There is something post-decadent about Versailles in winter. The fountains are off; there are not many tourists. Everything is still fiercely geometric and over-the-top, but in this gray, expired kind of way, at least for most of the day; sunset, and the crisp, clear chill of nighttime being the exceptions. Most of the sculptures are covered with tarps, and tertiary destinations like the amphitheater and “outdoor living room” are gated off entirely. As at all times of year, there is remarkably little furniture, the bulk of it having been moved to the Louvre in the name of égalité. I spent the first five years of my career working in grand museums, and this has always been one of my favorite things about them: that they are bastions of opulence that seem morally defensible, inclusive and elite at once. Because Versailles too is now a museum, the awesomeness of its grandeur has been contextualized into an argument against itself, its ostentation forgiven as a public good. At moments it feels almost Soviet, and you can’t help but be reminded that if you trace the political spectrum far enough left or right you end up in effectively the same place.
It was a confluence of unusual circumstances that permitted me to visit mid-week in December 2016: a time that more broadly seemed to hover between decadence and post-decadence, gilded and bereft. My husband and I were living in Paris at the time, in a comfortable if unglamorous apartment in the Second Arrondissement. We were without jobs or obligations; my husband having quit a lethally intense one a few months before the election, while I’d taken a leave of absence to join him on an extended trip to Europe and to write my first novel, only too happy for a reprieve from the corporate hegemony of New York myself. What had started in July with a Downton-Abbey-marathon, wine-fueled call the number on your screen to Viking River Cruises—proud sponsors of Masterpiece—eventually fell somewhere between adult study abroad and a landed gentry honeymoon as I concocted ever-grander visions for our tour that my husband did not have the energy to protest. By the time we boarded our flight in September, we didn’t have return tickets.
So you see, in this context, the idea of springing for a few days in Versailles didn’t seem as outlandish as it might have otherwise. I daresay I felt entitled to it—entitlement being, I’m ashamed to say, a state of mind I’ve always found it a bit too easy to ingress. Not that this wasn’t an exceptional series of events in my life. It was. This was hardly standard operating procedure. But if I trace my memory for its longer patterns, I also have to admit that I have a history of forging similar exceptions. I think of the subsidized violin tours in middle school; how one of my “local host families” turned out to be an Italian countess. I spent three days at her villa, enamored of the handsomer of her two teenage sons, who drove me around the charming Venetian cittadino on his Vespa. Please understand that this was the absolute end game of desire for an adolescent girl from State College, Pennsylvania in the year 2000. The Olsen Twins made a Roman Holiday-esque movie around the same time in which this was effectively the plot.
I mention all this in relation to Versailles because if, in the same breath as the fraught aftermath of the 2016 election, I am to describe a period of such conspicuous leisure in an atmosphere this deluxe, it is important for you to understand the precise nature of my privilege; that it casts a late-afternoon shadow not entirely in keeping with its true height; that my lineal ease has been neither easy nor lineal, but wrought and deplored and clawed at possessively. There is a very specific pathology born of growing up with a surfeit of education in the absence of money, a way in which this particular amalgam tends to offer brief flashes of grandeur that breed lingering discontent—even (especially?) when you actually get what you want. I have perpetually craved landscapes like Versailles, plotted and pined for them in the longer, less obtrusive stretches of my life, and yet my actual pleasure in luxury has been tempered, incongruously, by both liberal guilt and the frantic desire for more. I’m reminded of a line in Thomas Love Peacock’s 1816 English country-house satire, Headlong Hall—a one-percent novel, if there ever was one—which might, too, have been a cardboard manifesto hanging in Zuccotti Park:
I think you must at least assent to the following positions: that the many are sacrificed to the few; that ninety-nine in a hundred are occupied in a perpetual struggle for the preservation of a perilous and precarious existence, while the remaining one wallows in all the redundancies of luxury that can be wrung from their labours and privations; that luxury and liberty are incompatible; and that every new want you invent for civilised man is a new instrument of torture for him who cannot indulge it.
