Portrait of Talleyrand, presumably when he was at the peak of his fame, power, etc.

This book is entertaining in its way, if the sort of entertainment you enjoy is watching 18th-century French gentlemen have a lot of sex with other 18th-century French gentlemen’s wives. In a word, it’s catty. So when Cooper tells us that “Napoleon was quick to realise that there was one man in Paris whose support was precious and whose advice was invaluable,” implying that Talleyrand was that man, we have no reason to believe him; we’ve spent the book up to that point merely watching a man examine French society with amusement and, we gather, keep most of his thoughts to himself.

Of course Talleyrand must be an amazing character: he wore all manner of different hats under all manner of different régimes, during the most tumultuous decades of France’s existence, without once nearing the guillotine. He represented the clergy when the Estates-General were reconvened for the first time in 161 years, and arranged the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that did so much to divide France and—along with his marriage—did much to alienate Talleyrand from his Church. As the Revolution was happening he was part of the French diplomatic mission to England, then was expelled and left for the United States, now a man without a home. He returned and orchestrated Napoleon’s coup of 18 Brumaire, then served as Napoleon’s Foreign Secretary. Napoleon eventually soured on him—in Cooper’s telling, mostly because Napoleon became an autocrat who couldn’t tolerate Talleyrand’s differing views—and eventually Talleyrand worked to undermine the Emperor and arrange his defeat before the assembled might of the European powers. When the great powers met at the Congress of Vienna to rearrange the map of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, Talleyrand represented France, and—according to Cooper—did much to ensure that his nation wasn’t dismantled. Under Louis XVIII, Talleyrand was effectively the Prime Minister. In retirement, he was the wise old man of French diplomacy, all-seeing, all-knowing, dropping witty apothegms hither and thither. Moments before his death, he re-established ties with the Church, apologizing for the folly of his youth during the Revolution.

Such is the outline that most everyone would have going into this book; and with this outline in mind, you can’t help but expect some plasticity of morals on Talleyrand’s part. How else do you explain his ability to please so many diverse masters? The easiest answer is probably that he unerringly knew which way the wind was blowing, and always remained one step ahead of the latest calamity. Was this just the luck of the draw? Was Talleyrand just one of those men who, through some inexplicable fluke, got more than the usual portion of foresight? Cooper is not really the man to answer these questions. Instead he seems driven to counter what I imagine is the historical image of Talleyrand, namely the amoral practitioner of realpolitik. In Cooper’s telling, instead, Talleyrand is a veritable rock of principle: from the reign of Louis XVI, through Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, and on through the Restoration of the Bourbons, his fixed star is a broad European peace. This is why he consistently (says Cooper) advises Napoleon against European conquest, but eventually the inertia of the Emperor’s string of victories becomes too great to resist.

Maybe this is all true. And maybe, in the same vein as A People’s History of the United States, the existing story of Talleyrand’s scheming and duplicity is so widely and unquestioningly believed that someone like Cooper needs to, at least, put a thumb on the other side of the scale. Like Zinn’s book, though, Cooper’s can’t be used as your sole historical source; it’s too obviously got a story to tell, and is too obviously unwilling to admit deviations from that story.

It’s a shame, because when he sets his sights on explaining some abstruse matter of foreign policy, Cooper can do very well. Witness this description of Talleyrand’s advice to Napoleon as the latter negotiated terms with Austria after the latter’s defeat:

Austria must be compensated in the east for all she forfeits in the west. Moldavia, Wallachia, Bessarabia, and part of Bulgaria will increase rather than diminish the power and prestige of the Habsburg Empire, which in the future will stand with its back towards Europe and its face to the East, thus acting as a bulwark to protect western civilisation from the aggression of Russia. The latter, faced by so powerful an antagonist on her western frontiers, and knowing that behind that antagonist there stands her still more formidable ally, will also be driven to look eastward for expansion, where she will find herself hampered by the oriental possessions and ambitions of Great Britain. So Russia and Great Britain, the two most dangerous enemies of France, would be set to grapple with one another in Asia, and Europe would be left in peace.

Incidentally, I’ve always found the great-power calculus hard to understand. For reasons that I also don’t understand, the calculus of “If we do this, then Austria will react in this way, which will trigger Russia to react in this way, [etc.]” always seems more intricate than the present-day diplomacy calculus. I don’t know why that might be, or even whether it’s true; it might be a bias in favor of believing that today’s situation is inherently less complicated than a more-distant thing that I would have understood perfectly well had I lived it.

In any case, Cooper does a great job on the occasions when he chooses to explain this calculus. But the quoted passage is one of the few where he really tries. Much of the rest of the book is either the clear-eyed Talleyrand seeing what others don’t, effortlessly parrying every challenge, or he’s seducing another mistress. And for Cooper, that is basically that.

We’re left with no real knowledge of psychology, or of the precise mechanics of surreptitious language. Take this, for instance:

‘Sire, it is in your power to save Europe, and you will only do so by refusing to give way to Napoleon [said Talleyrand to Czar Alexander]. 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.’ He went on to explain and develop this statement.

A natural question for any reader is how Talleyrand decided to take such a risk with a foreign power. This was arguably treason, and one imagines that Napoleon would have beheaded his Foreign Secretary for such an insult. So what preparations, exactly, did Talleyrand take to ensure that these words stayed between him and the Czar? Cooper doesn’t say.

I don’t think that’s accidental. Cooper is at his happiest when he’s presenting Talleyrand as preternaturally gifted at the art of subterfuge. I find it maddening. Maybe it is, indeed, a pure gift, but Cooper never gives us reason to believe so. It’s asserted, essentially, without being defended, which is the recipe for much of the book.

I think Cooper is in it for the naughty bits. He could have dug deeper on those parts, while still providing his reader with a psychological education—here, for instance:

Caroline Murat, who was probably Metternich’s mistress at this time, seems to have been his informant.

Well, that’s interesting. It raises a load of questions. For one: if everyone is having sex with everyone else, and (seemingly) everyone knows this, and if even great statesmen are apparently not immune to sexual persuasion, then how does that change what people say to each other? This only reinforces my question from above: how does Talleyrand know whom to trust? How does he know that, say, Alexander isn’t sleeping with someone who’s sharing the goods with Napoleon? Again, Cooper doesn’t say. He walks right up to a great opportunity to paint the backdrop of early-19th-century politics, then steps back.

On the other end of the spectrum from this Cooper book is, say, the three-volume Otto Pflanze biography of Bismarck, who is a comparable historical character in many ways. Pflanze’s biography maybe goes into excessive detail about the exact choice sets available to Bismarck at a given moment, though his leitmotif is that Bismarck always consciously left two or more options available to him in any given scenario. So at least Pflanze has a structure to hold together the map of Bismarck’s delicate schemes. More like Cooper is Steinberg’s more-psychological biography of Bismarck. Both Pflanze and Steinberg are worth reading in their own ways.

I guess Cooper is good for the outline, but I’m going to look elsewhere for a real biography of Talleyrand.