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Talleyrand (1932)

by Duff Cooper

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364461,386 (4.14)11
Unique in his own age and a phenomenon in any, Charles-Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand was a statesman of outstanding ability and extraordinary contradictions. Bishop and libertine, iconoclast and institututio, he was a turncoat who could hold high office in five successive regimes, yet maintain oneconstant policy for half a century. Duff Cooper's classic biography charts his fascinatingly chequered career with all the vigour, elegance and interlect of its remarkable subject.… (more)

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This is a fun read on Talleyrand, who was a survivor and master manipulator during the French Revolution and the decades that followed. The author has fun with the subject, which makes it very readable. He still tries to include some information about sources, so the reader has some idea how to evaluate the information, but the author is clearly inclined to be forgiving to Talleyrand.

His main argument is that Talleyrand understood the politics of the age and was a man dedicated to stability and peace. He said that he never abandoned a government until after it had abandoned itself, by which he means that he moved after governments had ignored his advice and taken paths that he could see would lead to destruction. He did this with the Directory in a coup to establish new leadership, again to bring Napoleon to prominence and then again when he saw that Napoleon was out of control. He also moved against Louis XVIII's government when he saw that it would lose control of France. His influence behind the scenes was remarkable as he always seemed to be near the front of power, affecting major events in Europe, even though he was never a direct ruler himself and was often distrusted by his own government.

He was also a survivor. He was prominent, although not a top leader in the early French Revolution, but saw it was time to get out of town just before the terror started. He went to London, where he was unpopular because he was thought a spy. He met Benedict Arnold, but didn't condemn him for treason, only for switching sides at the wrong time and to his own detriment. He went to the United States, where he became friends with Alexander Hamilton. This was an odd pairing, given Talleyrand's assumption that holding power was a way to enrich yourself while Hamilton thought that was anathema. Upon returning to France, he took a position of leadership in the Directory, but saw its instability. He helped orchestrate a coup that bought it a couple of years, but saw that it wouldn't last long, so he instigated another coup that brought Napoleon to power. When he saw that Napoleon's ego and ambition would lead to constant war after the Battle of Austerlitz, he started working against Napoleon, which allowed him to represent France at the Congress of Vienna. So essentially, he was in power for twenty years in France, bringing Napoleon in and ushering him out.

The author makes no excuses for Talleyrand's greed, but simply accepts it as part of his character. He does argue that Talleyrand was a man of honor who simply saw nothing wrong with using one's position to enrich oneself. He was still dedicated to peace and stability, but got rich along the way.

This is a very good book, although I am not sure I will accept his kind treatment of Talleyrand's honor without getting some other perspectives. ( )
1 vote Scapegoats | Jun 9, 2018 |
Riveting and elegantly written. Amounts to a hagiography: Prince T can do no wrong in Cooper's eyes, where other writers talk only his duplicity. Certainly was a serial turncoat but apparently did all that to save France and Europe. His deathbed delays over signing his recantation make me squirm a bit as a non-believer but a good story, quand-meme. T's vilification a result of the upsurge of Napoleon worship in 19th cent France, selon Duff C. On balance I'd vote for Talleyrand's charm, intellect and lack of war-mongering. ( )
  vguy | Oct 9, 2015 |
Talleyrand was the greatest statesman of his age, and his age was one of the most dangerously eventful in Europe's history. Such was his renown as the archetypally cunning diplomat that when his death was reported in 1838, the reaction of Metternich, his Austrian counterpart, was: ‘I wonder what he meant by that?’

The story is probably apocryphal, but it's revealing. No one knew how to read Talleyrand, and history's verdict on the great man is still not in. Above all, he was a survivor: almost the only person to make it through France's numerous state shake-ups in one piece, from the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, through the days of the Directorate and then the Consulate, the Napoleonic takeover and the proclamation of Empire, the Restoration of the Bourbons, and finally the July Monarchy in the 1830s. None of these regimes was known for its leniency towards predecessors, and yet Talleyrand didn't just survive every coup and revolution (he was behind several of them), he actually maintained a steady rise in power and influence.

So people cannot decide what to make of him. Either he was a brilliantly adaptable politician whose skills and experience made him impossible to ignore, even by those who would have liked to exclude him from power; or, he was the worst kind of opportunist – ‘a byword for tergiversation’, in Duff Cooper's wonderful phrase – who ditched his principles time and again in order to save his own skin.

