Ten Books in Ten Days – Day 10 – The Duc de Saint-Simon’s Memoirs

saint simon
Though never very good at acquiring or exercising it myself, I’ve always been very interested in power: how to acquire it (Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son), how it’s exercised (Machievelli’s The Prince) how it works (Foucault). My favourite of all these works, which is not directly on the issue but brings it to life better than no other, is the Duc de Saint Simon’s memoirs. It’s in three enormous volumes and one can sink into them for a whole winter. There is no greater chronicler of the last years of Louis XIV, the war of the Spanish succession, and the Regency which followed. Saint Simon is prissy, proud, always venting about order, and precedence and how those lousy bastards are destroying proper seating arrangements in Versailles. He writes with a cool, clear eye of the realities he sees – everyone on the make, fixed on appearances, orbiting around the centres of power, trying to de-center them slightly so as to find a place for themselves — and is lively fun to read. It’s the best chronicle of its time and place; a detailed and precise chronicles of politics at work; a dramatic and personalised rendering of the workings of power in relation to the failings of personality, all beautifully written: Two random expamples :
‘There were many marriages this winter, and amongst them one very strange – a marriage for love, between a brother of Feuquière’s, who had never done much, and the daughter of the celebrated Mignard, first painter of his time. The daughter was still so beautiful that Bloin, chief valet of the King, had kept her for some time, with the knowledge of everyone, and used his influence to make the King sign the marriage-contract.’
And on great Mme de Sévigné, the other great chronicler of the time:  ‘so amiable and of such excellent company, died some time after at Grignan, at the house of her daughter, her idol, but who merited little to be so. I was very intimate with the young Marquis de Grignan, her grandson. This woman, by her natural grace, the sweetness of her wit, communicates these qualities to those who had them not; she was beside extremely good, and knew thoroughly many things without ever wishing to appear as though she knew anything.
They’re not really books to dip in, though one can, the work becomes cumulatively greater as it unfolds. I recommend.

 

José Arroyo

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