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 his excellent volume, in which the choice is judicious and the commentaries jauntily illuminating, is an occasional linguistic lapse, e.g., “displacement” meaning déplacement, i.e., “journey.”

Saint-Simon prompts the same sort of query as Boswell: Was he a fool with a mania for writing, who just happened to find himself provided with a splendid subject, or is he to be given credit for seeing what he wanted to do and achieving his aim through a miracle of persistence? While admitting that he is odd, I incline to the latter view, and I would defend him against the fierce criticism he has been subjected to, sometimes from unexpected quarters. Henry de Montherlant, for instance, denies him any intelligence. Three thousand pages, he exclaims, and not a single general idea! It is true that Saint-Simon is obsessed with futilities to the point of mania; he gravely notes that the King half rose from his seat as a mark of honor when welcoming Mme de Saint-Simon, or that two panels of a door were opened for a particular person when etiquette stipulated only one, or that so-and-so had his hat on when he should have taken it off, or off when he should have put it on. This is stupid, all right, but it was one of the major stupidities of the age, and Saint-Simon merely shared it with everyone else. Since self-esteem is the strongest impulse of human nature after hunger and before sex, any society develops distinctions of this kind, and a wealthy, unemployed society naturally turns the inventing of such distinctions into its principal employment. It has nothing to hope for except imaginary honors which, however, are real enough, if all the members of the society live in the same imaginary world. One of the beauties of the seventeenth-century French upperclass, as a sociological specimen, is that it carried futile distinctions to the wildest possible extremes. This was because it was a very large parasitical group, cooped up in one place all the year round; unlike its modern counterparts, it could not disperse its energies on the playgrounds of the world.


It must be admitted that Saint-Simon was not intelligent enough to think outside the context of his time and his class, but if he had been, we might have found him less detailed and interesting as a memorialist. This is not to say that he was unintelligent. He understood some of Louis XIV’s major mistakes, such as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which drove the Huguenots from the country, whereas Bossuet and Fénelon, who are still referred to as great intellects, were obtuse on this particular issue. When, under the Regency, he himself at last had a chance to engage in political action, he turned out to have no aptitude for it, perhaps because his temperament was unsuitable or perhaps because he had been an idle aristocrat so long that it was beyond his powers to settle down to serious business. But this again cannot be held against him; history is littered with writers who have been indifferent politicians.

Of course, being a seventeenth-century aristocrat, he did not think of himself as a writer, although he obviously was one, to the marrow of his bones, and he had a gift more precious to the writer than intelligence; this was his inexhaustible appetite for knowing about people, whether what he learned about them coincided with his preconceptions or not. He believed in kingship, but no more devastating account of the corruption and inefficiency of absolute monarchy has ever been penned. He believed in the aristocracy, yet his gallery of degenerates, eccentrics, lechers, and bullies could be held to justify any revolution. He was a sincere Catholic, and no anticlerical has ever made more vitriolic utterances against the hierarchy.

This simply means that he was faithful to the complexity of life as he saw it, and that his book contains all the contradictions that were present in himself and in the society around him. He is like the very great novelists in that he does not aim at coherence of character; Louis XIV, for instance, struts before us, now noble, now petty, serene or bad-tempered, shrewd or obtuse, gallant or heartless, and we eventually get the feeling that there is a man there, between the wig and the high-heeled shoes, a man capable of engendering a dozen bastard children and loving them dearly, a man who could terrorize his legitimate heir with his mere presence, as Victoria was later to terrorize Edward, a man with the necessary qualities and defects to play the part of King Bee, twenty-four hours a day, in that absurd hive of gilded drones.

At a first reading, the form of the Memoirs may seem to leave a lot to be desired. Saint-Simon rambles on as if space and time were no object, and indeed they were not, since he had renounced life and fame and had no one to please but himself. M. de Gramont has a good phrase about exploring the river bed of Saint-Simon’s prose in search of the occasional gold nugget. But when you go back again, the very boringness of the writing becomes attractive (as in Proust, who learned so much from Saint-Simon), because it is of a special kind. The usual explanation of boringness is that the author in question has lost his grip on his subject and is trying out platitudes in an aimless way until he recovers his hold on it again. The tedium of Saint-Simon arises from his ruthless determination to split every hair as often as may be required in order to give a precise delineation of the truth. Montherlant calls him “the Duke of Pettifoggery”; the expression is justified, if we remember that pettifoggery comes very close to the grain of life.

This Issue

October 31, 1963