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From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous

Napoleon Symphony

by Anthony Burgess
Knopf, 366 pp., $7.95

In the fertility of his enterprise, his louche congenial knockabout confidence, Mr. Burgess may remind us of one of those Elizabethan professionals, like Nashe or Deloney, who tried their hands at practically every species of literary composition, always coming up with something readable and rewarding, but curiously unsettling too, as if their freewheeling methods cast a kind of doubt on the more accepted kinds of literary achievement. There is a sense in which The Unfortunate Traveller, for instance, deflates the artificial pretension of The Shepheardes Calender or Venus and Adonis so that we feel—not so much “Ah, here is life at last,” as “Why do Spenser and Shakespeare have to go to those lengths to get it into literature?” The effect is deceptive. Burgess, no less than Nashe, is an artificer in his own line, but he does not seem to take us so far from presentness and actuality as do in their various ways James Joyce or Scott Fitzgerald or Saul Bellow or Anthony Powell.

This is only partly a compliment. Such “real authors” (if one may rather uncivilly beg the question) as those I mention work the magic in two ways: by making contingency itself into form—thus removing us from its actual daily pressures—and by removing all traces of the workshop from our immediate gaze. Mr. Burgess, whenever we remeet him in a literary setting, seems to be standing knee-deep in the shavings of new methods, grimed with the metallic filings of bright ideas. A Clockwork Orange, for example, was a book which no one could take seriously for what was supposed to happen in it—its plot and “meaning” were the merest pretenses—but which contained a number of lively notions, as when his delinquents use Russian slang and become murderous on Mozart and Beethoven. In a work by Burgess nothing is connected necessarily or organically with anything else but is strung together with wires and pulleys as we go.

Thus we can discount at once the claim, hopefully supplied by the blurb, that what we have here is “a grand and loving tragicomic symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte.” The symphonic stuff—a novel in four movements and so on—is no more than bits of string, and it is one of the many endearing things about this author that he does not really bother us (and possibly irritate us) by pretending it is anything else. He is as enterprising as Nabokov, but his flair does not need pretension to keep it going: he is not an aesthete but a man of letters. Why should he have wanted to write about Napoleon? Probably because of the interesting technical challenge involved—an almost impossible challenge, but writers like Burgess and his predecessors are not worried about finicky matters of possibility provided they can keep a work-shop going and amuse themselves and their public.

Burgess is immensely well informed; he has read everything on the period, and relished it. His fondness for Napoleon in some sense echoes the strange obsessive reverence paid by Kafka and Henry James, whose diaries are full of meditations on the great man’s doings—James, indeed, in his last days, had Marbot’s memoirs constantly beside his bed. All writers are apt to admire men of power and decision who alter the face of Europe with a few battles and a few strokes of the pen, but Burgess’s interest in Napoleon, like that of his in some sense predecessors Tolstoy and Hardy, is less with the facts and the fascination of power than with the psychology and motive of the period that let him get away with it, wooed him, applauded him, and finally had enough.

For Tolstoy Bonaparte was the supreme egotist (and egotism was a subject Tolstoy knew all about) who opposed himself to the processes of life—life being represented by the Russian family. Mr. Burgess takes a simpler and more down-to-earth view of the matter: his Napoleon is reminiscent, it must be admitted, of his portrait of Shakespeare in an earlier historical fantasy, and both have a good deal in common with the durable figure of Enderby, the protofigure of many of Burgess’s fictions. They are, that is to say, observant, civilized, distracted, victimized, and endowed with a rich stream of consciousness. Burgess’s Napoleon is always being got at by someone in the imperial entourage; generals have a go under their breath on the subject of his many failings; Josephine despises and cuckolds him; Marie-Louise patronizes him; but he is really much nicer than any of them. In the background is Leopold Bloom, image of what we all are or would like to be, no doubt, in and to ourselves, and archetype of what I am afraid would have to be described—in view of later developments—as the new permissiveness in characterization.

Mr. Burgess’s very wide knowledge of and sensibility to literature (inside this kind of writer an autodidact don is always struggling to get out) makes him an admirable popularizer of works by—to risk the phrase again—“real authors,” and he has adapted the Joycean stream of consciousness to a popular level for almost any use, Napoleon Symphony is in a good and modest sense a popular novel, using highbrow techniques in a not too demanding way, and throwing in plenty of eating (chicken marengo after the battle and Napoleon’s favorite Chambertin), sex, and jokes, with all the agreeably ghoulish details of battlefields and frozen corpses. Seriousness of vision there is none, nor can there be any attempt at subtlety of insight. Facility—and Bloomian good nature—are all. Here, to illustrate the point, is Napoleon on the Queen of Prussia:

There was a moment, Talley-rand—“ He mused, amused, bemused.

