Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

courtyard

“Cellar Window in the Courtyard” –illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

The English translation of Elena Ferrante’s L’amica geniale has been given the title My Brilliant Friend and for much of the book  we believe it to be a reference to Lila Cerullo, the daughter of the shoemaker and the much-admired friend of the narrator Elena Greco (known as Lenù). And indeed, the phrase fits, for Lila is a precociously wise, driven, and independently thinking little girl. (The novel spans the two girls’ lives from six to sixteen.) And yet, much later in the book, when Lila is being fitted for a wedding dress, it is she who utters the phrase, calling the quieter, less assured Lenù “my brilliant friend.”  Much to Lenù’s delight.

But close readers come to understand this much earlier in the novel. Through the first two-thirds of the book we are caught up in Lenù’s appreciation, competition, and admiration of her friend Lila. Lenù is telling the story of HER BRILLIANT FRIEND.  But gradually we realize that the novel is actually the story of Lenù, the story of her friendship with Lila, and the decisions the SHE ultimately makes not to be dragged down into the social stagnation that is their poor Neapolitan neighborhood. (Lenù is telling us this story as a 60-year old woman living in Turin after Lila’s son has called from Naples to say his mother has disappeared.)

That Lila is brilliant there is no doubt. She excels in grade school–always edging out her friend Lenù and everyone else–and wins the admiration of all the teachers. She is fierce and brave and sure of herself. Meanwhile, Lenù is like most every youngster, tentative, unsure of herself, and uncomfortable in her ever-changing body. Even after Lila has quit schooling at the age of twelve, she continues to learn and tutors Lenù in Latin and in Greek and sharpens Lenu’s mind with logic and politics and philosophy.

And while Lila finally succumbs to the fate circumscribed by the neighborhood courtyard, Lenù knows that her schooling–an “occupation’ that none of her neighbors or friends or family see the value of–is her only way to break beyond the poverty, the dirt, the violence.

And by this point we see that the novel is Lenù’s Icarus moment, her attempt to fly, to soar higher than those before her. We leave her “on the cliff’s edge,” as she begins to realize at Lila’s wedding the cords that the neighborhood could tie her down with.  We readers had also hoped that her friend Lila would join her, but she cannot. At least for now.

Elena Ferrante may be the most written about novelist of the past five years. She is reviewed in the mainstream press and in literary journals. She is both critically and popularly acclaimed.  And she is “anonymous”–no one knows her true identity. (Despite a mid-March break through, that cited a Florentine history professor who has denied that she is Ferrante.)  This mystery certainly has added to her cachet. And has added to the millions of words written about her.

And yet, even if there were no “mystery,” Ferrante would stand out. Her writing is more than masterful–the narrative is a driving, relentless tour of childhood, filled with incisive details–both external and internal–and a realistic understanding of human fears, desires, needs and ambitions. My Brilliant Friend–the first of Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels–follows the girls from six to sixteen, and captures exquisitely and perfectly, the pain and joy and dread and hopes of young children in a way that is unmatched in my reading.

Yet, like life itself when looking backwards, those ten years that Ferrante chronicles seem to fly by and are finished before we know it…or are ready for it.

I facetiously wrote to a friend that I found My Brilliant Friend “disappointing”: my great disappointment was that the 330-page novel was over so quickly.  I wanted it not to end.

I will take a breather…and then begin the second volume.

 

 

 

 

Quote #57: “Then the big elm shot up ahead…”

“Elm Tree” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

 “Then the big elm shot up ahead, lying in wait for them at the bend of the road, and he said between his teeth: ‘We can fetch it; I know we can fetch it–‘”
                                                        Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

The-Little-Tramp-charlie-chaplin-85240_250_338

But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

a-clockwork-orange

 

 

Rumi on Figs

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Figs 

The Ripe Fig

Now that you live here in my chest,
anywhere we sit is a mountaintop.

And those other images,
which have enchanted people
like porcelain dolls from China,
which have made men and women weep
for centuries, even those have changed now.

What used to be pain is a lovely bench
where we can rest under the roses.

     A left hand has become a right.
A dark wall, a window.

     A cushion in a shoe heel,
the leader of the community!

    Now silence. What we say
is poison to some
and nourishing to others.

    What we say is a ripe fig,
but not every bird that flies
eats figs.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi

Book Review: M Train by Patti Smith–like listening to an old friend

 

Punk-rock legend Patti Smith

Patti Smith (photo: MPR/Nate Ryan)

Reading Patti Smith is like listening to an old friend–but an old friend who is better read, better traveled and better experienced than you. And certainly wiser. And though she states several times at the beginning of M Train she has nothing to write about, her sense of nothing is quite different than mine.

As a means of remembering and reminiscing about her deceased husband–Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994–M Train begins by documenting a trip to French Guiana that the two of them took with the express purpose of gathering pebbles at an abandoned jail in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. It is a trip filled with obstacles and difficulties, but the three pebbles she has gathered are for placing on Jean Genet’s grave– the type of gesture of reverence and respect that Smith repeats throughout her account. And though her remembered moments with her husband anchor the memoir, more of it chronicles her life that continues on afterwards.

And what we find in that chronicle is an extraordinarily interested human being. (And generally, those who are most interested in the world around them are usually the most interesting themselves!) Smith is a voracious reader and much of her writing deals with what she is reading and the directions it sends her. (Here is a list of books–from Rimbaud to Susan Sontag–that Patti Smith once recommended.) The writer Maria Popova, in her wonderful blog BrainPickings, also has amassed a list of Smith’s literary references from M Train alone.

Her relationship with books goes well beyond the printed page. She engages with the authors and the characters and the places. (In actuality, she knew a good number of writers: Burroughs, Bowles, Ginsberg.) When she first reads Murakami, she reads nothing else, going from one novel to the next (though not in chronological order.) When she reads his The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, she immediately rereads it, fixating on a specific fountain that appears in the novel.

For Smith, the writers and artists who create the things she loves are very real–and she feels very close to them and their spirits. Thus, she visits Frieda Kahlo’s bedroom and Sylvia Plath’s grave, photographs Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Beckett’s spectacles, Tolstoy’s bear. In Japan she makes pilgrimages to the graves of her most beloved writers and honors them reverently.  To her, the spirit of these creative individuals remains. Like her husband, they too are dead, but still inform her world.

And while she is an extraordinary reader and traveler, she is also very much an ordinary person: addicted to detective shows (The Killing, Law and Order, and the gamut of BBC detectives), sits on her front stoop to smoke a cigarette, feeds her cats, and hangs out in a favorite coffee shop. (A hilarious scene occurs when a woman takes her regular table while she’s in the bathroom and Smith fantasizes how the woman’s murdered body would be positioned in various detective shows.)

It is this ordinariness that is the most charming. We easily forget that she is more than an artist–is in some senses a celebrity. But one never meets the celebrity; instead we meet a woman who is at times gregarious and at other times meditative, who lives simply and cherishes the little moments of our lives, and who is still capable of being overpowered by  a book she has read or awed by a celebrity she has met. (She tells an amusing tale of running into the British actor, Robbie Coltrane, who starred in the rarely televised detective series Cracker.)

She reads with an artist’s eye and a writer’s ear; yet she writes like an old lost friend. And that is what has made both of her memoirs —Just Kids and M Train–such a joy to read.

Below is a lovely (6 minute) video of Patti Smith “giving advice to the young.” It is a good example of her wisdom, her kindness, and her hope.

 

Book Review: Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

Honeymoon

Book Cover for Honeymoon by Patrick Mondiano

It is perhaps a sad testimony to how parochial my reading has become.  There was once a time where I knew almost every Nobel Prize for Literature winner–would have yearly bets with colleagues and follow the London odds makers’ short lists.  And while my knowledge was primarily eurocentric/american, I was an early reader of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz before he won and I understood that his time was eminent and important. (My sister, after a trip to Egypt, had turned me on to him. I don’t know how, but she brought me back two uncorrected proofs of his novels.)

But again, I am increasingly ignorant of the world’s literature.

Which is why discovering Patrick Modiano is such a wonderful treat. The French Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. And until a New Yorker review of his most recent novel, I had not heard of him nor his winning. Lately, I must have my head very deeply buried in the sand.

patrick-modiano-illustration

Patrick Modiano illustration by Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Media

Honeymoon (published in 1990 in France/1995 in the U.S.) is the novel I decided to start out on. The language is direct, bare and sparse–reminding me much of the first half of Camus’ The Stranger. But the story is intricate and convoluted, told in such an honest style that makes the intricacies and coincidences of life seem matter-of-fact.

There are two stories that braid themselves around two middle and connected ones. On the first page the narrator discovers that a woman in the hotel in Milan where he is staying has committed suicide.  He then learns that he had known her once decades when she and her husband had picked him up hitchhiking and had taken him in and cared for him for several days.

This coincidence sets the man on a quest–of sorts. After his wife and his business partner (her lover) drop him off at the airport where he is to fly to Rio de Janeiro for business, he disappears. He takes a plane back to Milan and then returns to Paris, where he goes to ground and hides in the outer arrondissements.

His purpose is to make sense of the woman’s suicide, of her life.

We find that he has been obsessed with this couple for a long time, ever since his youth, long before the knowledge of her death. He has taken numerous notes, cut out clippings, and prepared to write a memoir of the couple, and so he tells us of their hardships and trials during the Nazi occupation of France.

