One Does It Like This

David A. Bell

  • Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand by David Lawday
    Cape, 386 pp, £20.00, September 2006, ISBN 0 224 07366 4

Napoleon Bonaparte and his chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, are usually seen as the oddest of history’s odd couples. One personified boldness, ambition and overblown operatic passion; the other, subtlety, irony and world-weary cynicism. One displayed such restless physical energy that contemporaries repeatedly reached for that newly hatched adjective ‘electric’ to describe him; the other was sickly, pallid and had a club foot. Politically, one wanted to conquer the world, while the other thought France would do very well within its ‘natural boundaries’, and even conspired with the country’s enemies to put it back there. The two most familiar images of the men express the contrast eloquently. First, there is David’s brilliant portrait of Napoleon on his rearing charger in the Alps, seemingly master of the wind, rocks and sky; second, Chateaubriand’s acid description of Talleyrand hobbling into the presence of Louis XVIII with the help of Napoleon’s sinister police chief: ‘A door suddenly opened. Silently, there entered vice, leaning on the arm of crime, M. de Talleyrand walking with the support of M. Fouché.’

In fact, the two men had far more in common than is usually recognised. Both had an astonishing intelligence and capacity for work (‘what a pity the man wasn’t lazy,’ Talleyrand remarked of Napoleon). Both were extraordinarily ambitious, the aristocratic former priest no less than the former junior artillery officer. The story of how Napoleon’s ingenuity drove the British out of Toulon and won him promotion to general at the age of 24 is well known. But Talleyrand, in his late twenties, managed the equally impressive feat of becoming the ‘agent-general’ of the entire French clergy and defending its interests so well that his colleagues voted him the enormous gift of 100,000 French pounds. Both had oversize cravings, although Napoleon sought power and Talleyrand lusted especially after money (both also had a considerable appetite for women). Despite their political differences, both instinctively resisted fanaticism, and throughout most of their careers worked to heal the scars of the French Revolution – with equal lack of success.

Both were also extraordinary performers, each carefully crafting the persona he showed to the world (this is probably what made them both so exceptionally quotable). From the days of his first Italian campaign in 1796-97, Napoleon consciously promoted himself as the great Romantic hero, influencing his portrayal in newspapers, engravings, paintings and the theatre. But Talleyrand’s world-weary aristocrat, so carefully groomed and powdered, with languorous speech and exquisite manners, was no less of a pose. David Lawday, in his new biography, tells one of the great stories about Talleyrand, which, although perhaps apocryphal, expresses precisely the effect the man intended to have. A Jacobin radical bursts into his study during the Terror and Talleyrand gives him a glass of cognac, which he immediately starts to guzzle. Talleyrand stops him:

‘No, no, no, that is not the way to drink cognac. One does it like this. One takes the glass in the hollow of the hand, one warms it, one shakes it with a circular motion to liberate the scent, then one raises it to one’s nostrils, one breathes it in.’

‘And then?’ sighs his panicked visitor.

‘And then, Sir, one puts one’s glass down and one discusses it!’

While Talleyrand cannot compete with Napoleon in terms of sheer volume of biographical material, his life has nonetheless attracted more than its share of talented chroniclers, including Crane Brinton, André Castelot, Jean Orieux and the French politician Michel Poniatowski (not to mention the prolific historian Louis Madelin, to whose 1944 effort an American publisher appended the subtitle ‘A Vivid Biography of the Amoral, Unscrupulous and Fascinating French Statesman’). For authority and learning, it will be a long time before Emmanuel de Waresquiel’s recent 800-page volume is improved on. And as far as sheer literary art goes, the British diplomat Duff Cooper’s 1932 study remains unsurpassed. True, the debates about Talleyrand are usually fairly superficial. Until Waresquiel, most French scholars had an understandably difficult time getting beyond Talleyrand’s plotting with Metternich and Alexander I against France during wartime, and his engineering of the hapless Bourbons’ return to the throne in 1814. The 20th-century Sorbonne potentate Georges Lefebvre famously called Talleyrand one of the ‘most despicable characters in the history of France’. British and American writers have been more understanding, perhaps because they find Talleyrand so perfectly expressive of all their most beloved clichés of Frenchness. As Lawday puts it: ‘To grasp Talleyrand is better to grasp that elusive race, the French.’

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