Book Review: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

Simon Ley’s 1986 novella, La Mort de Napoleon was translated from the French in 1991 by Patricia Clancy. Twenty years later it was re-issued by The New York Review of Books as part of its Classics series. The decision was a wise one, for the novel is one that should be more greatly known. It is likely not to be forgotten by any who read it.Cover of NYRB Classics edition

The novel begins with these words:

As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hernamm-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon. And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him.

Besides, he was Napoleon.

And so the story begins. Napoleon has been smuggled off his St. Helena-exile and replaced by a look-alike, a sergeant who in the past had acted as the Emperor’s double. The crew of the hunting-ship is unaware of the identity of the new man among them. They knew only that as a sea-man, he is pretty ineffective. The plan was that when the ship stopped in Bordeaux, Napoleon would be met by an agent of the vast conspiracy that had freed him. This agent would bring him to the organization that would then propel him once more onto the world’s stage.

Unfortunately, at the last moment, the ship is given orders to sail past Bordeaux and head straight to Antwerp. From then on, what occurs to the Emperor is both comical and poignant, heart-wrenching and hopeful. From his visit to the tourist trap that is now Waterloo–he visits two separate places where Napoleon slept on the eve of the battle, not recognizing either; gets in an argument with a tour-guide about the positioning of the Grand Army; and is arrested for forgetting to pay his hotel bill–to his return to Paris, we follow the emperor as he tries to regain his footing in the world.

However, return to Paris he does. Though not necessarily in the way he thought he would.

Having attracted the love and devotion of an old fruit seller, he demonstrates his genius by rallying some old loyal soldiers into a more efficient program of selling melons and cantaloupes. And on the night when he intends to reveal himself to an old campaigner, he is brought to a sanitarium filled with men who believe they are Napoleon.

And in the end he dies.

The novel is short and momentous and moves quite quickly, and yet with every sentence you realize that you are in the hands of a master. Ley’s language is at times sublime. Here he is describing the sun-rise on Napoleon’s last day on-board the Hernamm-Augustus Stoeffer:

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 windblown cumulous was already brushed with yellow, the first beam of daylight against the rood of fading night. …

The unrecognized emperor had by wakened by the African cook and brought up on deck to witness this scene. At the end of the novel, it is this scene that greets him in death.

And so we are left with a wonderful read that makes us ask the all-important questions: What is real? And what is true?  Is Edmund, the ineffective cabin-hand, actually Napoleon? Is Edmund’s belief that he is Napoleon any different than the inmates’ of the asylum in Paris? (We are told on page one that he IS Napoleon.) Are the stories passed on to the tourists at Waterloo any truer or less true than the jumbled memories of our hero? These are the fun little boxes that Ley opens up for us, and which ultimately makes The Death of Napoleon such a satisfying read.

Death Mask of Napoleon illustration © 2015 by jpbohannon

Death Mask of Napoleon
                                                                     illustration  © 2015 by jpbohannon

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