The Western canon is rife with characters who test the dichotomy of liberty and luxury—Lily Bart, Isabel Archer, Emma Bovary, Gatsby—but the literary archetype here has to be of the scholarship kid at boarding school (also: me), whose ego compensates for socioeconomic insecurity by pulling moral-intellectual rank. I can remember consciously consoling myself that at least this archetype was generally the protagonist of the story, if not its author, ascending to the one percent precisely by taking it down. When I started writing my own novel, it was inevitably about them: the kind of people who I politically thought shouldn’t exist yet socially wanted to become. The kind of people, that is, who might find themselves in Versailles on Wednesday, December 14, 2016—because there’s going to be a chamber concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the Royal Opera on the following night.
We took the train from Paris and arrived at the hotel around 1:00pm, the Goldilocks of hotel arrival times: late enough that it’s likely your room will be ready, but only a leisurely lunch away from the official check-in time in the event that it’s not. In this case, I was more looking forward to the lobby anyway. My husband had booked a Pavilion Room at the Trianon Palace, which is to say not actually inside the palace at all, but rather in the Best-Western-looking “Pavilion” building on the palace grounds, offering access to all the same hotel amenities for a fraction of the price. We’re not going to Versailles to hang out in the hotel room, he’d argued when we booked it the week before. I tepidly pressed for a Palace Room on principle, but acquiesced pretty quickly; it was this sort of compounding decision that had made our present freedom feasible in the first place.
The lobby would have been spectacular in any season, with its twenty-foot arched ceilings and black-and-white tile floor. The place was, after all, modeled on the Château de Versailles. Shuttlecock-shaped chandeliers dripped from the ceiling like gargantuan icicles. In the main colonnade, elongated wingback chairs upholstered in pear-green leather framed the soaring windows in clusters of four. But in honor of the holidays, this extravagance had been outfit extravagantly. Fat, “snow”-laden trees with gilded ornaments lined the rooms’ perimeter at regular intervals. Around them, posed in fantastic diversity to offset this symmetry, were a wide variety of taxidermy animals. And I’m not just talking deer—though there was one, in grouping with a swan and a polar bear—but, like, polar bears and zebras and spiral-horned antelope. There was a shimmering peacock in full display, thrusting out its iridescent throat, so expertly preserved that I held my breath waiting for it to blink. The pièce de résistance, though, in the main rotunda, was a full-size rhinoceros ensconced by flamingos and a pair of marsupials. It was all so whimsically, stunningly macabre, like an Aubrey Beardsley drawing come to life, or an enchanted Narnian zoo—not like a museum exhibition, exactly, but akin to the cheeky reflection of one. The conceit’s inventiveness and wit prevented its opulence from veering gauche, appealing to visitors not just in an onslaught of beauty, but a sense of being in on the joke—the flattering kind born of self-deprecation. It could see it was ostentatious, I thought, and so it could be ostentatious without the negative effects of seeming so.
I’d come to see this as a theme of the original as well as the facsimile: the self-awareness of its ostentation. Prior to this visit, I’d tended to think of the three Versailles Louises as over-indulged ignorami, but that’s mostly propaganda. Louis XV was particularly learned, and an accomplished scientist, while Louis XIV was a remarkable politician, curating the spectacle of his every movement with a clear eye to public involvement and consumption. He cultivated, in other words, a self-reflexive personal brand. The daily tides of his life itself—waking up, dressing, &c.—were codified into elaborate performative rituals attended by the court, not unlike those of influencers on Instagram. People don’t mind ostentation, absolute power even, so long as there’s some way they can share in it. I think not only of Facebook but also Amazon, Uber—the “sharing economy”; this is literally their business model, the reason why we tolerate them. Lavish gates are only bemoaned when locked. Louis XIV’s heirs, however, had a diminishing tolerance for l’etat, c’est moi performance, preferring the personal power of doing as they pleased to being the public symbol of the state. It was, in a way, this gradual retreat into privacy that was the undoing of the Versailles kings.
Between the château and gardens, the park with its massive, cruciform grand canal, and the two Trianon palaces and their gardens, the Versailles complex covers more than three square miles. It was cold and raining lightly when we arrived at the estate, so we decided to explore the château itself first. We saw the state and private apartments, the Royal Chapel, the Congress Chamber; we moved through the rooms and galleries at a leisurely pace, lost in our own audioguided worlds. The Hall of Mirrors was of special interest to me, the premise of my nascent novel being a modern reinterpretation of the myth of Narcissus. It seemed impossible that there could be so much in a largely empty room. And yet, for all the Hall of Mirrors’ splendor—and, let’s be clear, few places try harder to get your attention—I could not
stop looking at myself. My fellow tourists seemed to be having the same difficulty. I’m generally inclined to roll my eyes at gratuitous selfies; they embarrass me. But in the Hall of Mirrors it was hard to tell whether the selfieists were missing the point or making it extra-emphatically, and I took one, too.
