Perhaps You’ve Been a Soldier, Too? (The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, trans. Patricia Clancy and Simon Leys)

The Death of Napoleon by Simon LeysI confess I am no scholar of French history, but I think I’ve received enough through cultural osmosis to know that Napoleon Bonaparte was not generally known to be a passive observer of his own existence. But Simon Leys (aka Pierre Ryckmans, your standard-issue Belgian-Australian novelist/translator/critic/by-God sinologist) in his 1986 The Death of Napoleon (NYRB Classics 2015), wonders how things might have been different: what kind of man, he asks, would Napoleon have been—been forced to become, that is—had he escaped St. Helena and set off on a quest to regain his empire? Brilliantly, Leys uses an ironic narrative distance to portray post-Waterloo Napoleon as a man adrift—literally and figuratively—bewildered, scared, and, above all, muted: the epic narrative he has constructed for himself has been obliterated, as has the language so central to its construction; he now is guided only by vague outlines, melted images, a poorly arranged and half-forgotten music of his former glory. There is a moment in the novella where Napoleon feels that he is returning to his old self—it is a comic moment (for the source of the feeling is less than epic) but also a profound one—and this is how he experiences it: “Instinctively he recovered the language of the army leader speaking to his generals on the eve of battle, and those grave but powerful tones immediately struck a chord in his audience.”

Simon Leys, The Death of Napoleon. Translated by Patricia Clancy and Simon Leys. Published by NYRB Classics (2015). 144 pages.

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