Tuesday Paris Reading Rec: THE DEATH OF NAPOLEON by Simon Leys

A subtheme of these Paris reading recs is that I fall easily and constantly for just about any New York Review of Books book. They, like me, seem to share a predilection for all things French and keeping good books -- and old books -- in print.

Simon Leys--a pseudonym for the late Belgian professor of Chinese literature in Australia (got all that?) Pierre Ryckmans--has a wonderful, short book in THE DEATH OF NAPOLEON. As I've done elsewhere on this list, I'm going to ask for a little leeway: this is not an exclusively Parisian book; indeed, it starts on the island of Saint Helena where Napoleon was famously exiled in 1815. But Napoleon--the real Napoleon--leaves the island soon enough, having been replaced in the dark of night by a body double, a loyal soldier who'd often served that duty for him before. As Napoleon sails away, no one's the wiser, least of all the crew of his escape ship, who nickname him "Napoleon" for his vague resemblance (Napoleon is balder and fatter now) to the famous emperor. It's the first of the novel's many sly jokes: Napoleon later tours the Waterloo battlefield unrecognized and enters Paris, again, unrecognized, despite being in the company of ardent loyalists (now reduced to serving as melon wholesalers). Just when he's about to reveal himself to the world, Napoleon's body double dies--that is, for all intents and purposes, Napoleon dies, and suddenly he finds himself facing an even greater challenge than reclaiming the rule of France. 

If it all sounds a bit silly -- and yes, the melons are overripe, and yes, some do get thrown -- it's meant to, but the book quite magically progresses into a graceful meditation on fame, death, and memory by its end. Like many of the other books on this reading list, and like the novel I'm publishing in April, THE DEATH OF NAPOLEON is interested in the myths humans create: why we make them, what sustains them, what ends them.