities of Saint-Simon’s work is the way in which—by dint of strict rules of relevance and a heroic frankness—he manages to persuade us of the meaningfulness (historical meaningfulness) of his own activities, as privileged observer, sporadic participant, and prophet of the nation’s doom. He knows exactly what people think of him, as an irascible stickler for social rules and social rights, and can measure the limits of his (considerable) influence on the Regent. It is somehow not what one expects of an “archaic specimen” of merely archaeological interest.

The Duc de Saint-Simon joined the Versailles court in 1691, at the age of sixteen; he served briefly in the army, but soon, to the King’s annoyance, resigned; and for the remaining years of Louis’s reign, being offered no post, he lived at court, to all appearances in complete idleness. Appearances were deceptive, for he became a behind-the-scenes adviser to the young Duc de Bourgogne, the heir to the throne, as well as to his own childhood friend Philippe d’Orléans, the future regent. Nevertheless the idleness was real enough, and he filled it, fortunately for us, by a daily foraging for gossip and the developing of a gift, a genius, for observation. All his intellectual interest was in people; but, then, the history of France, insofar as it unfolded at Versailles, was essentially a matter of people, of family and family alliances, rather than of “political” groupings. As soon as Saint-Simon decided to write a history—and this seems to have occurred quite early on—his passion for gossip and grotesque anecdote became far from “idle.”

He had, however, an obsession. This was that the true nobility of France, and its rightful governors, were the ducs-et-pairs (dukes who were also peers of France …

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