Monday, September 3, 2007


by John McCaughey

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) was one of the most brilliant diplomatists --- indeed, statesmen --- of his era. A famed wit, a ruthless opportunist, aristocratic but a revolutionary, a liberal, a free-trader, pro-American, he was even a renegade bishop (Holy Orders were seen in those days --- perhaps still are --- as a path to material advancement). He helped make (and then break) Napoleon and then assisted in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France. At the Congress of Vienna, which reshaped Europe after Napoleon, he played a weak French hand with consummate skill. He died reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church at the last minute --- to the fury of his critics. In this admirable new biography* Robin Harris has more than done justice to the complicated politics and psychology of one who, whatsoever his faults, was a great man.

Talleyrand, as depicted by Harris, had many virtues. Even his rivals admitted his self-possession and "extraordinary intelligence": cynical, his bon mots (although Talleyrand preferred to call these his mots juste) were polished and delivered in circumstances which assured their widest circulation (one of them, his famous disparagement of the Bourbons: "They forget nothing and learn nothing" has lived on); his conduct of affairs in his spell as Foreign Minister of France showed unmatched flair and finesse (as even Napoleon admitted); and he was extremely productive while affecting an air of nonchalance which his enemies often foolishly mistook for indolence.

A superb politician, he understood expediency and possessed (what few politicians do) the gifts of foresight, consistency, remorselessness and the character to follow the best course once he had worked this out. He had unmatched manipulative skills and political and social antennae. Sophisticated, he could appear open while giving nothing away. Said Chateaubriand: "You wonder if this man has not received an authority from nature to refashion or to obliterate the truth."

Always a wide-ranging reformer, he rewrote the French weights and measures system, then developed the modern, secular, centralized French education system. At the Foreign Ministry, he knew how to get the best out of his staff. More than that indeed. When one staffer brought back a monkey from Africa, the animal was set to work sealing letters at which the creature proved to be adept.

Politically, Talleyrand was what would nowadays be called a libertrarian: "What individual demands of every citizen," he said, "will be respected or re-established by the [revolutionary] Estates General. Beyond the law, all are free." It didn't quite work out that way, of course, but there is no doubting Talleyrand's sincerity.

Indeed he was really only a qualified supporter of Revolution, although he artfully concealed this fact. Inside, he was far too aristocratic to wish for a leveling of the social hierarchy.

At heart he was a royalist, but he managed easily to collaborate with Napoleon --to Talleyrand's and Napoleon's advantage and, it must be said, to the advantage of France. But it was a rocky, love-hate, conditional relationship that ultimately ended in bitterness. Talleyrand especially objected to Napoleon's bellicosity in foreign policy.

Nor did Talleyrand stick to his day job. On the side, he was an expert businessman. He speculated on property in the (as then, undeveloped) Champs Elysees and even explored buying land in Maine and upstate New York and he bought 100,000 acres of land in Pennsylvania which he resold in France, pocketing a 100 percent profit.

A gastronome, Talleyrand had a complicated system for drinking cognac, decided views on coffee (it had to be four-fifths mocha and one fifth Martinique) and he enjoyed peppered dishes which he fancied accelerated his slow metabolism and pulse rate.

For all his genius, Talleyrand had, unfortunately, great defects. He was a fearful snob, constantly high-hatting Napoleon, whom he regarded as a Corsican bourgeois upstart. He was a habitual liar (sometimes astonishingly so) -- never letting sentiment dominate calculation in determining his course of action. He was painstakingly vindictive both to persons and to governments which attempted to thwart him. He had huge reserves of ruthlessness and never hesitated to use them. He was madly ambitious, self-regarding and self-promoting. He made many mistakes, especially in military policy. He was shamelessly venal in soliciting bribes to a degree that would nowadays have instantly landed him before a grand jury. He was conspicuously promiscuous in an age when promiscuity was the norm.

Biographers are said usually to admire their subjects. In this book, Harris can't seem to quite make up his mind and takes refuge in rather too complicated (and sometimes boring) explications of 19th Century European politics and minor wars. "At the end," he writes, "I am left with the strong impression of a man quite unlike any other then or since His personality is as multi-layered as one of his chef Careme's millefeuille pastries." Perhaps the best Talleyrand quote, which applied as much to his statecraft as to his personal life, was: "I have never hurried, but I am always on time."

A supporter of the French reputation for logic and diplomacy (as opposed to the more robust English view of the French as a nation of intoxicated loonies stomping grapes in barrels), Talleyrand carefully rewrote just before his death his statement of reconciliation with Mother Church. Diplomatist to the very end, it was far from the statement that the Jesuits would have liked. When Talleyrand met his Maker at the Pearly Gates, it can only have been an interview fraught with difficulties for both men. Unfortunately, this biography omits a text of that interview.

On his birthday on 2 February 1837, Talleyrand wrote wearily: "That makes eighty three years that have passed! I do not know if I am satisfied when I recall the course of so many years. How much useless agitation! How many fruitless endeavours! Irritating complications, exaggerated emotions, worn-out strengths! Gifts wasted, ill-will inspired, equilibrium lost, illusions destroyed, tastes exhausted! And with what result? That of moral and physical fatigue, a complete despondency about the future and a profound disgust for the past. There are a mass of people who have the gift, or the deficiency, never to be self-aware. I have, in all to great a degree, the contrary misfortune; it increases along with the seriousness that the years bring with them."

On our deathbed, we should all write as well as Talleyrand.

*Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France. By Robin Harris. John Murray (UK) 2007.



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