Antal Szerb: The Queen’s Necklace

The story of the tastelessly overloaded diamond necklace that had been allegedly ordered by Marie Antoinette (and subsequently led to a major public scandal in 1780s France) can be found at Wikipedia. Antal Szerb’s version, written in 1943, howeve…

The story of the tastelessly overloaded diamond necklace that had been allegedly ordered by Marie Antoinette (and subsequently led to a major public scandal in 1780s France) can be found at Wikipedia. Antal Szerb’s version, written in 1943, however, goes far beyond just telling this particular bit of history: In his uniquely ironic tone, we get an extraordinarily vivid introduction to the institutional and social history of the highest echelons of the ancien régime, right before its fall.Szerb brings this time to life brilliantly. Historical characters become tangible, among them Marie Antoinette, Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois (impoverished descendant of the royal Valois family, and chief villain of the story), Cagliostro (about whom Szerb notes that he didn’t know much less about medicine than any other physician of his time), the Cardinal Rohan (whose boundless naiveté contributed greatly to the general debacle), and finally the Count of Haga (also known as Gustav III of Sweden; his political aptitude serves as a stark contrast to the French royals’ political talent). Tangible, too, the court’s customs, the functions these customs had (many of them obsolete at the time), the reaction when Marie Antoinette (daughter of Empress Maria Theresia) comes in and stages a fashion rebellion — and the ways in which the Comtesse de Saint-Rémy social engineers her way through all that.Interesting, Szerb’s observations how the court attempted to get closer to the ordinary citizens, and at the same time demystified itself, thereby maybe helping the revolution along — a theme, incidentally, that resonates in The Queen‘s recent rendition of British monarchy’s crisis around the death of Lady Diana. “The ancien régime didn’t perish so much for its vices, but for its virtues,” Szerb writes.This book is a true treasure trove for the historically interested, but never boring or dry, but always fun, entertaining, ironic, colorful. If you know to read Hungarian or German or one of the other languages it has been translated to (I’ve been unable to find an English translation), go read it.