Józef Hen’s latest book is a literary portrayal of the life and reign of King Stanisław August, who is described by Polish historians as having been “the best minister of culture in history”, but who is often accused of vacillation, weakness and a political inertia that led to the fall of the Polish state. His story is told by an incisive observer and commentator on events called Gaston Fabre, the king’s French secretary and friend. Although Fabre is a fictional character, he is a probable one – his cousin is easily identifiable as the French historian Jean Fabre, a great admirer of the king who wrote a monograph about him. In the novel, some years after Stanisław August’s death, feeling that he has a mission to save the king’s good name, Gaston Fabre publishes the material he collected for years on end while in the king’s inner circle. From these notes there emerges the portrait of an enlightened, ambitious and patriotic king, conscious of his role and perfectly aware of everything that’s going on in Poland and the world at large. The author is not afraid to cast light on the king’s doubts and indecisions, which are usually passed over in silence, and the sacrifices and choices he had to make. In describing the eighteenth-century courts and the customs that prevailed there, he creates a reliable historical picture, based on documents, letters and memoirs of Stanisław August. Józef Hen (born 1932) is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. His works include novels set in wartime and in the historical past, as well as in modern times. He is an acclaimed essayist, and has written a biography of Montaigne, as well as stories about such colourful characters as Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, who was famous as a scholar, critic and translator of French literature before the war. Józef Hen’s work has been translated into 18 languages.
Reader, whoever you are, as you reach for this manuscript, I can assure you that you will find nothing but the truth in it. It will be a dramatic tale – time and again while reading your throat will tighten with emotion, and your heart will be filled with sympathy (if you have a sympathetic heart and a tender imagination). I myself, who from now on shall devote all my evenings to this work (when the household is in the embrace of sleep), shall try to moderate my own feelings and beware of fabrications. The events that did in truth take place shall suffice for us.
For a long time I hesitated, though I do not know the source of my waverings. Perhaps I was afraid of something, or maybe my faintheartedness was making itself known? But when I entered the seventy-sixth year of my life, I thought to myself: you cannot postpone it any longer, now you must hurry. Yes, I must be in time with this, it is high time to do justice to His Royal Highness. And who should do so if not I, Gaston Fabre? I had the honour of being the confidant of his thoughts and affairs. I married his women. (Even now as I write, one of them is seeing to my supper.) The children borne of them bear my name. (Two sons are in the glorious service of our Emperor.) I performed his most intimate orders. I was there at the start and I was there at the end.
I know that I cannot rely purely on memory alone. Thus I confess that from the first moments of our acquaintance I took notes, carrying them through all the storms of our era (some were certified by him, others were written by his own hand). I have copies of letters and minutes, and the written memoirs of personages who associated with him. Mr Friese – perhaps in order to salve his impaired conscience – sent me from Petersburg excerpts from the diaries that he wrote down from the king’s dictation. (I hope that in his haste the copyist did not make too many errors.) Some royal notebooks were sent to me in secret from Venice, where he was then abiding, by the young Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. (I take advantage of this occasion to thank him most warmly for his kindness.) Naturally, Monsieur Maurice Glayre has spared neither trouble nor his correspondence. So too has Signor Scipione Piattoli and all those who, though most helpful, have asked me not to mention them by name. Princess Lubomirska, the king’s cousin, allowed me to pay her a visit in Vienna, where I was witness to her senile perplexities concerning her own memories; should she give vent to belated hatred, or rather to the ardent passion of youth? She helped me greatly. Princess Izabela Czartoryska would not consent to a meeting: her letter of refusal positively snarled with anger. My loss was not great, however, for in that lady’s home the truth was never the most sacred of the household deities. Other ladies proved more willing: I soon perceived, however, that one should accept their effusions with caution – for either something had shifted in their memories, or in these tales their own likenesses were shaped according to their own desires. Some kept inquiring avidly: “And will there be something about me?” In Florence I had a meeting with Prince Stanisław Poniatowski, the king’s nephew, and one of the richest gentlemen in Europe. I did not gain much from it. He was polite (as is his nature), but during our conversation he was evasive and spoke in generalities. I carried away the impression that he is preparing his own memoirs.
Enough, I thought at last. I remember what my uncle and patron Charles de Montesquieu (of whom more will be said in this work) used to say: that one should never exhaust one’s theme in its entirety. Better not to tell the whole story, but to leave the reader some room for his own reflections.
My most important aim is for the truth to come to light. I am sure this will be the case. The slanderers will fall silent when they find out what really happened. Yet no, there are always slanderers to be found, who interpret every last fact in their own way I am concerned with people of good will, with those who crave the truth. If not in my lifetime (whose days are numbered), then in one hundred, maybe two hundred years it will come to light. I shall entrust these notes to my grandson, and he will entrust them to his. One of the Fabres will publish them at last.
And so, as old Monsieur de Montaigne (whose tower rises not far from my property) began his volume, avec Dieu! Au travail!
Saint-Émilion, 26 July 1807
*I made his acquaintance in the first days of September 1753, at the salon of Madame Geoffrin on the Rue Saint-Honoré. It was surely a Wednesday, for Madame Marie Thérèse Geoffrin received scholars and wordsmiths on Wednesdays. (She had her Monday salons reserved for artists – I never took part in those.) I was ushered there by none other a personage than Charles de Montesquieu himself, my uncle. I call him my uncle rather for the sake of simplicity, for he was in some way related to my mother – a distant cousin – and when I found myself in Paris he promised to take care of me. I noticed that this great man, who for me was a protective, kindly uncle, comported himself in society as if he had no idea in what great respect his works were held. Madame Geoffrin, however, was fully aware that he added lustre to her salon, he and the goodly encyclopaedist Monsieur d’Alembert (naturally, so did Monsieur Voltaire, if he happened to be in Paris), and so I too enjoyed her indulgence. It was this vixen (if you will please forgive the strong expression) who drew my attention to a slender, dark-haired youth, most clearly my contemporary, who was in the course of a discussion with Monsieur Fontenelle, leaning respectfully over the old gentleman as he sat in an armchair. Monsieur Fontenelle numbered almost a hundred years, and Madame Geoffrin, who greatly valued this celebrity, had sat him beside a specially imported iron stove. Now these two, the ancient author of the youthful Dialogues des Morts and the boyish arrival from Poland, with the most evident relish were holding a lively debate.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones