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January 29, 2008

The Indispensable Talleyrand

Henrik Bering on Napoleon's Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand by David Lawday and Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France by Robin Harris


David Lawday. Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand. Thomas Dunne Books. 400 pages. £20.00

Robin Harris. Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France. John Murray. 448 pages. £30.00

The french have a fine old tradition of political side-switching. Consider François Mitterrand, the late socialist president. Having played both horses in wartime France, first as a Vichyite, then as a member of the Resistance, he went on to attack Charles de Gaulle for his imperiousness and authoritarian tendencies. After decades of striving, he finally made president himself in 1981. Gone was the humble man-of-the-people act. Sphinx-like and superior, he ruled the Republic as a modern-day Sun King, erected huge architectural monuments to himself, read complicated books, and ate tiny songbirds the size of a toe, as detailed in confidant Georges-Marc Benamou’s classic account of Mitterrand’s last supper — food and death porn rolled into one.

But when it comes to rarefied tastes and exquisite manners, including spectacular death scenes, Mitterrand is outclassed by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, whose career serves as a master class in how to stay on top in turbulent times. A scion of an ancient aristocratic family, Talleyrand sensed where the political winds were blowing and sought to place himself in the forefront of the French Revolution — until things got out of hand and the climate became positively unhealthy for former aristos. During the Terror, Talleyrand escaped abroad, only to return to Paris to become foreign minister under the Directoire, against which he conspired with a promising young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose empire he subsequently helped build. When Napoleon entered on a path to self-destruction, Talleyrand schemed with France’s enemies to stop him and get the Bourbons back on the throne. After a brief spell as prime minister under Louis xviii, he was forced to retire to his estate for a lengthy period, only to make a comeback under the “People’s Monarch,” Louis Philippe, who sent him to Britain as ambassador.

To his enemies, Talleyrand was the ultimate court viper, the prince of vice. A late contemporary cartoon shows him with six different faces, one for each regime he served. This is the mild stuff: His club foot, described by a mistress as “a horse’s hoof made of flesh ending in a claw,” was a source of endless fascination. The savage British satirist James Gillray saw it as an emblem of evil, and a female nonadmirer alludes to his satanic “limping gait . . . flashing eyes . . . snake-like mouth . . . paralysing smile, and . . . affected flatteries.”

In crisis Talleyrand was unflappable, exhibiting the kind of self-assurance that comes with centuries of privilege. This, of course, made him extra infuriating. In a celebrated incident, Napoleon, in one of his famous fits of rage, accused him of having betrayed everyone, threatened to hang him from the wrought-iron railings on la place du Carrousel, and called him “a turd in a silk stocking” before storming out. After which Talleyrand coolly remarked, “What a pity, such a great man and so ill-mannered.”

To his enemies, Talleyrand was the ultimate court viper, the prince of vice. A late contemporary cartoon shows him with six different faces, one for each regime he served.

He was a compulsive intriguer for whom treachery was very much a relative term: “They think that I am immoral and Machiavellian, yet I am simply impassive and disdainful. I have never given perverse advice to a government or a prince, but I do not go down with them. After shipwrecks, you need pilots to rescue the shipwrecked. I stay calm and get them to port somewhere. No matter which port, as long as it offers shelter.”

Even in an age less easily shocked than ours, his venality was legendary: He collected douceurs in order to use his influence to obtain more favorable terms for Napoleon’s defeated enemies. Chateaubriand, one of his fiercest critics, wrote: “When M. de Talleyrand is not conspiring, he is trafficking.”

Napoleon, in a rage, threatened to hang him and called him “a turd in a silk stocking.” Talleyrand coolly remarked, “What a pity, such a great man and so ill-mannered.”

While accepting his help, France’s opponents were understandably wary of him, as the appraisal of the Austrian diplomat Count Metternich suggests: “Men such as M. de Talleyrand are like sharp instruments it is dangerous to play with. But great wounds require great remedies. He who treats them must not fear to use the instrument that cuts the best.”

Would-be biographers should not expect great help from his own memoirs. This is, after all, the man who wrote, “The first of all qualities in life is the art of showing only a part of oneself, of one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, one’s impressions,” and who liked to note that “man was given the power of speech to conceal his thoughts.” In line with Duff Cooper’s classic Talleyrand from 1932, David Lawday in Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand hails him as a master politician and true patriot who helped rid the world of Napoleon. “In all but the cut of the sabre it is Talleyrand quite as much as the Duke of Wellington who halts Napoleon,” Lawday writes.

Robin Harris, in his Talleyrand: Betrayer and Saviour of France, is more guarded, seeing his statesmanship as “over-favourably regarded in the new era of European integration.” Rather than looking for continuity in his career, Harris looks for contradictions: “To get to the bottom of his character is in one sense futile, because there is no bottom.” This makes for a less smooth but not less interesting tale. Together, these books offer the best bid in English to understand a man whom, in Lawday’s words, “common morality did not concern.”

In tracing the career of Talleyrand, born in 1754, Lawday appropriately starts by nailing a lie: Namely, how he got the club foot for which he wore a metal brace all his life. In his memoirs, Talleyrand claims this came about because his nurse dropped him. This is not true. It was a congenital birth defect, which cost him his position as heir to the family estate. That left a career in the church, for which the young Talleyrand saw himself as utterly unsuited. But he consoled himself with the knowledge that both Richelieu and Mazarin had been products of the church as well. He took vows as an abbot in Rheims, but thanks to lax residency requirements moved to Paris, where he frequented all the fashionable salons.

Paris of the 1780s was a center of intellectual ferment, and while Talleyrand himself was rising in the church hierarchy, he became close to Mirabeau, the greatest orator of the Revolution. When, in 1789, a meeting of France’s Estates-General was called — where the three estates, the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners were to meet to save France from bankruptcy — Talleyrand, now a bishop thanks to ability and connections, wrote a manifesto on behalf of his diocese, in which he called for a constitutional monarchy and an elected parliament, with the attendant guarantees of freedom of expression and protection of the rights of the individual.

Having sided with the third estate, he went on to help the Revolutionaries nationalize church property and bring an end to Catholicism as the state religion. This, for a time, secured him the favor of the left, while earning him his excommunication by Pope Pius vi. But covering all bases, he was also conducting a secret correspondence with Louis xvi, urging him to accept a limited monarchy and to use force against the rabble, which the timid king refused.

To improve the image of the Revolution, Talleyrand was sent to Britain, no easy task, given the impact of Edmund Burke’s hostile Reflections on the Revolution in France. When he returned to argue for an upgrade of the mission, he found that things had further escalated: The “war on kings” which the Assembly had declared would further complicate French diplomacy, as would the massacre of the king’s Swiss guards and the imprisonment of the royals; it fell upon Talleyrand to write the justification for this. He labeled the king a traitor to the Constitution.

But when Robespierre and his cronies took charge, a man with Talleyrand’s background had no chance of escaping the guillotine. He managed to obtain a passport to London, and the slaughter commenced the day after. From London, he wrote a memorandum warning the French foreign ministry against an aggressive French policy, dismissing all expansion of territory as only “the cruel jest of political lunacy” undertaken “for the passing interest or for the vanity of those who govern,” an amusing statement in view of his later service as Napoleon’s foreign minister.

He was not overly happy in America, with its rough-and-ready ways, but his fancy manners did not prevent him from traveling to Niagara Falls, dressed in buckskin like a slightly perfumed Daniel Boone.

With the execution of Louis and the French declaration of war on Britain, Holland, and Spain, a fiendishly clever foreigner linked with the Revolution was deemed a security risk, “deep and dangerous,” in William Pitt’s words. Talleyrand was listed as an undesirable, and had to board ship for the United States.

Predictably, he was not overly happy in America, with its rough-and-ready ways and primitive food. Seeing a planter’s wife throw her coarse felt hat onto an exquisite Sevres porcelain chair from Versailles which had somehow ended up in exile in Philadelphia sent him into aesthetic shock. But his fancy manners did not prevent him from traveling to Niagara Falls, dressed in buckskin like a slightly perfumed Daniel Boone, to buy real estate, a trip he described as a descent into primitivism and regression: “one sinks lower and lower.” And they did not keep him from making some astute observations: He predicted that the rift between Britain and America would quickly heal because of their cultural and linguistic ties, and he also foresaw America’s future greatness.


