July 01, 2009

Napoleon the novelist

One of my best memories of my first trip through Europe is how whenever our canary-green Caravelle sports car with us three little girls crammed in the back -- I have since learned it was considered a two-seater -- turned onto a tree-lined road my father, enthusiastic in his bucket seat, would wave his cigarette expansively at the trees and say “Look, girls! Napoleon was here!" because of course all those trees along the highways of Europe had been planted by Napoleon to make shade for his soldiers on the march.

It was my first taste of the Napoleon mystique. After that came Napoleon saying “Soldiers, from the height of those pyramids, forty centuries contemplate us!”; Napoleon taking the crown at his coronation and placing it on his own head and Beethoven, betrayed, scratching out his name on the dedication of the Eroica symphony; Josephine; exile; the folly of the 100 days, all of that. When years later I learned about the Napoleonic Code (the first to give every accused the right to a lawyer) from living under it in one of the many countries where he planted it, like his trees, it seemed a not-contradictory facet of his revolutionary, romantic energy.

But in England Napoleon is seen above all as a pragmatic, or so I gather from the buzz engendered by the announcement a few weeks ago that the surviving fragments of Clisson et Eugenie, a novella which Napoleon wrote at age 26, are about to be published in English for the first time. According to Jane Aitken, who is publishing the 40 pages at Gallic, "Although the piece of writing is short, it does cast an extraordinary light on Napoleon, who is someone we all think we know. We in Britain think of him as a military man, but here we see the romantic side to him." The Guardian thought she was talking red stilettos more than satin breeches, not sure why, perhaps the confusion of using four hands: “The emperor of chick-lit” was the title of the rather smug article by a certain Maev Kennedy and Catherine Neilan.

Sorry, Maev and Catherine. Clisson et Eugenie is a romance, but in the old sense of a novel filled with passion, drama and adventure. Napoleon wrote it in a Left Bank hotel, with his army career in the doldrums, pining away with love for Eugenie Clary, called Desiree, who later married his marshal Bernadotte and became Queen of Sweden. His choice of name for the hero is revealing too, the original Clisson having been Commander in Chief of the Royal Armies. I also like the way it suggests “frisson”, a thrill.

“Clisson was born for war," the story begins. "Although a mere youth, he had reached the highest rank in the army… And yet, his soul was not satisfied.” Where would a chick-lit author (who are not allowed to be men, as far as I know) take the plot at this point? Perhaps Clisson would learn to – gulp-- commit to a relationship? Pas de tout! Napoleon loved the tragic form; on St. Helena he read aloud every evening from the plays of Corneille and Racine -- no, not to goats and hens, he actually had a group of faithful officers who had decided to share his exile -- and his story has a tragic ending: Clisson dies in battle, pierced by a thousand blows.

The prose is not stirring like Dumas, whose father by the way was one of Napoleon’s generals on the Egyptian campaign, or sharp like Balzac, the story is not as complex as Stendhal’s, you know I suspect Aitken of a bit of hype when she says Napoleon stands revealed as “an accomplished author of fiction.” Surely the thing is instead that Napoleon was an accomplished author of himself. Just as he turned an anonymous Belgian town into a symbol used by everyone from Abba to the unknown poet, perhaps a suitor, whose verses we found pasted into an old album of my grandmother’s:

But to my sad heart the music-- 
my soul is of sombrer hue 
Was like waltzes played at Brussels 
the night before Waterloo. 

so Napoleon turned himself into, and I quote no less than the BBC, “arguably (aarggh) the most fascinating man in history”.

From Eugenie and Clisson: ‘Like all men, he was still looking for happiness and all he had found was glory’.

Go to Napoleon.org to view some of the manuscript pages of Eugenie and Clisson.

One of the last things Napoleon did was to plant two rows of trees in front of his windows at St. Helena. I just found this out today reading about his death. You can experience Napoleon’s tree-lined highways on “Arbres et routes”, a website dedicated to stopping French towns from chopping down the trees to save the lives of people who crash their cars into them when driving home “inebriated” from nightclubs (could be a scene in a Houellebecq novel?)

For more about Desiree, try Desiree by Anne-Marie Selinko. She also has a website devoted to her– “Desiree”.








Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30
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