A rousing performance

Sat, Dec 8, 2012, 00:00

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.

A story with so much death and destruction shouldn’t be this funny. Historical fiction shouldn’t be this entertaining. It’s literature as party trick. And if at times you wonder if it would not be better to pause, to consider in greater depth the political philosophies or the slaughter, it’s fair to say that such a pause would soon leave you stranded a long way behind the man himself, as Napoleon Burgess pushes ever on, through languages and religions and battles and lovers and skin-of-his-teeth triumphs and sheer-bad-luck disasters.

Roll over Beethoven

The novel’s four-part structure is based, we are told, on Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 in E flat – the Eroica – dedicated to Napoleon before he declared himself emperor, an act that annoyed Beethoven so much that he changed the dedication to “the memory of a great man”. As a container, it’s as good as any other for this multitude, and there is music in the language throughout, with Burgess nothing if not orchestral in his conducting of events. And if the music at times becomes cacophonous (the post-Russian downturn in French fortunes, the defeat at Leipzig, Elba, the Hundred Days and the what-if of Waterloo are all thrown into the short part three), it is never far from rousing, stirring, the sort of thing that gets you out of your chair.

Only in the last section, where exile on St Helena and the dreary standoff with Sir Hudson Lowe are given a long meandering coda, does Burgess seem sometimes to drift off into a tuneless self-indulgence.

As a novel, Napoleon Symphony is pure performance. And if it requires a certain arrogance to attempt a book such as this, a certain bonkers identification with the subject, then it is difficult to think of a writer better suited. There is little point in trying to detach it from Burgess, or in trying to think of it as somehow revelatory of an actual Napoleon.

Even when we hear the great man try to understand what is happening to him, to France, to the revolution, to history, Burgess is always there – like the sly Talleyrand – able to see things from all perspectives, able to change sides repeatedly, dedicated in the end to nothing but his own performance.

And as a performance it is, for its first three-quarters at least, masterful. The brutal adventure in Egypt, the long conversation between Napoleon and his young German would-be assassin, Stapps, the mirrored dreams of water shared by Napoleon and Josephine, the astonishingly bloody crossing of the Berezina on the flight from Moscow, the incognito emperor unable to resist revealing himself to ungrateful citizens in Paris cafes: all of these passages, and others, linger like music when the reading is over.

Serpent’s Tail has given us a timely and welcome opportunity to hear this Burgess again.

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