A Taste for Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine , by Anka Muhlstein, translated from the French by Teresa Waugh. Helen Marx Books, 391 pages, $16.95.
One of my failings as a reader–and as a citizen–is a tendency to sympathize with doomed aristocrats. Given a choice between the democratic hordes at the barricades and the timorous fops hiding in the wine cellar, I’ll take the cowards in the basement every time. What a boon for readers who share my weakness, then, that narrative is a privilege of the ruling classes and privilege imperiled a recurrent literary theme. I’m thinking of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard , Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and, especially, Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory , in which he performs the divine trick of imparting the richness of his family legacy–the country estates, the sleigh rides through the snow, the gold coins for tipping serfs–from the moral high ground of forced emigration. It also helps that Nabokov’s motivation in writing is “a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood,” as the author claims, and “not sorrow for lost banknotes.”
A reader who might not have shared Nabokov’s nostalgia for the Russian aristocracy is Astolphe de Custine, French author of the acerbic travelogue Russia in 1839 and the subject of a riveting new biography by Anka Muhlstein. Forget about Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan , postpone your date with Fred Kaplan’s Gore Vidal , wedge your copy of Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates underneath the air-conditioner and let it gather mildew–if there is such a thing as a “natural” subject for biography, Custine is it.
Depending on the accounts of his contemporaries, Custine was either a “genius whose dandyism went so far as to encompass the ideal of negligence” (Baudelaire) or a “gentleman in petticoats” (actress Marie Dorval) with such a “bad reputation … that he is read and quite appreciated but no one respects him” (critic and writer Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve). Certainly he was a marquis with a yearly income of 60,000 francs, according to Stendhal, and the audacity to live openly with another man, the devoted Englishman Edward Sainte-Barbe, for over 30 years. “Custine was not a man in a hurry,” writes Ms. Muhlstein, yet for someone prone from an early age to idling, migraine attacks, profligate spending and pursuing scandalous friendships with soldiers, Custine managed to survive enormous political upheaval in France and earn the company (if indeed not always the respect) of luminaries like Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand (Custine calls her “the ghoul”) and Frédéric Chopin, “the only person,” Custine wrote, “whom I allow to come to Saint-Gratien [his estate outside of Paris] whenever he wants and without warning me.”
The question of whether dandies like Custine are born or made will not be resolved in the space of this review. Certainly his mother, the enchanting Delphine de Sabran, granted him liberties not available to the average child of privilege, including the right to address her by the familiar tu , and she exposed her son–without apology–to a series of admirers and lovers. The terror in Paris made Delphine a single mother worthy of opera seria ; her husband, Armand de Custine, a liberal officer and diplomatic minister under Louis XVI, had been executed for betraying the Revolution just five months after his father, the commander in chief of the Army of the North, was tried and executed by the Committee of Public Safety. Delphine herself was arrested for being an “émigrée by intention,” leaving her only child, Astolphe, in the care of Nanette, a loyal maid. While imprisoned at Les Carmes, a former convent, Delphine was delighted to discover that “conventional good manners, along with the polite form of vous , forbidden by the revolution, were current” among the prison population. Trestle beds could be rented for a reasonable price, the meals were often catered from outside, and poets wrote verse to charm the lady convicts during summer-evening soirées .
There Delphine fell desperately in love with Alexandre de Beauharnais, a former colleague of her father-in-law, only to see him executed in 1794.
Things turned even bleaker for our heroine when, during a search of her apartment, an evil cobbler found a pair of English shoes and denounced her (imported goods were contraband under Robespierre). Luckily, Delphine’s looks and “courageous gaiety” caused a member of the search party, Jérôme, to fall in love with her. Though Jérôme was a simple workman “whose conversation consisted of nothing but a cascade of curses,” he was clever enough to save Delphine’s life by moving her dossier to the bottom of the prosecutor’s execution pile and generous enough to help support Astolphe by bringing Nanette gifts under an oath of secrecy.
Custine was to emerge from the troubling events of his childhood with a diminished fortune, natural charm (“He is the fruit tree of anecdote!” one admirer exclaimed), an awareness of the uses of political fear and a revulsion toward physical violence. His skill as a conversationalist and innate gentleness impressed the matrons of the society marriage-market and inflamed their homely daughters. After a broken engagement–the scandal inspired four separate novels, including Custine’s own Aloys –the persistent Delphine located an “ideal bride” in Léontine de Saint-Simon de Courtomer, a wealthy orphan from an “excellent Norman family.” The woman’s sweet, forgiving nature–and her lack of biological parents–would indeed prove ideal when Custine surprised his pregnant bride by installing an Englishman in a wing of their apartments. Custine had met Edward Sainte-Barbe in Paris at one of the city’s “little mysteries.”
“When one has a vice,” declared Napoleon’s openly gay prefect, Joseph Fiévée, “one must know how to wear it.”
Quite apart from its sheer entertainment value, which is considerable, Ms. Muhl-stein’s biography provides an engaging portrait of life in the various salons of 19th-century Europe, where pettiness and tolerance sometimes ruled in equal measure. This was certainly the case with the circle of writers, artists and diplomats who orbited around Rahel von Varnhagen, the Jewish hostess preferred by Goethe (“He was kind to me,” Astolphe boasted to his mother after an audience) and who encouraged the young Custine to overcome his inhibitions. Ms. Muhl-stein takes a keen-eyed look at homosexuality in French society and the “sharp divergence between custom and law.” The biography’s greatest achievement, however, is its detailed account of Custine’s trip to Russia in 1839, an idea first suggested by Balzac after he read the marquis’ travel book L’Espagne Sous Ferdinand VII . Balzac urged his friend to write a companion volume about the Czar’s empire: “It would be a great work and a great glory.”
Russia sickened the marquis. From the bedbugs in the inns of St. Petersburg, to the coachmen with their ready whips, to the cruel indifference of Nicholas I’s power and the palpable fear of his subjects–”what is called public order here,” Custine wrote, “is a mournful quiet, a terrifying peace, reminiscent of the tomb.” Through his acquaintance with Alexander Turgenev, an agent for the regime in Paris (and uncle of Ivan Turgenev), Custine was granted access to the Czar’s court. At first, the towering Emperor and the largess of his hospitality dazzled the marquis. But the servility of his grandees and the absence of open conversation shocked him, and the sight of Kronstadt prison, which he was not allowed to visit, filled him with a familiar gloom. “If I enter the filthy palace of a great nobleman,” Custine would write after returning home to the comforts of life with Sainte-Barbe, “if I smell vermin under the roof of opulence … I immediately imagine the stench in the dungeons of a country where rich men do not fear dirtiness for themselves.”
Above all, the marquis valued freedom; freedom from fear, hypocrisy and the shackles that restrain the human spirit. “Only free countries are populated,” Custine observed, a timeless lesson from a fop who knew the value of free expression and whose life and work remind us that the pursuit of pleasure is often political.