The Death of Napoleon
The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P.
Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy
Two historical novels, one about Mesmer and the other about Napoleon, together with a book about Napoleon, The Emperor’s Last Island, that might easily (all too easily?) have become a historical novel: with such books before him the reviewer asks himself, not for the first time, what he feels about historical fiction. A theory that comes to his mind, suggested by some masterpieces in this genre, is that there is nothing historical about the historical novel. The proper subject for a historical novel, the matter with which it most naturally works, would seem to be not the past, but rather some myth about the past, some legend that we now entertain about it—that is to say a modern, not a historical, entity. It requires a historian, working with a historian’s methods, to fumble for the truth about Napoleon, and much of this truth will defy capture; but we can all of us, very completely, possess the Napoleonic myth. It is the myth of the ‘45, a shared possession, that sustains Scott’s Waverley, and again a myth, of a more complicated kind—a literary myth, about the relationship of Lotte Buffe to the Lotte of The Sorrows of Young Werther—that informs Thomas Mann’s wonderful Lotte in Weimar.
This amounts to firmly rejecting what one may call the Marguerite Yourcenar theory of historical fiction. In some notes on Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar speaks of the historical novelist as having “one foot in erudition and the other in magic: or more exactly, and without metaphor, in that sympathetic magic which consists in projecting oneself by thought into another’s inwardness.” This is the hubris, the occupational disease that can afflict historical novelists and makes us squirm sometimes at what they get up to. The fact ought to be faced: no “sympathetic magic” is, in truth, going to transport us into the “inwardness” of the dead and gone. Indeed it would be a wrong ambition, for it amounts to thinking that you can, in imagination, become somebody dead and gone, and to become somebody is not the same as to understand him, indeed it would prevent your doing so. (What would one think of an anthropologist who announced that he or she was becoming a Trobriand islander?) It had better be accepted that, to understand the past, one must content oneself, like Carlo Ginzburg and Le Roy Ladurie and Richard Cobb, with standing outside it, making inferences about it from its otherness.
But then, even assuming some loophole in this law, how peculiarly ill-equipped is the novel form, which so reeks of its own period and culture, to overleap the barriers of time! Admittedly, the dearest ambition of the novel as practiced by George Eliot or Graham Greene—such an elaborate tissue of conventions as it is, with its five “codes” (see Roland Barthes’s S/Z), its pauses and aftermaths, its dispensing of “wisdom” and cunning mimicry of time—is to pass off its form as “natural …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.