In the summer of 1794, Robespierre was overthrown and executed; through the diligent efforts of his friend Madame de Staël, Talleyrand’s name was subsequently removed from the list of conspirator émigrés and he was free to return, which he did in September 1796. The five-man Directoire, now in charge, offered him the post of minister of foreign affairs. Once again it was his mission to improve France’s image abroad, this time complicated by a general named Bonaparte who was making mincemeat of the Austrians in Italy.

Talleyrand immediately realized that the corrupt Directoire was not a very stable construct, and upon taking office he wrote the triumphant new general, congratulating him on his victories. For all his brilliance, Napoleon, coming from minor Corsican gentry, was a bit of an arriviste and in awe of Talleyrand’s background. After Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian adventure, which Talleyrand had initially supported, they plotted to overturn the Directoire and replace it with a three-man Consulate, with Napoleon very much the first consul.

According to Lawday, Talleyrand at first thought he could control Napoleon, and from the start urged moderation. After the pivotal battle of Marengo, he observed: “Two roads are open to him — the federal system which leaves each ruler, after his defeat, still master of his own territory on conditions favourable to the victor.” Or the other road, on which Napoleon would continue conquering and incorporating. “If so, he will enter on a course to which there is no end.”

In the early days, their working relationship was excellent. Talleyrand wrote later, “I loved Napoleon, I was even attached to his person, despite his flaws. At the start I felt drawn to him by the irresistible attraction that belongs to great genius. His generosity found me sincerely grateful. Why deny it? I bathed in his glory and in the glow it conferred on those who helped him in his noble task.”

Talleyrand thus played a crucial role in shoring up the foundation of Napoleon’s regime. With the continuous plots to assassinate Napoleon, they both saw the need to create legitimacy and stability by reestablishing monarchical institutions. Talleyrand preferred the title of king, but Napoleon fancied “emperor,” with its whiff of ancient Rome — so emperor it was. As Lawday notes, during the preparations, Talleyrand had to use all his vaunted powers of self-restraint not to burst out laughing upon finding the emperor-to-be barefoot in a swarm of bees — Napoleon was trying out his new self-designed coronation outfit, which was embroidered head to foot with golden bees, his chosen symbol. And David’s painting of Napoleon’s coronation ceremony shows Talleyrand with a discreet smile on his face, suggesting a certain bemused distance.

A darker side to Talleyrand comes through in the case of the murder of the Duke d’Enghien, a Bourbon prince who lived peacefully just across the border in the German state of Baden. Seeing the duke as a threat to his regime, Napoleon sent soldiers across the border to kidnap him and had him executed after a mock trial, an act Talleyrand was later said to have characterized as “worse than a crime, a mistake.” Talleyrand’s enemies accused him of hatching the idea — as did Napoleon himself on several occasions — but he claimed only to have been present at the deliberations, and only to have dealt with the diplomatic consequences. Lawday, as Cooper before him, tends to accept Talleyrand’s argument that violence would be uncharacteristic of him — and counterproductive, to boot, for a man who always kept all options open, as this would further damage him with the Bourbons. Harris, for his part, does not buy this and argues forcefully for Talleyrand’s culpability. Significantly, as Lawday concedes, this is the one point in his memoirs where Talleyrand loses his cool and becomes passionate.

As to the Talleyrand style, throughout his career he remained a man of l’ancien régime, very much, Lawday suggests, like a character out of the decadent world portrayed in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “Those who did not live during the years close to 1789 do not know the pleasure of living,” Talleyrand once declared. With his courtly manners, he cut an unlikely figure among the wild and hairy sans-culottes, and also stood out in Napoleon’s court among the marshals, who mostly came from modest backgrounds. Bestowing fancy titles on his military men was a deliberate attempt on Napoleon’s part to bring about national reconciliation, by creating a new aristocracy and grafting it onto what was left of the old, but Talleyrand in his heart only respected the decorations of the old regime.

