I came to Simon Leys’ (pen name of Pierre Ryckmans; 1935-2014) work by the amazing publisher New York Review of Books (NYRB Classics), a house that strives to reprint “lost” or “forgotten” books along with first appearances. As stated on their site:
The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.
There’s is a list that I feel I can trust, admire, and look forward to. More about following publishers in a future post.
I first read The Hall of Uselessness, a few years back. I had never heard of Leys before, but because it was NYRB, perhaps read a nice review somewhere, and was struck by the title, I ordered the book. It didn’t disappoint, with his wide-ranging interests in literature and Chinese culture, along with his excellent writing, made for a satisfying and deep, reading experience.
Now, just this weekend, I finished The Death of Napoleon. Originally published in 1986, translated by the author and Patricia Clancy in 1991, NYRB brought out their edition in 2006. At 130 pages, this is not the typical historical-fiction tome; it lacks broad sweeps and swirling casts of characters, there are few plot points, and it is fairly slim in minute descriptions. In fact, as the Penelope Fitzgerald blurb states, on top of being historical fiction, it is a “fable, and Simon Leys is an expert fabulist.”
This tale focuses on Napoleon, the epic war-genius, emperor, conqueror, but the wonderful thing is that Leys eschews all these features that for so long have made Napoleon a captivating figure, and writes an alternative end to the once large persona. It is a book about finding and understanding oneself, about rebirth and second chances. It is about being haunted by the past.
The book begins with Napoleon’s escape from Saint Helena island already concluded. Aboard a ship as an anonymous cabin hand, ushered through the cogs of a machine set in motion by his loyalists, the book’s character is on a path to reclaim his former glory, yet uncertainty pervades his thoughts and adventures hence forward. Leys has captured the tired and exhaustive atmosphere created by a vacuum. There is Napoleon’s physical deterioration, delusional veterans of Waterloo, madness of the few loyal hopefuls, and sadness.
Alternative history is a fun and interesting game, where an author can play out all kinds of imaginings. I found Simon Leys book so compelling because where he could have played the epic card, redrawn on the past’s full canvas, he created a quiet, subtle book. As Gabriel Josipovichi says: “…Simon Leys throws light on our universal need to bring inner and outer reality together, to understand who we really are.”