Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Kathryn Davis's Versailles

All of a sudden, I had to read something by Kathryn Davis. Everyone seemed to be saying that she's an interesting writer, with a whiff of the experimental. I don't care for more than a whiff of experiment, at least of the visible, conscious kind, so I played it safe. I got a copy of Versailles. And I read it with surprised pleasure. Surprised by Ms Davis's ability to make Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, interesting and convincing at the same time. It is difficult to imagine Marie-Antoinette taking the trouble to write much of anything beyond letters to her mother, but the reminiscences of her soul, spoken from beyond the guillotine, are never implausible.

Marie-Antoinette is a bit of a black hole: she sucks up narrative. To use Harold Bloom's favorite word, she is over-determined. There are so many explanations of her downfall, first as an adored queen and later as a human being. Her being Austrian was a problem; the Austrians were traditional enemies of France. Her marriage to the future Louis XVI was in fact planned in a pro-Austrian treaty cobbled together at the instigation of the savvy but politically untutored Mme de Pompadour, at about the time Marie-Antoinette was born. There is no question that Marie-Antoinette's wardrobe was a problem. Supplied by the ingenious Rose Bertin, the queen seemed to have no sense of limits: she should be well-dressed - expensively-dressed - at all times. Well-dressed, however, did not mean well-behaved; Marie-Antoinette hated the rituals of court life, and preferred to retreat to smaller palaces out of public (that is, aristocratic and official) view. Almost everybody hated the rituals of court life, but it was unwise of Marie-Antoinette to think that she could dispense with them. I will come back to this.

Having nothing to do with the character of the queen, no matter how much she spent on her wardrobe, there was the bankruptcy of France. This had been coming for a long time, at least since the end of the Seven Years' War (our "French and Indian"). Helping the new American republic repulse the British tyrant merely advanced the day of reckoning. The system by which the French monarchy operated ran out of money - which is to say that nobody would lend it any more. It was to raise new taxes that the king very reluctantly convened representatives of the Three Estates (clergy, aristocracy, and everybody else). That, in my opinion, was what did him in. That and some poor harvests.

Was Marie-Antoinette a clueless Valley Girl dancing a cha-cha on the rim of a volcano? No. Nobody had forgotten the execution of the English king, Charles I, in 1649. That, however, came at the end of a civil war. It would have taken a long and undisciplined imagination to foresee the scorpion-stung crash of events that brought Citizen Capet and his widow to the scaffold. 14 July is the traditional inaugural of the French Revolution, but that has always seemed more symbolic than meaningful to me. Far deadlier for everyone was the orgy of renunciation on 4 August, when nobles preeningly outdid one another in loudly casting aside their privileges.

Kathryn Davis tells the story of Marie-Antoinette's life in France in scenes and sketches. Some of them are written from the queen's point of view, others are presented in the third person. There are even a few skits. The writing is very fine, and the language conveys an eighteenth-century intelligence in modern English without a discordant note.

Then it was spring; then I was pregnant.

Antoinette pregnant, imagine it! Just like the sows and the mares and the ewes and the nanny goats. The trees were budding, so girlish and fresh in their pale green shifts. I went to bed early and arose early; I went for long walks in the cool of the morning, amazed to see how precisely the world mirrored my condition. All the bulbs swelled and put forth pale green shoots. Hyacinth and narcissus - such names! As if some long dead botanist had been determined to keep us mindful of the wages of beauty. My waist great four and a half pouces by Pentecost.

Nor was this pleasure, being devoid of any trace of the pain that makes pleasure possible. I had what I wanted and, for a moment at least, I was content. I ignored the rumors about the baby's patrimony; I knew they were false, which seemed sufficient reason to discount them. A great weakness in a Queen, you might say, such indifference to political nuance - no matter that it was based on a clear sense of my own moral rectitude. But evidently everyone was less interested in having a truly good Queen than in having a Queen who appeared good. So long as I feigned deference to even the silliest details of court etiquette, remembering for instance to send my dentist six dozen handkerchiefs a year, so long as I made a great show of enjoying the company of even the most tedious old bundles, stuck to a few boring hands of cavagnole, and turned in before midnight, I think I could have slept with every man in France.

