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

Quote #44: “When I was a child I truly loved… “

 

"Grendel" illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“Grendel”
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“When I was a child I truly loved:
Unthinking love as calm and deep
As the North Sea. But I have lived,
And now I do not sleep.”
—  John Gardner, Grendel

Book Review: Love is a Mixed Tape by Rob Sheffield

"Love is a Mixed Tape" illustration 2014 by jpbohannon (based on book cover)

“Love is a Mixed Tape”
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon
(based on book cover)

 

On two separate occasions, my friend Jim has stopped the car on the way to dropping me off at the train station to finish listening to Neil Young’s “Country Girl.”  For him, he remembers a particular girlfriend who broke up with him oddly and for whom this song is a reminder. For me, I remember hitchhiking across Canada, sitting on the floor of a Winnipeg record store (Winnipeg was where Neil was born) and copying down the chords from a fake book. For both of us, the song is a lot more than just music and lyrics.

Jim and I often do this. The “where” and “when” of a song, the lives we were leading, the dreams we were having, the people we were hanging with, are as much a part of a song than any of its recordable parts. And for each of us, those elements are different and recall a thousand different memories.

This is the basis of Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mixed Tape. Sheffield–a writer for Rolling Stone–writes about his late wife and himself through the skeleton of different mixed tapes. The sub-title of the book is Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, and this is exactly it: the life of a man and the life of the woman he loved told through the soundtrack of their lives. And, for some of us, it is our lives as well.

Sheffield starts off going through his dead wife Renee’s belongings and discovering several of her mixed tapes, spending a sad night listening to the first one–The Smiths, Pavement, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Morrissey, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boy George among them–commenting on her choices and their lives together when she made them. He talks about the various types of mixed tapes: the Party Tape, the “I Want You” tape, the “We’re Doing It” tape, the Road Tape, the “You Broke My Heart and Made Me Cry” tape, the Walking Tape, the Washing the Dishes tape. etc. From here he sets up his frame work–the tapes of our lives are the record of of our lives.

And so he begins. He starts by dissecting his own tapes, chronologically starting from a mixed tape he made as a thirteen-year old for an 8th-grade dance through his first romance and subsequent break up to his meeting Renee, their courtship and marriage, her sudden death and his struggles to continue on afterwards.  It is poignant and wise writing about  love and loss and survival.

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Many of the bands I had never heard of–both he and his wife were music writers–but the pure affection and excitement that these two shared for new and old music was infectious. He was an Irish-Catholic boy from Boston who grew up on Led Zeppelin, the J. Giles Band, and Aerosmith; she, an Appalachian girl from West Virginia as familiar with George Jones and Hank Williams as she was with the punk bands she adored. Together they made a likeable pair. And their knowledge and love for music is wide and inclusive.

Sheffield met his wife in 1989 and she died in 1997. Their relationship lasted most of the 1990s and this is where Sheffield the music critic is at his best. His analysis of that decade, where the music was going and what it was doing is trenchant: he understands the phenomenon of Kurt Cobain, the importance of female empowerment in 90s’ music, the resurgence of guitar bands. (His discussion of Cobain’s late music/performances as the plights and pleas of a pained husband is unique and insightful and bittersweet.)

The naturally shy Sheffield–understandably–reverts into himself after his wife’s death. He is more and more asocial, awkward and uncomfortable. He writes eloquently about the pain of loss, of the condition of “widow-hood,” of unexpected kindness, and of the haunting of the past. Sadly, music–which once was his  buoy in life–is pulling him down, especially the music that he and Renee had shared.  In the end, however, it is music that pulls him together as well. He moves out of the south and to New York City, he reconnects with friends, makes new friends, and–of course–starts seeing and listening to new bands.

photo 3(1)

This is the tape–the last in the book–that Sheffield made when moving into a new apartment in Brooklyn, December 2002.

Love is a Mixed Tape was recommended to me by a friend, Brendan McLaughlin. Brendan was born in the mid-80’s, not long before Sheffield and his wife first met.  He is connected much more closely to the music than I am, and I am sure that he recognized a lot more of the bands and songs cited than I did.  But that is the great thing about Sheffield’s memoir: you don’t have to be completely tuned into what he is listening to, just to what he is saying.

And what he says is true.

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway as a young man.   illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Hemingway as a young man.
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The most gaping hole in my formal education is a lack of courses in American Literature. In undergraduate and graduate school combined, I had taken only one course in American lit. My understanding is mostly self-directed–and often spurred on by the requirements of teaching American Lit survey courses for many years. Certainly, I know the school classics: The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sound and the Fury.

And as a reader, I have discovered on my own Vonnegut and Pynchon, Heller and Elison, Mailer, Roth and Updike. And from my friends I have learned to love DeLillo, Wallace, and Johnson.  But I know there are gaps.

I took a tour, a few weeks back of Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West. I respect and admire Hemingway’s short stories–and often teach them in writing classes for their craft–and have fond memories of reading The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast,  but I never read much else. Anyway, the tour guide told us that it was here in the Key West house that Hemingway wrote a large portion of his work, in particularly A Farewell to Arms, which he stated is considered Hemingway’s greatest work. (Remember, he is a tour-guide, not a literary critic.)

And so I decided to give it a try. And to be truthful, in the beginning, it was slogging read at times.

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

In brief, the novel is the semi-autobiographical story of an American ambulance driver, Frederic Henry, working for the Italian army during World War I, who is wounded, falls in love with his nurse, impregnates her and sneaks across the border with her into neutral Switzerland. There are pieces that are perfect Hemingway: the army’s long retreat, the Swiss countryside in winter, the view from a hotel room. These passages are clear and distinct and one can almost imagine Hemingway speaking them himself.

What one cannot imagine is anyone speaking the dialogue that Hemingway has given his characters to speak. The dialogue among the soldiers is stilted–but I thought perhaps that was intentional as the narrator is an American and the conversation is between him and his Italian comrades. But the conversation between the lovers–between Frederick and Catherine–is downright embarrassing.

Perhaps, it is dated. But I do not believe so. The dialogue in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby published four years earlier in 1925 is not as silly or inane. This can’t be how people talked 75 years ago. Perhaps, Hemingway is trying to capture the coded, playful language that lovers often engage in privately. Well if so, it should have remained private. While Catherine Barkley is a strong woman–a British nurse working in the Italian theater of war–when she speaks she sounds infantile and ditzy, hardly the type that Henry would fall for.

But then, perhaps, it is just me, the reader, far past the ages of the protagonists, a little bit wiser (one hopes) and a little bit more jaded.

And yet, having said all that, the slogging read and the cloying dialogue are more than made up for in the last chapter. It is here that Hemingway elevates the novel to something different, something larger. It succeeds not merely because of the drama–which in lesser hands would have become melodrama–but because of  the craft. The language is pared down–like Joyce had taught him–and there is simply life, death, man and woman. It doesn’t get more basic than that. In the end we admire Frederic Henry more than before–I found him hard to like or take seriously throughout much of the book– and we admire Hemingway too. We admire what he is doing and we understand how this novel placed Hemingway in the pantheon of American authors.

Hemingway famously once claimed that he rewrote that last chapter 39 times. Well, then it is a good advertisement for revision, for it is so superior to everything else.

The novel was an instant–and huge–success.  Within a year of its publication a dramatization was staged and in 1932 Hollywood released a major film of the novel, featuring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.  In 1957, a second film was made, this time starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.

I have seen neither, and I won’t search for them. It is Hemingway’s language and style that is the star of A Farewell to Arms, not the story.  And much of that would be lost in film.

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

Quote #37: “Most people miss their whole lives.” Toni Jordan, from Addition

"Oh, No!" 2014 by jpbohannon

“Oh, No!”
2014 by jpbohannon

“Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at a sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in a deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. Ten or twelve grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, your could miss it.
You could miss your whole life.”

Toni Jordan, Addition
(as quoted in Literary Jukebox)