It was impossible not to also think of another narcissist here: the one who’d just won the U.S. presidential election. We’d been in Milan that night, with tickets to the opera at La Scala. It was still early evening in the States when the performance let out, so the world fell apart while we were asleep. That we learned the news in one big cruel burst rather than gradually, our hope flitting away by degrees, gave it an urgent, emergency sort of quality. I was hysterical—and I use that word deliberately. Never before had I felt so inescapably female. Misogyny is only a single side of his multifaceted bigotry, but it was the side that grasped me most reflexively. I felt personally violated by the election of Donald Trump, as if a vast swath of the American electorate had blithely let him grab my pussy. And yet, wasn’t I also complicit? My “activism” had consisted of a single Instagram photo of Hillary Clinton, and in its void I caught the cloying whiff of what SNL would subsequently dub Ivanka’s signature scent—“Complicit” indeed.
The Europeans we met in the coming days and weeks were invariably kind, offering their condolences as if a distant relative had died. But otherwise it was disquieting how, at least superficially, life went on. I mean, we took a fucking Viking River Cruise. Meanwhile, my friends back in New York described the city’s mood as post-apocalyptic; one compared it to the aftermath of 9/11. I felt guilty for being abroad, though it did provide a certain context. Marine Le Pen was in the papers, too. There’s this line from Les Mis that echoed in my mind: It is time for us all to decide who we are / Do we fight for the right to a night at the opera now? Many of the other museums we’d visited had already felt portentous—indicative that Donald Trump was not, in fact “unprecedented,” but merely the latest incarnation of a predictable megalomaniacal evil we as humans prove periodically incapable of resisting. I thought of his rallies, how at least once he’d asked his supporters to raise their right arms in allegiance, and they did. I thought of his hair, almost wig-like in its invariable, elaborate specificity; his simultaneous imperviousness and sensitivity to ridicule—his unquenchable thirst to personalize and trademark and put his name on everything. It hardly seemed like a stretch to imagine him painting the White House gold, encrusting it with crystals and mirrors. Treating it like a château.
The weather was better the next day, crisp and partly-cloudy; well-suited to exploring the Trianon Estates. The Grand and Petit Trianons are these “casual” bonus palaces where the Kings and Queens could escape the pressures of court, at least until the escape became the pressure. I like to think of them as the mullet of Versailles—they’re the party in the back. Or Mar-a-Largo, I guess, but in infinitely better taste. The Trianons have retained more of their original furniture, and even now have a festive feel in contrast to the château’s extreme formality. This is especially true of the Petit Trianon, to which Marie Antoinette was partial. I was partial to it, too. “FYI, this was what I had in mind as a little girl,” I wrote in an email to my mom that evening, above a picture of Marie’s white and pink rosette-motif bedroom there—which in isolation you’d find elaborate, but contra the château seems positively minimal. I should mention that Louis XVI presented the Petit Trianon as a gift to Marie Antoinette on his accession, and she went full HGTV on it immediately, redecorating everything precisely to suit her taste. She likewise overhauled the gardens, adding a variety of romantic gazebo-y structures and an entire fake village called the Queen’s Hamlet purely for ambiance.
Garden styles were a hotly contested issue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—they’re satirized at length in Headlong Hall—and the contrast of Marie Antoinette’s to the rigidly-manicured château grounds epitomize the contemporaneous debate. The Petit Trianon gardens are Anglo-Chinese, and at first blush you might be tempted to call them “natural.” On closer inspection, however, it’s clear that the shrubs are too artfully commingled, the asymmetries too perfect. They are Ovid’s art that conceals art; Baldassarre Castiglione’s sprezzatura; Oscar Wilde’s most irritating pose. They only give the impression of free growth, being if anything even more deliberately ordered than the exacting designs favored by the Louises. If the Kings’ gardens bend nature into art, the Queen’s rebend art back into nature. It’s the natural evolution of ostentation: the display of wealth precisely by concealing it. Hers is the more modern mode of luxury, a second-order and more sophisticated form of control.
I’m not much of a gardener, but this sort of recursive interplay in sophisticated tastes is enduringly fascinating to me, and I was still thinking about it as we walked back to the hotel to ready ourselves for the evening. I put on the same dress I’d worn to La Scala—a black wool shift with a voluminous high neck, decadent in its minimalism, chosen specifically for its impression of polish without effort. It looked more expensive than it was, passing for the kind of very expensive dress that puritanically hides its costliness—ostensibly to eschew ostentation but in reality akin to Marie’s elevated form of it: another layer of exclusion, requiring a trained eye even to process. My husband wore a tailored navy suit, which had been his uniform for work and he effected carelessly. As we crossed the cobblestone expanse from the Gate of Honor to the Royal Opera, brilliantly alight for the occasion, I couldn’t help but notice that the other patrons were outfit much the same: with showy understatement and artful nonchalance—with moral-intellectual opulence. We like to look at the old portraits in great museums and think of how needlessly restrictive their lives were, forced into coattails and corsets and all the repressive manners of the day, but in many ways we’re not so different. Our moral codes haven’t disappeared, they’ve just become more self-imposed, obfuscated by the sense that we’re choosing our own way.
The Royal Opera at the Château de Versailles at least rivals the Hall of Mirrors in elaborateness; I’m tempted to say it exceeds it, with its oval, soaring height. The opera is both unspeakably grand and not as grand as it seems. Its “marble” walls are trompe l’oeil, actually painted wood for the acoustics, while the third tier colonnade is lined with—you guessed it—mirrors; mirrors that perfectly align to reflect a suspended ring of I want to say sixteen chandeliers, creating infinitely recursive halos of phantom chandeliers in phantom colonnades. Even though the opera can be converted from a stage into a ballroom—“opening night” was the wedding banquet of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—it was used less than twenty times prior to the French Revolution on account of its prohibitive expense, consuming ten-thousand candles in a single evening. The overall effect is like being inside an enormous Fabergé egg.
We took our seats and the chamber orchestra, the Ensemble Matheus, entered to applause. After two or three warm little bows, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, both its conductor and the evening’s soloist, launched into an introduction of Antonio Vivaldi’s magnum opus, the Four Seasons. In general, I know just enough French for it to be frustrating, despite ostensibly minoring in it, but in this case I had the benefits of a particularly deft orator and prior familiarity with the subject. Unlike many of the other great Western composers, Vivaldi was not a pianist but a violinist like Spinosi—like I used to be—and I’d always felt a certain kinship with him. He spent most of his life as the music director of an orphanage, teaching violin to little girls specifically. On the same trip that I stayed with the Contessa, three other girls and I played in front of his house in Venice as a tribute.
Vivaldi’s music has a baroque mathematical lavishness, not unlike the Royal Opera itself. It’s technically challenging, but sounds even more challenging than it is; showy, but in a delightful, crowd-pleasing kind of way. Like many of the artists I most admire, his work operates on two levels, allowing it to be critically beloved yet so wildly popular that even people who haven’t heard of Vivaldi have heard Vivaldi. This is especially true of his Four Seasons. Its melodies sell BMWs, signal the ritzy scenes in Pretty Woman, and make you want to eat your television watching Chef’s Table. While many of these contemporary applications lean more toward Louis-style luxury, the four sonnets that Vivaldi originally wrote for each concerto—Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter—are markedly pastoral, far more akin to the aesthetic Marie Antoinette had in mind. The real perennial draw of the Four Seasons is its metamorphic quality: whatever story you are trying to tell, there is a passage ready to subsume and amplify its emotion and drive. And so when Spinosi enlivened these sonnets for us, calling on various members of his ensemble to highlight the trompe l’oreilles effects, if you will, of happy birds and hunting dogs chasing their pray, I also heard the blue, book-lined living room of my childhood; myself, imagining crystal chandeliers like the ones I was actually sitting under; the scenes of romance and grandeur underneath them—a concert of another concert—the mannered court around me brought to life with vivid cinematography.
