Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755), was a small man, inclined to overestimate his own importance and that of his family, quick to take offense, slow to forgive, vigorous and vivid in his literary style and also in his hatreds -- which began at the top with King Louis XIV, in whose court at Versailles he lived (rather unhappily and uneasily) for many years.

His "Memoirs," from which the text of this book is taken, were written as an act of revenge, probably, more than as a contribution to history, but they are both and more. Saint-Simon has made his mark as one of the great gossips in all literature. He lacks the cosmic scope and poetic flair of Dante (whose "Divine Comedy" may be read as the ultimate gossip column) and the endearing gullibility of Herodotus (who invented the genre and gave it the name of "history"), but he compensates with an intensity of vision, a superbly observant and malevolent power of description, a gift for the trenchant phrase and an insatiable curiousity. And, of course, he was writing in one of the most gossip-rich times and places in the history of the world. He was not the only purveyor of gossip there; Madame de Sevigne crammed her letters with it, Bishop Bossuet slipped bits of it into his funeral orations, and La Fontaine translated it into animal symbolism in his "Fables."

Subjects of gossip included fine points of protocol; affairs domestic, foreign and amorous; the constantly shifting fortunes of courties whose happiness depended totally on the king's good will, and above all the plots and counterplots that raged around the question of who would succeed Louis if he ever died.

Saint-Simon was a member of one of the inner circles of Versailles in its heyday -- though not the innermost circles, where his wife would have been given the coveted droit du tabouret , the right to sit on a little stool in the royal presence. He was, however, highly enough regarded to be allowed frequently to hold the royal candlestick after evening prayers, and he describes the custom in a passage that illustrates his style and some of his concerns.

After prayers, he says, the king would "look around the room and call out the name of one of those present and the valet would give him the candlestick. This was considered a favor of some importance, thanks to the king's still at giving weight to the merest trifles. He usually presented the candlestick only to the noblest and most distinguished persons, and sometimes, but very rarely, to lesser men, when their age or position jusitified the honor. He often gave it to me. . . One removed one's glove, one took a step forward, one held the candlestick during the time of the coucher , which was not long; then one handed it back to the chief valet, who selected some other person to take it for the petit coucher ."

In microcosm, this little ceremony shows what Louis XIV had done (continuing the work of his father) during his long and not wholly inglorious reign. He had tamed the French nobility -- in earlier centuries as rambunctious a class of human beings as the earth had ever seen -- totally centralizing the government, investing himself with absolute power and nearly the divine attributes of a Roman emperor, drawing the formerly unruly nobles from the provinces that had been the source of their strength, keeping them at court as satellites to reflect the glory of the Sun King, alienating them from their people and occupying them instead with symbolic, ceremonial trifles and petty intrigue. For the time being, it was a masterpiece of statecraft; in the long run, it made the French Revolution inevitable.

One of the central problems in modern French history was that Louis XIV was the king of France for 72 years, outliving his son, several grandsons and a great-grandson. In his later years, which are Saint-Simon's chief subject, intrigues and factions abounded as the courtiers tried to get closed to a likely heir to the throne. The crown finally went to a sickly, 5-year-old great-grandson, beginning a period of regency that begot even more intrigues.

Saint-Simon was anything but impartial in his reporting of all this, but his partisanship adds color to his writing. He had no immediate plans for publication, and therefore was able todescribe the duc du Maine (a favorite bastard son of the king) as resembling the devil "in malice, in preversity, in unkindness to all and good to none, in sinister plotting, in sublime vainglorious ness and most subtle falseness, in conceits without number and endless dissembling."

Appalling anecdotes abound -- for example, the story of a man who sees his career crumbling because he has worn gray, a color that the king detests. Or the story of how the duchesse de Bourgogne, who was pregnant with one of the king's grandchildren, had a miscarriage because the king found her amusing and forced her to accompany him on a trip. "Why should I mind who succeeds me," was the king's reaction. "Are they not all grandchildren of mine?" Saint-Simon's comment, that "the King only loved and considered himself, and was his own prime object," may qualify him as a master not only of gossip but of understatement.

"Saint-Simon at Versailles" is as much a book of pictures as of text. The illustrations, which include a few in color, include samples of the grandiose architecture, the elaborate baroque fashions of the time in clothing and household objects, inventions and even fads -- for instance, a group of women secretly smoking pipes. The text is a small fraction of the original, which fills seven close-printed volumes in the Pleiade edition of the French text, but this abridgment includes most of the good parts.