This is the kind of book that deserves support for two reasons: because of its excellence and because it's not being reprinted. Given the pressure on academic writers to publish or perish, the industry is just as likely – if not more so – to crowd out superior work than to produce it. I just discovered this book published in 1973 a few months ago, and I selected it because of the previous four reviews posted here, especially the one that risked the overstatement "this is the best biography that I have read". I’d say it was worth the risk. The pacing could hardly be improved. The evidence is evaluated critically in its context, and includes citations, as another reviewer noted, not only from the memoirs and letters of Talleyrand but from those of friends as well as enemies among the principle actors and witnesses of the time. The narrative also includes an integrated, skillfully managed overview of the epochal turns from France’s ancien régime through the revolution, the subsequent wars, the empire, the restoration and counter-revolution – turns that Talleyrand as much as any political actor – certainly as much as Napoleon – controlled. And if the anecdotes are fabulous, so is the author’s retelling of them. (And fable here – even in the glare of documented evidence – is never far from the truth. We’re reminded of the spell cast by this cloven-footed bishop and ultimately ex-bishop, his charm overflowing the salons, cabinets, and bedrooms of Paris, as he continually disturbs and frequently directs policy in France and beyond, manipulating not only the French emperor – as Napoleon conceded in a famous tirade– but Napoleon’s nemesis, the Russian Emperor Alexander in the peace settlements of Paris and Vienna, in the meantime having been exiled first to England and then to the recently formed United States, where he duly limps through the woods of upper New York in search of real estate and pursues foreign relations through the streets of Philadelphia arm in arm with his latest mistress, a free black woman, the shocked Quaker matrons adding to the long list of reasons why President Washington can’t possibly receive him ...) The life overflows with the venality and guile, the ruthless ambition and lightening wit, the repartee with emperors and kings, princesses and courtesans, but then there’s the courtesy, the generosity, and most ironically – even pathetically – the faithfulness of Talleyrand after his fashion: to his friends, to France and to what remained of the Enlightenment in Europe.
I’m not a dedicated reader of biography but I’ll mention two Pulitzer-Prize winners that I would rate no higher than this one: Robert Massie’s life of Peter the Great and the Kay Bird/Martin Sherwin life of Oppenheimer. If the authority of a book has a shelf life – or a cyber address – this book on Talleyrand deserves to hold its place – and be addressed – for a good long time.
I agree with the other reviewer in preferring Mr. Bernard's work to that of Mr. Cooper. Bernard brings Talleyrand to life - through the use of the erstwhile bishop's own memoirs & those of his friends - and even his enemies. What came through most was the fabled Talleyrand charm. A modern reader can clearly see why he was as influential as he is reputed to be. As Casimir de Montrond replied to his mistress upon being asked why he liked Talleyrand so much, "My dear madam, who can help loving someone with so many vices?"