Tuesday, June 24, 2014


 Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), on a good day

 Most people spend much of their lives working, yet fewer things are more difficult than explaining to others in an accurate, detailed way what it is that one actually does.  I myself would claim that it has been an eventful week had I not learned over the years that a scholar’s sense of an “event” is not always shared by the world at large.  What I have been doing is this: I have spent most of my waking hours sitting in the new and improved library of the Fondation Gulbenkian making minor textual revisions and filling out incomplete footnotes in a manuscript in progress.  Such labor is utterly exhausting, yet deeply satisfying, though I would not begin to be able to explain how and why to people who have never experienced it themselves.

            The point of all this is that the arrival of the weekend was welcome, and it brought with it more conventional excitements, some more pleasant than others.  Half of my Saturday and all of Joan’s was spent trying to get her to her rustic string quartet week somewhere—and I still don’t know exactly where—in the vicinity of Culoz, near the Swiss border.  The railway strike that we had dodged on our trip to Poitiers finally caught up with her in the form of mind-numbing French bureaucracy, solemnly delivered misinformation, multiple cancelled trains, an insufficiency of cell phones and of people to answer them, and so forth.  But by the evening she got there, and she declares it a “paradise”.  All the participants have their own denominated quarters.  She is in the Bach suite, which is highly appropriate.

 Guillaume Bourgeois and friend, on an excellent day; photo, Alice Bourgeois

            Sunday was considerably better.  I went to an early eucharist to be sure that I would be on time to be picked up by my friend Guillaume Bourgeois, who had proposed a picnic.  One of the writers I dealt with in The Anti-Communist Manifestos was Richard Krebs (nom de plume, Jan Valtin).  Not many people know about Krebs, but one who does is Guillaume, who is an historian at the University of Poitiers and an expert on such topics as the early history of the French Communist Party and Cold War espionage.  A friendship developed, and from that a proposal for collaboration: we want to organize a small international “Jan Valtin Colloquium,” and the ostensible purpose of our picnic was to do some preliminary planning.  He brought his daughter Alice, a recent graduate who is now working in publishing.  She has been working on translations of Virginia Woolf.

not much, but he called it home

            We drove to Vaux-le-Vicomte, some distance to the southeast, the stateliest of stately homes.  (Eat your heart out, “Downton Abbey”!)  It was an absolutely beautiful day, and half the Isle de France was there, though the gardens are so enormous that you would never notice.  Vaux-le-Vicomte is said to be the finest of the seventeenth-century chateaux in France. Certainly I have never seen anything that would gainsay the claim.  It was built in the 1650s for Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finances for Louis XIV, but if you’re thinking Timothy Geithner, you’re not even close.  In addition to being richer than God, Fouquet was a scholar, a musician, an amateur of the arts, and the patron of important writers.  La Fontaine was a close friend and frequent house guest.

            Fouquet engaged an art historical Dream Team to do the work.  The project began with the brute labor of flattening a few hills so as to create an absolutely flat surface necessary for the desired view of the long gardens.  In the actual building Louis Le Vau was the principal architect, and Charles le Brun supervised all the decorative artwork.  The landscape architect was André Le Nôtre,  who aimed to make the job his masterpiece.  The chateau survived the Revolution, but naturally practically nothing of the original fabulous gardens remains except the general plan.  Stately homes are expensive things, and Vaux (still in private hands) is a tourist business with some striking photographs on its website.

            Of course building a pile like Vaux was hardly a move designed to keep its owner below the radar of the envious and the ambitious.  In particular, it is not always a good idea to be richer, smarter, wittier, better-looking, more competent and above all better-housed than your monarch if your monarch should happen to be Louis XIV.  If the revocation of the Edict of Nantes is not sufficient evidence for you to form an opinion of the intelligence and morality of the Sun-King, you may want to consider also his treatment of Fouquet.  The king, who had long distrusted Fouquet’s own huge ambition, cooperated with other powerful conspirators in destroying him.  In a trial that was otherwise fair and above-board he was arraigned for gross malfeasance on trumped-up charges and convicted by coerced judges on the basis of perjured evidence.  He spent the last nineteen years of his life in prison, where he died in 1680.  Apparently fouquet was a local dialect word for “squirrel”, explaining the prominence of that notoriously unferocious animal on the family coat of arms.  You can actually buy a squirrel-pad for your computer in the Vaux gift shop!  Poor Fouquet—the unkindest cut of all.  His is a sad tale that leaves us pondering the vanity of human wishes, as well as wondering, of course, whether the odd phrase “trumped-up” is ever followed up by anything but “charges”.

Fouquet's other pad