This biography is broadly sympathetic – indeed when you read it, it's impossible not to like the man. No fan of hard work, Talleyrand looked down on younger, more zealous colleagues, and took the view that a diplomat's main job was to develop a refined sort of laziness and to excel in conversation. He was a product of that extraordinary French eighteenth century, when ‘such conversation as was then audible in Paris had never, perhaps, been heard since certain voices in Athens fell silent two thousand years before’. Talleyrand was always the wittiest and most intelligent man in any room. One contemporary describes him as

lounging nonchalantly on a sofa…his face unchanging and impenetrable, his hair powdered, talking little, sometimes putting in one subtle and mordant phrase, lighting up the conversation with a sparkling flash and then sinking back into his attitude of distinguished weariness and indifference.

He emerges from this book as a sort of aristocratic French Blackadder – witty, brilliant, dissolute, and quite prepared to be unprincipled if necessary. But this is unfair. Talleyrand may not have been willing to die for his principles – ‘nor even suffer serious inconvenience on their account’, as Cooper says – but he did have them. Cooper argues convincingly that there was a set of core beliefs to which he held throughout his whole career, beliefs which often made him unpopular with those in power. Prime among them were a desire for peace rather than conquest, and a commitment to constitutional monarchy. The former explains why he abandoned Napoleon. The latter is even more interesting, because it provides – if you're so minded – a justification for his other changes of allegiance: he supported the Revolution because the monarchy was not constitutional, and he supported the Restoration because the revolutionary government had shown that it did not have the ‘legitimacy’ of monarchy. (Hence his lifelong admiration for Britain, where he thought the perfect balance had been struck: a legitimate king whose power was held in check by a healthy parliament.)

All of this meant that he often acted for the interests of a peaceful Europe even when this ran counter to the wishes of the French government that he was currently serving. Sent by Napoleon to negotiate with Alexander I of Russia in 1806, Talleyrand simply told the tsar to refuse all of Napoleon's demands: ‘Sire, it is in your power to save Europe […] The French people are civilised, their sovereign is not. The sovereign of Russia is civilised and his people are not: the sovereign of Russia should therefore be the ally of the French people.’

Talleyrand was first published in 1932 and doubtless modern historians have moved the scholarship forward somewhat; nevertheless, it's very difficult to imagine this being done any better. Cooper writes beautifully, with a flair for efficient throwaway remarks of the kind modern historians shy away from now: he credits his readers with the intelligence to understand when he is speaking in generalisations for the sake of advancing an argument. He has a great turn of phrase, too. When Fanny Burney and her friends get to know Talleyrand during his exile in London, Cooper summarises the experience like this:

Prim little figures, they had wondered out of the sedate drawing-rooms of Sense and Sensibility and were in danger of losing themselves in the elegantly disordered alcoves of Les Liaisons dangereuses.

The idea cannot be captured more perfectly or economically. So I liked Talleyrand very much, and I liked Talleyrand very much too. He was the man still standing when the smoke cleared, the man not guided by stern morals but by practical genius and a love of the joys of civilisation that only peace can provide. ‘To the gospel of common sense he remained true.’ And although the few principles he did stick to were not always popular, they've become crucial to the Europe of today. Talleyrand may have played the long game, and enjoyed himself along the way, but in the final analysis he got it right. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Dec 1, 2013 |
I have had an interest in this famous diplomat and courtier, who survived the Ancien Regime, the Revolution, the Terror, Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, with a reputation for immense cleverness and subtlety. Duff Cooper is an admirer and apologist, seeing in Talleyrand a steady and continuous belief in liberty and peace. Duff Cooper published this in 1932, when he was a member of Parliament, and later served as the First Lord of the Admiralty. The era spanned, 1754 to 1835, is one of the most eventful in Europe, and Talleyrand was in the thick of it. He initially trained as a priest, took Holy Orders, and was proclaimed Bishop of Autun, although everyone knew him as a libertine. He much later applied to be relieved of his vows, was denied but married anyway, a beautiful woman who was universally regarded as inane. They became estranged and in his last 30 years he was in love with another young woman who served as his hostess. He profited immensely from his positions in the French government, kept a superb salon and table, even hired Careme. He was noted throughout for his conversation, for polished epigrams and insults. Duff Cooper’s writing does his subject excellent justice. The scene of his deathbed reconciliation with the church was very moving for me. ( )
1 vote neurodrew | Mar 28, 2012 |
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Unique in his own age and a phenomenon in any, Charles-Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand was a statesman of outstanding ability and extraordinary contradictions. Bishop and libertine, iconoclast and institututio, he was a turncoat who could hold high office in five successive regimes, yet maintain oneconstant policy for half a century. Duff Cooper's classic biography charts his fascinatingly chequered career with all the vigour, elegance and interlect of its remarkable subject.

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