In 2013, NYRB Classics published a collection of Simon Leys’s essays, The Hall of Uselessness, which became one of my biggest surprises of that year, a book that introduced me to a new favorite writer (see my review here), and I was saddened when he died in August of last year. Ever since I found out they were going to publish a new edition of Leys’s novella The Death of Napoleon (La Mort de Napoléon, 1986; tr. from the French by Simon Leys and Patricia Clancy, 1991), I’ve been anxious. Perhaps the best way to tell you how I felt about the book is this: I started reading it the night my wife and I went to the hospital for the delivery of our fourth baby boy. When he was born, we didn’t yet have a name picked out. Two days later, just before we left the hospital and just as I was finishing up this book, we decided to name the baby Simon. Now I don’t really know all of the factors that influenced that decision, but I do know that when I made the connection to the author of the book I was enjoying so much I was very proud of the coincidence°.
When reading Leys’ essays, I came to picture a generous, open-hearted (but not soft), deeply pensive man. Whether this is an accurate portrait of the real man, I don’t know, but I found the portrait compatible with The Death of Napoleon as well. Here is a book that begins playfully, that contains moments of kind comedy, and that concerns itself with the quiet reflections of a man who has lived beyond his time and who must reflect on a world that will no longer accommodate his existence.
We begin on a ship, where we meet our protagonist:
As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon. And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him.
Besides, he was Napoleon.
This is the real Napoleon, though no one knows it. He has escaped his prison and is moving forward in a plot to restore him to power. Immediately Leys tells us that the story of his escape has been recorded elsewhere. We just know that some look-alike was requisitioned into service and left in Napoleon’s place, part of a scheme so complex and secret that no one involved really knows anyone else. Indeed, by the time Napoleon was on the ship, the man who came up with the plan had been dead two years.
If that seems like a shaky scheme, with much left to chance, well that turns out to be the case, and Napoleon’s journey back to power, in which he is relying on people (who might be dead) to be at certain strategic points on the map (which Napoleon may never see if his ship gets diverted), is quietly derailed. Napoleon is out in the world, but he’s no longer Napoleon. He plans to take back his power, but that time has not come. What we’re going to be concerned with here is Napoleon’s state of limbo: “Between the persona he had shed, and the one he had not yet created, he was no one.”
While in limbo, Napoleon finds himself visiting Waterloo, which has become a tourist attraction, hijacked by liars who profit by telling stories about how well they knew the great Emperor personally. For a time, Napoleon can take all of this in stride, knowing, as he does, that it’s only a matter of time before he can be Napoleon again.
Perhaps it was necessary to stir up the shadows of a vanished past in order to realize more clearly that, from now on, the only true Napoleon is the one who belongs to the future — a future that awaits him in Paris!
But, of course, when we cease to exist, time does not stop, and it must be next to impossible to catch up again. This point is emphasized when, rather early, the poor look-alike dies in prison. Now officially dead, Napoleon is granted the opportunity to slip past the moment he ceased to be and witness a post-Napoleonic world. His body remains, but not his identity?
It’s a wonderful work that exceeded my lofty expectations.
° Some of you who have been reading The Mookse and the Gripes from its earliest days may know that our second son, Holland, was born when I was reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. We’d picked the name out already that time, but these little coincidences must be noted.