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MEMOIRS Vol. I 1691-1709; Vol. II 1710-1715; Vol. III
1715-1723 By Duc de Saint-Simon Translated from the
French by Lucy Norton; Prion / Trafalgar: 536 pp.,
$19.95 paper (Vol.I), 526 pp., $19.95 paper (Vol. II),
560 pp., $19.95 paper (Vol. III)

Tattletale

September 03, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber, emeritus professor of modern European history at UCLA, is the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

Louis de Rouvroy, Duke of Saint-Simon, was born at Versailles in January 1675. His father Claude, the first duke, had been a page and favorite of Louis XIII, who appreciated his talent as a huntsman and the fact that when he blew into his hunting horn, he did not slobber. At 16, Claude's son became one of Louis XIV's musketeers and joined in the Sun King's campaigns during that monarch's endless wars. When he was 18, his father bought him a company of cavalry at whose head he fought in the bloody battle of Neerwinden in 1693, after which he was promoted to colonel. Passed over for promotion to general a few years later, he resigned from the army. He was 27. Though he had been keeping a journal since 1694, his "Memoirs" proper begin in 1691. They end in 1723, 32 years before his death; and they paint a prodigious, personal, petulant, prejudiced portrait of a remarkable time and of the remarkable man who portrayed it.

Puny, spare, sickly, drawn, thin-lipped, sharp-nosed, nervous, choleric, stubborn, sour-tempered, Saint-Simon was an old man's son. Claude had been almost 70 when Louis was born, and his descendant showed the wear. So did Louis' descendants: The diarist's daughter was deformed, his elder son feeble and the younger one, prey to terrible convulsions, may have been epileptic.

Rash in his actions and reactions, our man was subject to fierce passions, his temper and the body he called his "frail machine" recurrently wracked by outbursts of rage: He was fretful, sulky, vexed over nothings, violent in humor, intemperate, with no trace of restraint. There was no need or heed of self-control: For Saint-Simon, pride governed all. He was a noble, and for him French nobility was the greatest--essentially the only--nobility that counted in the world.

He was a duke and peer. After the king himself, after legitimate princes of the blood, only dukes counted. Dukes were a race apart, above mere "people of quality" who dared aspire to approach the king. Far greater than that of lesser folk, Saint-Simon's pride was the pride of a duke claiming descent from Charlemagne, not of a nobleman or a mere gentleman on whose kind he looked down, as he did more vertiginously on "the vile bourgeoisie."

There was good reason to be wary of the bourgeois. Unlike most of his contemporaries, our author saw that, throughout the reign of Louis XIV, the Third Estate had been grasping at the levers of power. Commoners had become administrators, magistrates and ministers of state who governed the land and public opinion by their command of letters, and public affairs by their control of finance.

He looked with suspicion on clerks, men of letters, the great courts of law called parliaments, the war machine of the literate plebs called the Academy. He turned baleful eyes on the materialism for which they stood, the power of money, the temptations of conspicuous consumption and on the decadence of a noble First Estate, no longer truly noble, reduced to the level of the populace except that their plebeian rivals were free to work, to trade, to earn, even to serve in the military, while nobles wallowed in idleness and nonproductiveness.

He did not detest the common people. He loved them, or he thought he loved them, paternalistically, as a lord of the Middle Ages might have: in their place, whence they should not challenge his rightful place.

He strove to realize his anachronistic pretensions, he battled, he intrigued, he failed, and his failures infuriated him. Pride turned to vanity, which we know as vexation of spirit, and to pretentiousness. Trivial pursuits became primordial: precedence, etiquette, who should salute whom first, who might sit in the king's presence, dine at his table, keep his hat on before a duke and peer or cross the throne room in a straight line or diagonally.

His contemporary, the Marquis d'Argenson, himself a diarist, described Saint-Simon as a canting little fool full of conceit, "unjust, odious, and anthropophagous." Had d'Argenson been able to read the "Memoirs," he might have thought again. Or maybe not.

Gimlet-eyed concerning individuals, Saint-Simon ignores the historical events around him, perceiving political and social affairs only in terms of personalities, cliques, gestures within the narrow compass of the court.

Contemporary figures that history retains are slighted or pass unnoticed. He doesn't seem to have heard about Saint-Evremond the essayist or Montesquieu the political philosopher. He refers to Voltaire only as the son of his father's solicitor, exiled for impudent verse. He despises the French Academy as a place where no gentleman should venture. He deplores his great friend, the Duke of Orleans, dabbling in painting and in chemistry: fads and deprivations of a spirit "born bored," and too blase for serious pursuits like intrigue or hunting.

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