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,” as a transparency and not a form at all. But this confidence trick is dubious enough even in novels with a contemporary setting (it was too much of a confidence trick for Proust and Joyce); it must then be a hundred times more so in a historical novel. From sheer self-respect we jib at the claim to be shown Jugurtha or the Ghibelline League as through a plate of glass—at the pretension that where all else is remote and alien, the “inward” and psychological can be reached by sheer intuition.
Moreover, this conventional novel form suffers grievously when put to work in the historical mode. Umberto Eco, in some “marginalia” to The Name of the Rose, is funny about the woes of the historical novelist, with his chronic need to be remedying his reader’s ignorance without the reader noticing. Through his narrator, the monk Adso, says Eco, he makes much use of the figure of rhetoric known as “preterition”: the one with which, by saying, “I shall not refer to the wellknown victories of Julius Caesar,” one manages in fact to refer to them. Writing, as he is, a sort of anti-historical novel, Eco can get away with such ploys, even make charming capital out of them. It is not so, alas, with George Eliot in Romola, where the admirable form of The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch is grievously wrenched and maltreated, out of the sheer brute need to force-feed the reader with information. The novel is stretched to breaking point between its two claims: that fifteenth-century Florence needs a lot of explaining, a lot of filling-in of local color, if we are not to condemn it for not being Victorian England; and conversely (a truth supposedly vivid to the novelist above all others) that Renaissance Florence is ultimately no different from anywhere else, humanity being everywhere the same. “The great river-courses which have shaped the lives of men have hardly changed; and those other streams, the life-currents that ebb and flow in human hearts, pulsate to the same great needs, the same great loves and terrors.” The fruit of the first of these claims is a bent toward “typicality”—we shall be given a “typical” Florentine street scene, and a whole chapter entitled “A Florentine Joke”—and it is the curse of the “typical,” in such a context, that it tends to convey a whiff of contempt. The fruits of the second are equally fatal. The theme of the “unchangingness” of human experience cannot be left to emerge: it has to be grabbed at and rammed home with loud asseveration. The case is forced, destroying the quiet persuasiveness achieved in Middlemarch.
As an instance of what can be done with historical myth, the freedom it gives from the chores and awkward ruses of a Romola, one need look no further than The Death of Napoleon, a dazzling little novel by Simon Leys (pen name of the art historian and sinologist Pierre Ryckmans), first published in 1986 as La Mort de Napoléon. It relates how, by means of an international plot of extreme intricacy (its inventor died of brain fever before it was executed), the emperor Napoleon escaped from St. Helena, leaving a look-alike, a humble sergeant named Eugène Lenormand, to replace him and deceive his English jailers. Disguised as a lowly cabin hand, the Emperor makes his way to Tristan da Cunha aboard a seal-hunting lugger, proceeds then to Cape Town on a Scandinavian schooner, and sets off on the last leg of his journey back to France on board the brig the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer.
At all stages his escape goes smoothly, being secretly monitored by a network of agents; then by an unpredictable hitch his vessel is redirected to Antwerp, wrecking the whole master plan and landing him on a gloomy mud bank in the Scheld with no more than his own talents and ten months’ seaman’s pay to support him. How shall he proceed? It is a situation calling for all his “Napoleonic” genius (a matter already of legend), and entails his making his way incognito to Paris and setting up as a fruit seller there, in partnership with the kindly and unsuspecting Mme. Truchaut, widow of an ancient Bonapartist. With all a master strategist’s finesse, he is slow in sounding out the terrain and concerting his plans before imparting his great secret to any companion, though one or two seem to guess it. Then, all unexpectedly, comes the devastating news from St. Helena: the “Emperor” (Lenormand) is dead. The blow for a moment shakes even a Napoleon’s courage. Henceforth, he tells himself in horror, his destiny is posthumous. “From now on Napoleon would have to make his way not only against Napoleon, but against a Napoleon who was larger than life—the memory of Napoleon!”
By this time, or earlier, the reader will no doubt have begun to rewrite the story on different lines, responding to various unobtrusive pointers—hints that poor Lenormand, though a victim of mythomania, has dimly sensed himself, feeling compelled to brush them aside in “Napoleonic” manner. It had all begun, we perceive—or anyway begun in earnest—in a curious episode aboard the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer. It is a beautiful little scene, of the most delicate and far-reaching suggestiveness. The ship’s black cook, of “loathsome” appearance and a bit of a “Napoleonist” himself, took a fancy to the pathetic Lenormand, resenting the way the rest of the crew mocked him with the sobriquet “Napoleon.” He let him have favors, “a juicy piece of crackling here, a pig’s trotter there”; and early one morning, on some obscure benevolent impulse, he shook him out of his bunk to observe the dawn. The passage that follows needs to be quoted at length, to convey the power of the prose and the excellence of the translation:
The sky was divided between night and dawn—blue-black from the west to the zenith, pearl-white in the east—and was completely filled with the most fantastic cloud architecture one could possibly imagine. The night breeze had erected huge unfinished palaces, colonnades, towers, and glaciers, and then had abandoned this heavenly chaos in solemn stillness, to be a pedestal for the dawn. The highest crest of a wind-blown cumulus was already brushed with yellow, the first beam of daylight against the roof of fading night, whereas the lower regions of the clouds were still sunk in darkness, where one could vaguely make out deep gorges, shadowy peaks, rows of cliffs and blue chasms, nocturnal snow-fields, and wide expanses of purple lava. The entire sky was caught in an interrupted surge of energy, frozen in motionless chaos. Above the smooth, translucent sea, everything was in a state of suspense, waiting for the sun.
For good or evil, what Lenormand then saw, that fantastic cloud pageant and scene of worldly (or otherworldly) glory, sealed his destiny: for evil, certainly, insofar as it finally shook his loose hold on reality; but for good, too, being a true vision however wrongly interpreted. Such ambivalences and discriminations are kept in play, by nuance and unlabored irony, throughout the rest of the novel.
Simon Leys’s is a most subtly conducted fable, the key to it lying in its epigraph from Paul Valéry:
What a pity to see a mind as great as Napoleon’s devoted to trivial things such as empires, historic events, the thundering of cannons and of men; he believed in glory, in posterity, in Caesar; nations in turmoil and other trifles absorbed all his attention…. How could he fail to see that what really mattered was something else entirely?
The theme of the novel is banality: the banality of wanting to think yourself Napoleon, in all its different shades and versions, from Julien Sorel’s in Le Rouge et le noir to that of the inmates of asylums; and the not-so-different banality of actually being Napoleon, having to live up to that fantastic role and denying your common humanity. We are made to see, if we did not already know, how easy it would have been in 1820—even, you might say, how proper and prescribed—to fall into Lenormand’s delusion. On visiting Waterloo he is puzzled to be shown the bedroom in which he spent the night on the eve of battle and to find it arouses not the slightest recollection; but his mind is soon set to rest, when he is shown another and rival eve-of-the-battle bedroom and realizes there may be many more—many charlatans who claim to have fought under him or pretend to know the battlefield better than himself. It is a sign of greatness to attract imposters. Also, people seem to want him to be their lost Emperor. At all events they warm to his style and man-of-destiny aloofness. The young waitress in a café at Waterloo is greatly taken by his “haughty courtesy” and grand way of ordering beer.