The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

What a pity to see a mind as great as Napoleon’s devoted to trivial things such as empires, historic events, the thundering of cannons and of men; he believed in glory, in posterity, in Caesar; nations in turmoil and other trifles absorbed all his attention. . . . How could he fail to see that what really mattered was something else entirely?


  • In actual fact, although they did not feel the slightest respect for him, something prevented them from bullying him. Was it his aloofness, his obstinate silence that created a certain distance, or his plump white hands, like a bishop’s, that gave him a mysterious dignity? Perhaps they simply took pity on his physical weakness and his prodigious ineptitude in performing any sort of manual work.
  • He was tall, but a good half century spent bending over stoves in low-ceilinged galleys had broken him up into several angular segments, like a half-folded pocket rule
  • His face was split by a huge gaping mouth; in this grotto, as black and dirty as the maw of his stove, there emerged one or two teeth, like slimy rocks protruding at low tide
  • The strange thing is that, far from discouraging Nigger-Nicholas, this very indifference seemed to increase his solicitude.
  • Between the persona he had shed, and the one he had not yet created, he was no one
  • The sky was divided between night and dawn—blue-black from the west to the zenith, pearl-white in the east—and was completely filled with the most fantastic cloud architecture one could possibly imagine
  • The night breeze had erected huge unfinished palaces, colonnades, towers, and glaciers, and then had abandoned this heavenly chaos in solemn stillness, to be a pedestal for the dawn
  • The flamboyant mysteries of dawn had faded into the banality of plain day
  • He has always had the unshakable conviction that all the setbacks that have happened in his life, even those that seemed the most painful and futile, must in some way or another actively contribute to the working out of his destiny
  • And what of Napoleon? To tell the truth, at that moment his mind was occupied, much against his will, with a thought so futile that he himself was irritated by it: Who on earth was Louis?
  • Her voice, even when she was describing disasters, still had a kind of cheerfulness. In the midst of ruination, this woman radiated a warmth and vitality which could be felt in the old house itself, in spite of its being so bare.
  • It was a long vigil. They wept, talked, drank. That night, a strange intimacy, forged from their common grief, bound together these old children who found themselves all at once orphans of the same dream.
  • In a Europe which could not find a single adversary worthy of opposing him, the dismemberment of states, the carving up of empires, the dethronement of kings were hardly challenges to him . . . But now an obscure noncommissioned officer, simply by dying like a fool on a deserted rock at the other end of the world, had managed to confront him with the most formidable and unexpected rival imaginable: himself!
  • For the first time, he began to see himself as he really was, naked and defenseless at the center of a universal debacle, buffeted this way and that by events, threatened on every side by an all-pervasive decay, sinking slowly into the quicksands of failed resolutions, and finally disappearing into the ultimate morass against which no honor could prevail
  • The doctor kept looking at him; his eyelids were strangely bereft of lashes, giving his eyes an unpleasantly fixed stare
  • Previously, during the long hours they spent alone together in the evenings, silence had wrapped them round in a warm feeling of security, whereas now it became unbearable, loaded with permanent menace.
  • He began to perceive more clearly that greatness should always be on its guard against the snares of happiness. The most brilliant achievements of his past career had been but a dream from which he was awakening at last. It was only now that his genius was coming to maturity. The epic of his past was no more than a confused and aimless burst of youthful energy compared with what he would be able to achieve, now that there would be no emotions, no attachments to stand between his creative intelligence and his will to act. He was reaching a higher plane of existence, and on these heights he breathed deeply of an air so pure that it would have burned the lungs of ordinary men.

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