While we at the same time are following his exploits in the Parisian neighborhoods, aware of his wife’s comings and goings, and preparing for a new life in his rougher world.

All the plot threads, in a way, revolve around a single newspaper clipping from the 1940s searching for the woman who suddenly went missing when she was sixteen years old. (From what I have learned, the actual clipping is what sent Modiano himself to fashion his story.) She had simply stepped out of the Metro and  moved from one world–a constricting and dangerous world in Nazi occupied Paris–to another. Her abrupt relocation parallels the narrator’s who moves from his bourgeoise life as a documentary filmmaker married to a high-fashion model to an uncertain world in the boondocks of Paris, seeking for understanding of the couple who once showed him much kindness.

I said that I had started out on Patrick Modiano by selecting Honeymoon It is only a starting point. I look forward to picking up another.

 

Book Review: Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

Recording on the beach illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

Recording on the beach
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

In the introductory material to the New York Review of Books‘ re-issue  of this 1968 novel, the writer Stephen Koch states that Linda Rosenkrantz was the precursor of “reality tv” with this inventive, unusual work. He says that Rosenkrantz’s technique, far more than anticipating reality television, was even the precedent for everything from Friends to Broke Girls. 

His latter assertion, he bases on the fact that this novel deals with two “twenty-something” women and one male talking about relationships, hopes, dreams, and reality. Before Rachel, Monica and Ross dished, Rosenkrantz’s characters were doing the same.

And before Snooki and the “Situation” shared more than we wanted to know about their adventures at the Jersey Shore, Rosenkrantz’s kids were already at it.

And how she did it was that she took a tape-recorder (they were very bulky in the mid-1960s) everywhere she went one summer, on the beach, in the shore-houses, at clubs.

Cover of NYRB's  re-issue of Linda RosenKrantz's Talk

Cover of NYRB’s re-issue of Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk

The concept sounded wonderful. Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder and recorded her friends as they made dinners, basked on the beach, drove to clubs, and packed and unpacked.

At the end of the summer, she had more than twenty-five characters speaking the truth–or at the very least speaking. And they speak a lot.

Thankfully, she winnowed the twenty-five down to three: Vincent, a gay male painter; Emily, a struggling actress with a drinking problem; and Marsha, who has a “serious” job in New York, and who is the anchor of the novel. All of it is supposed to take place against the background of New York’s edgy art scene, with Warhol the subject of more than one name drop. (At the time, Rosenkrantz was editor of Sotheby’s Auction magazine and was quite cognizant of all the goings on in the art world at the time.)

The three are all at the shore. They are all in therapy. And they share their therapeutic insights with us. And on top of it all, there is an odd love triangle.

Emily loves Marsha. They are the best of friends and Marsha tries to nurture Emily through her psychiatric problems and her drinking. Vinnie understands Emily more than he understands Marsha, but Marsha is madly in love with him despite knowing he is gay. (And there are hints that Vinnie might also be in love with Marsha, but… .)

Take these three people, have their conversations recorded, and then transcribe them in a novel may have worked 50 years ago, but it does not work today. The psychoanalysis is juvenile, the relationships are sophomoric, and the conversations–for the most part–are deadening.

Koch was right when he said Talk was the precursor to reality television. He just didn’t tell us that it was the precursor of all that was inane, self-indulgent, and titallating about the genre. Talk might have been ground-breaking in 1968, but in the 21st century, it doesn’t even work as anthropology.

Imagine sitting on a towel on the beach next to these three people, discussing their analysis, their love lives and more. It would be enough for me to hope for a rip tide.

Book Review: Milan Kundera–the new and the old: The Festival of Insignificance and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Festival of Insignificance illustration 2015 by jpbohannon (recreation of book cover art)

The Festival of Insignificance
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon
(recreation of book cover art)

A few weeks back I read a review of Milan Kundera’s newest novel, The Festival of Insignificance.  The review was warm, discussing the narrative quirks and the philosophic resonances.  In the review, however, the critic spent much time on Kundera’s earlier work, particularly The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  It was the second time that week that that novel had come to my attention.

A friend on mine was in semi-seclusion and had begun reading the novel aloud to her cat. (Although, out of compassion, she did not read him the passages where Karenin the dog is in his final stages of cancer and must be euthanized.) The cat stayed attentive through all of it.

Kundera himself would love this story.

Having no immediate access to Kurenda’s latest, I pulled down from the shelf my worn copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and began reading it myself. It was the sixth or seventh time I had read it.

What draws the reader into the novel are the characters’ personalities, both heroic and damaged; the politics, both sexual and global; and the self-knowledge with which each of the three characters, Tomas, Teresa, and Sabina, work at achieving and which causes readers to reflect inward themselves. At least, that’s what happened to me.

And of course, there is the quirky, sometimes humorous interruptions by the narrator and the self-aware, redoubling rhythms of the narration.

During the course of my reading, I also had to attend a funeral. And at the luncheon that followed, I sat next to a woman who has always reminded me of the actress, Juliette Binoche, which of course reminded me of Binoche’s role in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  That my friend was from East Germany underscored the connection with this Eastern European novel.

Here is the trailer from the 1988 film:

And so, I finally got the newest, The Festival of Insignificance, out of the public library, and began reading it the moment I finished the earlier work. It is a slim volume, a mere 115 pages in the American edition, and it features much of what is admirable in Kundera:  Characters who “live examined lives” and are notable for their philosophic wonderings and reflective attitudes, a narrator who periodically pops into the story to discuss the workings of the novel itself, and a level of global political awareness that is not often present in American novels.

And there is Kundera’s wry humor.

The flap of the book jacket cites a passage from an earlier novel, Slowness, in which the wife of the main character tells her husband:

“You’ve often told me you meant to write a book one day that would have not a single serious word in it. … I warn you: watch out. Your enemies are lying in wait.”

The Festival of Insignificance purportedly is that book, and it begins with a discussion of the navel.  Or at least what one character, Alain, feels is the eroticization of the navel in the 21st century. This thought comes about as Alain walks down a street in Paris and notices the many cropped tops and low-hung jeans — and thus the navels — of so many young women. And, it is this immediate preoccupation with the navel that is the cord that binds the various stories of the novel together.

Through his musings about the navel’s surge in fashionable exposure, the middle-aged Alain remembers the last time he saw his mother, who had wanted him aborted and abandoned him when he was two and whom he last saw when he was six. This is paired with another friend whose mother is dying, which is then linked to Joseph Stalin who gave birth to an era of madness and horror in twentieth-century Europe.

In fact, Stalin appears throughout the novel, finally making an appearance in modern day Paris, at a children’s show in the Luxembourg Gardens, riding in a tiny children’s carriage.

As with all of Kundera, there are serious musings on European and human history, on disease and finality, on love and on sex. These are thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions which nest comfortably in the interior lives of his main characters.

Kundera’s thesis is that in the vastness of the universe, human life AND human history is relatively insignificant–that human history is merely a “festival of insignificance.” And while there is much that seems “insignificant” in Kundera’s novel, the reality is quite different.

Human significance might not have cosmic ramifications in the universe, at large. It is, however, greatly personal, and often has repercussions through the larger community. So in this novel, the spilled Armagnac, the little lie about one’s health, the lines of people at a Chagall exhibit, all play a “significant” role in the lives of a limited circle of acquaintances. Our lives, our acquaintances, our histories are all rather parochial, to be sure, but they are ours, and they are all that we have.

The Festival of Insignificance is at first look a slight and whimsical book. But it is much more than that. It is enjoyable and funny and thoughtful and wise.

And despite the cited desire of the writer in Kundera’s Slowness, there are more than a few serious words in it.

Penny Shorts–an online journal with an interesting spin.

Cynthia  A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

Cynthia
A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

On Wednesday morning I received a tweet advertising that my short-story “Don’t Crows Eat Corn?” was now available on the on-line journal Penny Shorts. And the tweet was accompanied by this stunning portrait by the Russian/American artist, Moses Soyer.

(Later, the editor Catherine Horlick said that “This portrait by Moses Soyer reminds me of Sandy [the protagonist in my story], although in fact the story is like a painting by Edward Hopper, who so brilliantly depicted subjects trapped by life.”)

The turn-around had been extraordinary. On Tuesday evening, I had received one e-mail accepting the story, another that attached a PDF of the proofed galleys, and a third asking for a photo and a short bio.

Even taking into account that the UK-based Penny Shorts was five hours ahead of me so that while I slept they were working preparing copy, it was a very quick and pleasant surprise.

The fledgling journal has an interesting “business model.” Readers can purchase individual stories for 50p (about 78 cents in U.S. dollars) or they can buy a variety of subscriptions that give them access to multiple stories during the course of the subscription. Agents and editors are given free access.

This was the text of the tweet that was set out:

J.P. Bohannon’s story ‘Don’t Crows Eat Corn?’ is new on pennyshorts. The day after her mother’s funeral, Sandy has to hide a bruise on the side of her head. http://bit.ly/1TCpHBr

And so, the link to the Penny Shorts web site in general and to my story in particular was tweeted out to the world. It was efficient–and quick–marketing.

As an editor, Ms. Horlick has been a pleasure to work with, attentive, professional and warm. Moreso than anyone else I have met in the business.  For those interested in reading or writing or both, you should visit her Facebook page or the Penny Shorts website itself.

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