The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

For the first time, he began to see himself as he really was, naked and defenseless at the center of a universal debacle, buffeted this way and that by events, threatened on every side by an all-pervasive decay, sinking slowly into the quick-sands of failed resolutions, and finally disappearing into the ultimate morass against which no honor could prevail – Simon Leys, The Death of Napoleon

Such lyrical, precise language, a cross between extended prose poem and novelistic meditation on the nature of identity, glory and history, both whimsically light and philosophically deep. Such graceful fiction from scholar/essayist/sinologist/quirky renaissance man Simon Leys (1935-2014).

“What a pleasure to read a real writer. The Death of Napoleon is utterly satisfying sentence by sentence and scene by scene, but it is also compulsively readable.” These are the words of renowned literary critic Gabriel Josipovici, words with which I wholeheartedly agree. And to underscore my agreement, I’ll serve up a few slices of Leys poetic, that is, three quotes from scenes in Chapter One that chronicle Napoleon’s voyage on board a ship carrying the world-famous emperor from St. Helena back to his beloved France. And, yes, of course, this is imaginative alternate history.

A snippet of the author’s description of the ship’s cook: “He was tall, but a good half century spend over stoves in low-ceilinged galleys had broken him up into several angular segments, like a half-folded pocket rule. Without really being fat, his body swelled out arbitrarily in places, giving him the shape of a semi-deflated balloon. His face was split by a huge gaping mouth; in this grotto, as black and dirty as the maw of his stove, there emerged one or two teeth, like slimy rocks protruding at low tide. The ruined state of his teeth made his speech, already bizarre, all the harder to understand, endowing his rare utterances with a kind of oracular force – as befits a black cook on a sailing ship who, to be true to type, must naturally have a smattering of occult sciences.” Wow! I mean, Super-Wow! — exquisite visual images; expressive vivid metaphors.

“Every evening, crushed by the fatigue of the day’s work, Napoleon would escape for a moment from the stuffy atmosphere of the forecastle and lean against the bulwark in the bows to watch the first stars come out. The softness of the tropical azure giving way slowly to the velvet of night, and the glittering of the lonely stars which seem so close to us when they begin to shine in the dusk, left him perfectly cold.” If you have never had an opportunity to stand on the deck of a ship at sea and watch tropical azure give way slowly to the velvet of night, here is your opportunity to not only experience via your imagination but to join Napoleon in doing so.

Napoleon assumes the identity of a cabin boy by the name of Eugène in order to escape from St. Helena. At one point we read of Napoleon’s self-reflection: “During this time in limbo, and until the day when Napoleon’s sun would rise again, he had to survive by relying upon wretched Eugène’s purely physical existence. Only the slenderest thread was leading him back toward the hypothetical dawn of his future. So far, at every stage of his journey, a new, unknown messenger had emerged from the shadows to show him the route to follow.” Again, on one level Simon Leys’ slim novel is a meditation on the nature of time and identity. And what an identity! After all, he is Napoleon.

Thank you, New York Review Books (NYRB) for reprinting this slim classic. And thanks to Patricia Clancy for joining Mr. Leys in translating from the French into English. 130 pages of large font – this novella can be read in three hours. Treat yourself to a day of literary ecstasy. I have four times over and counting, but then again, when it comes to ecstasy I admit that I have never observed moderation.

Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng (2015) – Tribute to Professor Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans)

The View from the Bridge: Aspects of Culture. Simon Ley’s 1996 lectures on Learning, Reading, Writing and Going Abroad and Staying Home