The finer things in life mattered greatly to Talleyrand. His library was one of the best in France. A visitor described him among his books:

I often found him in his library surrounded by people who either liked or were engaged in literature. Nobody can talk like M. de Talleyrand in a library; he takes up a book and puts it down again, contradicts it, leaves it and returns to it, questions it as though it were a living being, and this procedure both enriches his conversation with the profundity and the experience of the ages and gives to the works in question a grace which their authors often lacked.

He naturally surrounded himself with beautiful women. “His great attraction is largely due to the vanity of others,” asserted one. “I was caught by it myself. The day he deigns to speak to you he seems charming, and if he inquires after your health you are prepared to love him.” This may be slightly unfair: He genuinely liked women, and they served a useful political purpose, as he would influence events through the salons of his women admirers. Here he spread the stories he wanted spread, and here his latest bons mots circulated.

In conversation, he was a master of the elegant put-down, the compliment with the hidden sting: “If his conversation was for sale, I should ruin myself,” his friend Madame de Staël wrote, while about her officiousness he remarked: “She is such a good friend that she would throw all her acquaintance into the water for the pleasure of fishing them out again.”

“In conversation I let a thousand things run by to which I have only a banal reply,” he told Napoleon. “What runs between my legs, though, I never miss.”

Asked by Napoleon for the secret of his success, he compared it to Napoleon’s own careful preparations before battle. “Well, Sire, I choose my ground for conversation. I accept it only when I have something to say. For the rest I do not reply. As a hunt, I only ever fire when I am within six feet, when I have a sure kill. In conversation I let a thousand things run by to which I have only a banal reply. What runs between my legs, though, I never miss.”

As to his way of handling Napoleon, knowing the Corsican’s temper, Talleyrand realized that tackling him head-on would be counterproductive. And he was certainly not averse to using what Henry Kissinger described as “obsequious excess” in his own relationship with Richard Nixon, as instanced in his drivelling to Napoleon: “I am not whole when I am apart from you.” But Talleyrand was the only one of Napoleon’s minions who was not afraid of him and who represented a real challenge to him intellectually.

Describing the workings of his foreign ministry, he stated “You will find them loyal, intelligent, accurate and punctual, but thanks to my training, not at all zealous, ” adding, “Yes, except for a few junior clerks who, I am afraid, close up their envelopes with a certain amount of precipitation, every one here maintains the greatest calm, hurry and bustle are unknown.” This was, of course, especially important when serving an impetuous master like Napoleon. Often, Talleyrand simply sat on the correspondence to give Napoleon a chance to change his mind.

Organizing big events was one of Talleyrand’s talents, and Napoleon made him Imperial Grand Chamberlain, his master of ceremonies. Napoleon also gave him in 1803 the chateau of Valençay to entertain in, his own private mini-court. His table was the best in France, with the famous chef Carême in charge of the kitchen. Talleyrand described eating as “a form of government,” and the waiters were expected to report back on the conversations they overheard.

Rarely getting up before eleven, having played whist until far into the night, he held public levees where he would hold forth on the topics of the day, while servants powdered his wig. His club foot would be bathed, and in a curious ritual, he would snort warm water through his nostrils “like an elephant from his trunk” to prevent colds, perhaps one of his less elegant habits.

The central contradiction of Talleyrand’s career, Lawday notes, is that while an advocate of stability, firm peace treaties, and peaceful trade, he was helpful to Napoleon, who stood for anything but. To Napoleon, peace treaties were just temporary breathers, and his peace terms would change according to the fortunes of his campaigns: “Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest alone can maintain me.”

In his memoirs, Talleyrand himself charted the beginning of their separation when Napoleon also proclaimed himself king of Italy, thereby ensuring permanent conflict with Austria. It deepened when Napoleon beat the Austrians at Ulm in 1805. Here Talleyrand recommended that the emperor treat the Austrians — whom he saw as Europe’s bulwark against the Russians — generously. But Napoleon again would not listen, accusing Talleyrand of being too soft on France’s enemies — and ending any illusions on Talleyrand’s part that he could control Napoleon.

A more principled man might have gone back to his estate, but that would mean losing money and titles, which was not Talleyrand’s way. Instead, he began cooperating with Napoleon’s enemies to put a brake on him. In 1805, Count Metternich informed his masters in Vienna, “M. de Talleyrand conceived a plan to oppose with all his influence as foreign minister the destructive projects undertaken by Napoleon.”

