A rousing performance
FICTION:Anthony Burgess’s rattling novel about Napoleon, first published in 1974, tells us as much about the author himself as his subject
Napoleon Symphony, by Anthony Burgess, Serpent’s Tail, 390pp, £12.99
First published nearly 40 years ago, Anthony Burgess’s entertaining and engaging novel of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte is wilfully timeless. Never trying very hard to appear contemporaneous, it nevertheless doesn’t read much like a novel of 1974 either. Instead, it carries a sense of Burgess-time. It’s a novel from the confident upward arc of a career that had already produced a great deal, including A Clockwork Orange, and that would go on to produce Earthly Powers and a great deal more – some of it very good, some of it not so much, none of it at all easy to separate from the contradictory, mischievous, infuriating and intriguing personality of Burgess himself.
It is now perhaps difficult to recall the extent to which Burgess, dead since 1993, was both celebrated and reviled for his insouciant prolificacy, his cleverness and his ubiquity. People saw him, justifiably perhaps, as smug, arrogant, very white and very male, an intellectual with a patrician notion of intellect, culture and society. He was condemned for being both a snob and a fake. And though he wrote dozens of novels, and wrote for radio and television and film, and composed symphonies and operas, and was the author of critical studies of Joyce and Shakespeare and Hemingway, he nevertheless loved appearing on chatshows, and name-dropping, and avoiding tax, and pontificating, and was deemed by many to be somehow ersatz and profligate and unimportant.
There is, it’s tempting to believe, a lot of Burgess in Burgess’s idea of Napoleon. The Great Man, engine of destiny; not the man of his time but the man for whom his time must adapt, must make room; the internationalist for whom Nation is a pliable notion; vicious and sentimental both, prone to hubris and self-doubt, capable of great passions and sudden switches; incapable of inaction, of settling or sitting still. A man for whom an average life is out of the question.
Burgess concentrates the bulk of his narrative on the man himself, and we share his bubbling, overflowing perception of a world that seems a step or two behind him until the end. This is a book of scenes, locations, evocations, conversations, anecdotes, jokes and dreams, in which the facts are scattered among the fictions for decoration. There is a lot of consistently appalling poetry.
There is a lot of dialogue, and at its best the whole thing is like a briskly edited and compelling comedy-drama. It rattles ahead at pace, covering ground at times so quickly that you feel a little dizzy, in a pleasingly impressed way. Italy, Egypt, Paris, Russia: they all whizz by, and the vertiginous sense of a soldier barging his way into history, and of a novelist tumbling after him, is an old-fashioned sort of reading pleasure.