(One must interpolate at this point that one of Mr. Burgess’s more self-indulgent practices is a kind of verbal doodling, less Joycean than laxly Euphuistic and Elizabethan, which sometimes cannot be restrained from breaking out into sections of verse, not seriously intended, one assumes, to underwrite the symphonic image, or to be admired in their own right, but to jolly along the pleasantly undemanding associations of Hardy’s Dynasts or Tchaikovsky’s Overture.)

She was sitting in her carriage, waiting, while the King was having a final word with young Alexander. Eyes full of tears, smiling bravely, so beautiful and so much alone—because that long-faced bastard she’s married to is no good to man, beast, woman, Prussia, or anything else. There was a moment, I say, when I nearly jumped in there and gave her what she so obviously needed—passionate kisses on mouth and neck and bosom, a pair of strong arms around her. And then, of course, she would have gone on about dear suffering Prussia, and then I would have said, Oh, have it all back, poor angel, what is a kingdom compared to a woman’s tears? The world well lost, there’s a play about that, I think. But I was strong, Talleyrand, I did not yield.”

This is boneless stuff, no skeleton of point beneath it. Is it irony? he was not strong. Or pity? the great cannot yield to their impulses and be human. Or a demonstration of the common-place? history is a bundle of trivial and misshapen needs and muffled impulses. All that really emerges is that Napoleon is nicer than Talleyrand—the Blazes Boylan of the book—and must be so, because it is his consciousness that author and reader inhabit. Mr. Burgess’s problem, which he cannot be said to have solved, is that his more informed readers cannot really need this kind of thing to imagine themselves into the Napoleonic era, while all the sound knowledge—of corps commanders, horse batteries, Continental System—which he strews so prodigally but inconspicuously around cannot do much to edify his more popular readership.

On the other hand the book is genuinely funny at times, and it is then that history virtually becomes bunk for Mr. Burgess. A picaresque Everyman takes over, finding himself (as picaresque heroes and Marx brothers do) in situations that are none of his making and certainly not to be understood by him. And here Mr. Burgess does catch the tail of a certain imaginative truth, seen in historical perspective. Napoleon did not know he would win Marengo and lose Waterloo; Alexander had no intuition that he would find himself a hero after the retreat from Moscow. The reader knows the score of the symphony but the players do not, and the fun of this to some extent saves the day, for in works whose pretensions cannot be taken very seriously by anyone, the author least of all, it is humor that must—and often can—step in with the meaning. Here are Napoleon and Alexander dividing their global interests on the famous raft on the river Niemen.

…”One of our philosophers has said that the deeper purpose of war is nothing more terrifying than a need to communicate.”

Really? Interesting.” N looked warily at Alexander, something of an intellectual then, a bit of a nuisance, might come up with other intellectual gobbets like Who controls Poland controls the world.

There is a suggestion of Nixonian grotesque, and for good measure Napoleon feels physically attracted to Alexander, touches his “bony knee, a boy’s”; gives him sound advice about the leadership of men, and finds that even he is slightly abashed by so much hero worship.

How do you do it?” Alexander asked. “Can it be taught? Could I, for instance, learn it? Your really incredible record of military achievement—“

Well,” N said modestly, “you have to have a certain talent for it.”

Alexander’s tone (“Could I, for instance, learn it?”) is just right, and the spirited brio of the scene suggests that Mr. Burgess had Shakespeare’s scene on Pompey’s galley in mind—not a bad model if you feel up to taking a crack at it. The sentiment of the troops who struggle back across the Berezina is rendered in a more straightforwardly Joycean idiom, which gets the authentic army note of pith mixed with wind.

Apprise the men of the inevitable difficulties of the constructive task that lies ahead, laying particular emphasis on the need for the utmost in improvisatory skill and stressing the importance of speed, General Eblé said…. Sergeant Rebour said: Right lads, as you know, we lost the fucking pontoon train…. The primary need, General Eblé said, is to obtain the requisite structural materials and this will certainly entail the demolition of civilian housing in the adjacent township…the only way to get it is to pull down all those fucking houses.

All good fun, even if it isn’t quite war, as one of the next Napoleon’s generals more or less remarked in the course of the next contest. After the retreat from Moscow Napoleon said that from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step: he did not, however, add that they are both the same thing. Mr. Burgess is far too intelligent and thoughtful a writer not to have reflected on the curious fact that we can no longer render the past in terms of its pomp and circumstance, the sublime as well as the ridiculous. We can only do it—perhaps we can only do ourselves too?—as creatures of fantasy and farce.

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