The split became final with Napoleon’s intervention on the Iberian peninsula in November 1807, undertaken to enforce his blockade of England. Napoleon thought he would be greeted as a liberator, but instead found himself involved in a messy and disastrous guerrilla war, appearing for the first time to the rest of Europe as vulnerable.

Talleyrand’s role in the Spanish adventure is particularly murky. He claimed to have warned Napoleon against it, while Napoleon later accused him of being one of its architects.

At this point, Talleyrand formed an alliance with his former opponent Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s police minister, an ex-Jacobin with plenty of blood on his hands. They both saw Napoleon as heading towards disaster, and began quite openly to cooperate to thwart his purposes. It was rumors of this alliance that made Napoleon hasten back from Spain to give Talleyrand the famous “turd in a silk stocking” dressing-down.

Talleyrand’s role in the Spanish adventure is particularly murky. He claimed to have warned Napoleon against it, while Napoleon later accused him of being one of its architects, and of chickening out when the going got rough. Cooper sees the invasion of Spain as running directly counter to Talleyrand’s views on military conquest, but as both Lawday and Harris point out, he supplied Napoleon with the dynastic rationale he needed for the assault. The Spanish issue shows Talleyrand “at his most opaque,” Lawday writes.

Talleyrand made a final comeback in 1830, when he was sent to London as the French ambassador to get recognition for Louis Philippe, who was known abroad as King of the Barricades because of his populist appeal, and to quiet fears of a new French revolution.

In the summer of 1807, Talleyrand had actually resigned as foreign minister, pleading health reasons, but he had kept his other functions and remained part of Napoleon’s inner circle. And despite his annoyance with Talleyrand, Napoleon again sought his services for the summit with Czar Alexander at Erfurt. Napoleon was anxious to secure Russian support in case Austria should stir while he was engaged in Spain. Here Talleyrand directly sabotaged Napoleon’s plans, ensuring that no such guarantee would be given: Every evening, he would brief Alexander, with the czar taking notes, and supply him with countermoves against Napoleon, a course which Cooper dubs “treachery, but treachery on a magnificent scale,” undertaken in the interests of France.

In the following years, Talleyrand steadily supplied the Austrians with details of French plans and war-readiness reports — and received payment for it. Napoleon still won at Wagram in 1809, but his losses were mounting, culminating in disaster in Russia in 1812. In 1813, having obtained proof of Talleyrand’s freelancing, Napoleon confronted him, again threatening him with death and damnation. “The emperor is charming this morning,” was his only reply.

Napoleon, though he would rant and rave, always had a soft spot for Talleyrand. In 1814, with the allied armies closing in on him, he exclaimed, “If only Talleyrand were here he would get me out of it,” and, at another point, “I forgive Talleyrand, because I treated him badly. My affairs went well all the time Talleyrand ran them. He is the man who best knows Europe and France.”

Talleyrand last saw Napoleon at Fontainebleau on January 23, 1814, the day the defeated emperor took leave of his ministers. With Napoleon packed off to Elba, Talleyrand was in charge of France. Restoring legitimacy was his main concern: He managed to scuttle Napoleon’s last gambit of having his son installed in a regency; everything was now in place for the return of the Bourbons. Admittedly, Louis xviii was immensely fat and gout-ridden and out of touch: He wanted to get rid of the tricolor and pretended he was in the nineteenth year of his reign, as if Napoleon had been just an evil dream. Hardly ideal material, but the best there was.

As Louis’s foreign minister, Talleyrand signed the Treaty of Paris. Successfully arguing that an unhumiliated France was better for Europe, he managed to secure for France its pre-revolutionary borders. This made him hated in France, but as Lawday notes, it was quite an achievement, as it kept the country together, escaped war indemnities, and ended the military occupation.

With France’s borders settled, he attended the Congress of Vienna — the purpose of which was to sew the rest of Europe together again. With France initially excluded from the councils, he had a very weak hand; but, ably assisted by his cook, a miniature artist, and a pianist brought along to create mood, he played it brilliantly, maneuvering the victorious nations against one another, and gaining France a position at the table as one of the great powers. His aim was to create a balance of power, making aggression unfeasible. To this purpose, he sought an alliance with Britain and Austria, the aim of which was to keep Russia out of Europe.