There is always the risk of disappointment in luxurious experiences, of reality being set up to fail in the face of great expectation. But in this case, the concerti were transcendent, performed with such faithfully-baroque briskness and intensity that I lost the ability to distinguish between imagination and sensation, the music’s beauty overriding my self-consciousness. It was so primally illustrative of the tenuous line between fiction and reality that I would later be forced to confront how, in the absence of the modest comfort of that book-lined living room, without well-educated parents and on the wrong end of America’s woefully oblong public education system, I might well have been lulled into believing a far more insidious set of alternative facts. For what, really, did Trump do if not offer a timeworn narrative, dressed as a new one? His base forgives his ostentation as a public good. If his luxury is the price of their liberty—low taxes, ready access to assault rifles, the right not to bake a cake for two grooms—then it’s a price they’re willing to pay. When I consider why I’m so repulsed by him, yet seduced by Versailles for identical reasons, I can’t help but wonder how much of it is a question not of power, but style—that our present cultural war in America is not so much a battle between luxury and liberty as it is over their definitions; that my primary objection is less to Trump’s privilege than to the way he displays it, less to his power than what he used it to do. I too, after all, seek to inhabit fictional worlds—to build them, even. It is no coincidence that Author and authoritarian share the same root.
Winter blanketed the Royal Opera. Like the passing of the actual seasons, the concerti’s peaks are enhanced by their valleys, and I’ve always adored this undulation—their vital cyclicality. Few subjects so naturally lend themselves to playing on loop, the years echoing in an afternoon. That said, in the only context I can imagine writing this, Winter is my unequivocal favorite, its first movement being the climax of the “year.” A panty staccato builds slowly at first, Frozen and shivering in the icy snow, until the boreal soloist whips in, dueling with the orchestra for a while before uniting in a frantic run for shelter, teeth chattering through the cold. I saw Marie Antoinette pulling her mink stole close, darting across the courtyard to her chambers, cold-hot fingertips brushing those of her latest paramour. When we exited the opera, it felt like walking into the music itself, even as it broke the trance. That shattered elation of returning to the real world.
We tried to enjoy a nice breakfast the next morning, in the pear-green wingbacks of the Narnian zoo, but were tensely quiet for the most part. The taxidermy animals seemed harbingers of finality, now. Our time not just in Versailles, but also in Paris, would be ending soon. We’d booked tickets back to the States to spend the holidays with family, but didn’t have plans after that; we weren’t going back to New York. Even so, it felt like the right time to go home, in an almost patriotic sense—even if we didn’t exactly have one, and despite the not unsubtle dread of what we were returning to.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the four years since, the former President sought to become the state. “I alone can fix it,” he said, while trying to break things, not in the least the 2020 election. He very nearly succeeded, and he may yet get away with the attempt, with the ultra-eighteenth-century-sounding crime of inciting insurrection. I’m only beginning to process it. Clearly, I’m still stuck on processing 2016; trying to make sense of how he was ever elected, of a fact that still feels like a fiction. Are delusions of grandeur still properly delusions when they actually do come true?
I think back to November 2020: the news of his defeat trickles in and the networks tell me again how “unprecedented” he is. When they cut to commercial, animated Amazon boxes dance like disembodied cardboard heads, and I think of the literal guillotine protesters set up in front of Jeff Bezos’s house, if it’s possible they ordered it on Amazon. We return—unbelievably—to Rudy Giuliani madly gesticulating in front of a place called Four Seasons Total Landscaping, like he’s conducting the boreal soundtrack to his own demise, and somehow we’re back to hotly-contested topiary. The first movement of Winter is still playing in my mind as they flash to an image of the barricaded White House—its “non-scalable” fence. It’s playing again two months later when they air the Capitol’s extremely scalable lack of one, the chilling chaos of the mob. For Inauguration Day, they erect a veritable fortress—and I can’t help but see the lavish gates of Versailles, rising sternly in the gray morning as we entered the Place D’Armes for the last time, on our way to the train station; the numbing flutter in my heart as I stood there, looking through them to the château, imagining Trump Tower as a similar museum, emptied of its portraits and chairs—another vast symbol of ego and excess and folly, audioguided and contextualized—wondering if it would matter
(US Capitol image credit: Bloomberg (https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2021-biden-inauguration-logistics/)
A. Natasha Joukovsky is the author of The Portrait of a Mirror, her debut novel, forthcoming from The Overlook Press in June 2021. You can find her on Twitter @natashajouk and on Instagram @joukovsky. She lives in Washington, D.C.