But the novel's title points to a fissure at its heart. Versailles is described lovingly, but it is already an old place, neglected here and there. A stupendous constellation of buildings, fountains and gardens, Versailles is also something of a haunted house, a place of mystery. For no one in Versailles really knows why it was built. It is not simply the largest house in France, or even the home of a king. It is the would-be center of the country, in perpetual tug-of-war with Paris, less than twenty miles away. But the routines with which the governing of France are conducted have long since become meaningless, as indeed Antoinette's complaint suggests. Versailles is something of a trap. Even the king's movements are prescribed.

Ms Davis infuses her novel with something of the menace of a palace run on auto-pilot. But she does not attempt to explain it, and I suppose that an explanation would have been out of place in a novel centered on Marie-Antoinette. It is always ungracious to wish that an author had written a very different book, and I don't mean to complain. But the Versailles story that I'd like to read would be been set a century earlier, in the years of Louis XIV's military profligacy. It would tell how the Sun King's most durable creation became a haunted house in the first place.

Last fall, I read a book, The Age of Conversation, by Benedetta Craveri, that suggested the raison d'être of Versailles. I take the liberty of quoting my page about it.

I will conclude by suggesting that there was one person who more than anyone else guaranteed the robust growth and wide extent of the salon in the eighteenth century. That person was not a woman, but none other than Louis XIV himself.

Because I didn't know anything about the Blue Room until Ms Craveri taught me, I never appreciated Louis's cleverness in appropriating all the attractions of the salon in his successful attempt to lure leading aristocrats away from Paris - and their independent salons - and off to Versailles. While he was still young, he staged festivals, called Plaisirs de Versailles, that were the most talked-about events of the day. (To get a good idea of the inspiration for these productions, you could do worse than to watch Roland Joffé's film, Vatel). Louis himself practiced all of the polite virtues of the salon; one might almost say that he ruled by politeness. In the 1660s, Versailles was an escape; nobody foresaw that in 1682 the king would move his court there permanently, thereafter to avoid Paris like the plague. Thereafter to pitch the aristocracy right back into the dullness of court life under Louis XIII. The new dullness was brilliant, and as energetic as the Blue Room, but it was a routine, and there was only one star. Conversation came to a stop at Versailles.

So, when the old king died in 1715, and his heir's regent took the court back to Paris, new salons sprouted like mushrooms after rain. When the court returned to Versailles within ten years, after the scandalous collapse of John Law's bank, Paris went on being Paris, only moreso. For over forty years, Versailles had been the genuine capital of France. From now on, it would only hold that title nominally. Until reading The Age of Conversation, I had always wondered just why Louis XV and Louis XVI failed to fill their ancestor's footsteps. Were they weak and stupid? Not exceptionally. Now I think I know what it was that they missed. They lacked the Sun King's genius for shining in a salon, together with his eagerness to do so. They were out of step with their own country in ways that had nothing to do with their isolation at Versailles.

How interesting it would be to read the "memoirs" of an astute courtier, someone with roughly the same life span as the king, watching the country-house party slowly gel into laborious protocol.

When Louis XIV died, Versailles became an empty shell, inhabited successively by hermit crabs. Today, it is a museum. It is certainly an inspiring place. In a wonderful author's note, Ms Davis recounts her fascination with the place. She wraps it up, in fact, with the most beautiful image in the book. Commissioned to discover, on one of her own research trips, whether a shrub called "La Gloire de Versailles" were appropriately named, she can't find anyone who's heard of it.

And then I saw two young men wearing hip waders, standing just a little to my right. Tall young men with longish hair. Gawky and cute in that way of young French men. Gardeners, I thought. They must be gardeners, why else the boots? And so I approached them to ask Gianna's question.

"Gloire de Versailles?" one of them said. "You want to see the Gloire de Versailles?" and he looked meaningfully at his friend before suddenly taking off.

"He will show you the Gloire de Versailles," the other young man said. "Come with me."

Does this sound sinister? I was mildly suspicious but, frankly, too curious to exercise caution. Besides, it wasn't as if the young man was dragging me off into the bushes, only down the steps and over to the left, though the truth is his friend had taken off in the opposite direction.

This is ridiculous, I thought, and just as I was about to turn and head back to where I'd come from, the young man nudged me with his elbow.

And then I saw it. I couldn't help but see. All of the fountains had been turned on. All of them, their water impossibly bright and glittering against the still deep-dark-blue French sky. The Glory of Versailles.

I'm sorry that the author couldn't work that anecdote into Versailles. (March 2006)


Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press

Write to me