Napoleon had his final 100 days of mayhem, of course, but they ended at  Waterloo. Louis was reinstalled on the throne (after having hightailed it to the border), and Talleyrand became head of government and foreign minister.  He made Louis sign a declaration admitting to mistakes, but Talleyrand’s constitutional model got watered down, and he only lasted three months in office. Louis felt uncomfortable with his supercilious ways, and as Cooper writes, “gratitude was not a Bourbon virtue.” “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” Talleyrand said of them. Though keeping his ceremonial title, he was out of office for the next 15 years.

Showing his shabby side, upon leaving office Talleyrand offered to sell foreign ministry archives containing Napoleon’s diplomatic correspondence to the Austrians — who, after having copied them, returned the crate with a polite thanks, but no thanks. And in his attempts to return to power he at various points plotted both with the extreme royalists and the liberal opposition, laying himself “at no point more open to the charge of being false to his principles,” as even Cooper, his apologist-in-chief, admits.

Talleyrand made a final comeback in 1830, when he was sent to London as the French ambassador to get recognition for Louis Philippe, who was known abroad as King of the Barricades because of his populist appeal, and to quiet fears of a new French revolution. Now he worked to “establish at last that alliance of France and England that I have always considered to be the firmest guarantee of the happiness of the two nations and of peace in the world” — with such enthusiasm that the former undesirable was now known almost affectionately among the Brits as “old Talley.”

What does it all add up to? The problem with the cruel, clever people portrayed in Les Liaisons Dangereuses is that while exhilarating to watch for a while, pure intelligence without some kind of value system becomes tedious, pointless — indeed, stupid — leading to despair and death. So does an amoral, lawless political universe. The world becomes a chaotic place. And Talleyrand was an intelligent man.

Despite his shiftiness and his willingness to trim as circumstances dictated, he was, in the words of Metternich, “a man of systems.” And like Cooper before him, Lawday traces certain consistent themes in his career: His belief in freedom of the press and in constitutional government, and his concern for legitimacy: “The legitimacy of kings, or to put it better, of governments, is the safeguard of nations. That is why it is sacred,” Talleyrand wrote. And he rightly linked peace with democracy.

An admirer of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, he was an advocate of free trade, for which good relations with Britain were necessary, and which he saw as “the key to peace in Europe.” His admiration for Britain’s system of government was profound. To one of his lady friends, Madame de Rémusat, he once said, “Get this into your head. If the English constitution is destroyed, the civilisation of the world will be shaken in its foundations.”

According to Lawday, “his ‘treason’ exists in defending civilized values through thick and thin, against all odds. . . . It is his legacy and it is a large one, not just for France.” Europe today is thus very much how Talleyrand conceived it. Robin Harris is unwilling to go that far. In his view, though he had some clever insights, Talleyrand’s tragedy was that he was “for so long unsuccessful in achieving the sort of regime that he wanted.” Harris cites Chateaubriand: “He signed events, he did not make them”; and he quotes Rémusat: “What will damage his historical reputation is that he founded nothing. Nothing remains that comes from him.”

Fittingly, talleyrand’s last negotiation was with the church, “his ultimate negotiation with God,” as Lawday terms it. In 1838, aged 84 and with death approaching, he sought reconciliation with the pope, pressed by his granddaughter Pauline. He certainly had something to atone for, as his life can be read as one long offense against the church, both in his private and his public acts.

For weeks, he went back and forth over his past with his confessor. In a letter to Pope Gregory xvi, he expressed his loyalty to the head of the Catholic Church, but blamed his parents for entering him into a profession he was not suited for. Many of his actions he blamed on the chaotic spirit of the times, but he did “deplore the acts in my life that had aggrieved” the church.

On his deathbed, he spent days reviewing the document, and he refused to be hurried. “Go away, Pauline. Be still. I have never done anything fast, and yet I have always arrived on time.” At the appointed time, he signed it, and had it backdated to a week after his last great public speech, so nobody could say he had gone soft in the brain. Thus he can be said to have acted entirely in character. The question is, of course, how impressed God is by devilish cunning and exquisite taste.


Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.