The hunchback and the dandy
Armand de Bourbon, Prince de Conti, is nineteen years old. Physically and morally, he is a misfit. This doesn’t pass without comments by his contemporaries:
“He was an absolute nullity thriving just on the fact that he was a Prince of Royal Blood. He was intensely jealous of his elder brother (Prince de Condé) whom he was incapable to match. He was plagued with his physical deficiency and full of wickedness, drowning all his other qualities, which were nothing but mediocre. He was a man of extremes, simple to influence. One had only to flatter his vanity and he ordered whatever one had in mind to be carried out instantly. This weak and thoughtless prince tickled his vanity by letting everyone believe that he slept with his sister whom he loved with an extraordinary passion. He was slandered on the walls of Bordeaux as a bad ecclesiastic who had better read his breviary than frolic with his own sister.”
Such is the new master of Jean-François Sarasin.
From the very beginning, the relationship between the poet and the prince is complicated and ambiguous. Sarasin feels his intellectual and physical superiority and harbours resentment over his social inferiority. This strikingly handsome man, tall and well-proportioned, praised by his contemporaries as a great socialite, this most entertaining, spiritual and charming person whose sole ambition is to please and who succeeds in it admirably well, has to yield to the caprice of an adolescent, his inferior in all but fortune and birth, two things that Conti never forgets to stress. They are chained one to the other by their inadequacies; Conti by his incapacity to amuse himself by his own means, Sarasin by his lack of financial resources.
“Sarasin’s wit and charm made him welcome to the Prince.”
Thick as thieves, neither Sarasin nor Conti will let an occasion pass by without dealing a blow to the other. Sarasin, in charge of Conti’s estate and thus knowing the secrets of his affairs, persuades the prince to borrow money from Monsieur de Candale not only unnecessarily but on very unfavourable terms. Conti never misses an opportunity to show who is the master and scoffs at Sarasin whenever possible. In the presence of the courtiers he calls the poet a crook and a swindler. He affirms that, instead of giving him a letter of credit, he should give him a letter of discredit. On the other hand, he does not hesitate to entrust to Sarasin a matter of such importance as his own marriage with Marie de Mancini, Mazarin’s niece that saved Conti after the defeat of the Fronde.
It is one of destiny’s ironies that Sarasin, who had left Paul de Gondi to stay out of politics, is caught up in the very thick of the riots of the Fronde, right from the beginning of his time at Conti’s and, against his will, becomes one of its important actors.
“Nothing is as contradictory to a man of mind as civil war,” he complains in one of his letters.
The Fronde, this revolting farce, which Sarasin’s contemporary perform with a morbid pleasure and on which Sarasin stakes his reputation, his talent and his life, is, without any doubt, the last role that the poet would have wished to take. He shrinks back in horror from the battlefield. This landscape has nothing in common with the fields and the meadows, converted into lovely parks for the pleasure of the précieux, who loath roughness and crudity more than they can bear.