After he left Elba, Napoleon made his way back to Paris, where he resumed his crown, raised an army and went out to fight the battle of Waterloo. Three and a half months after leaving Elba he was on a ship bound for St. Helena. What happened in Napoleon’s mind, and some of what happened around his person, is the subject of Joseph Roth’s engaging 1935 novel “The Hundred Days,” now available in a recent translation from the original German by Richard Panchyk.
Roth tells his story from two perspectives. The first is that of Napoleon, who thinks of himself as a soldier first and the Emperor second. His perspective is high-level; if not quite a birds-eye view then at least Napoleon has access to the most recent information. Being Napoleon, he also has the ability to act on it. One of the most moving scenes in the book is towards the end, with the victorious British advancing on Paris, when Napoleon starts thinking like a soldier and comes up with a plan to save his city. He’s forgotten, briefly, that he no longer has an army
The other perspective Roth provides is that of Angelina, a laundress in the palace. She spends most of her days below the stairs, but she does spend one night in the Emperor’s suite – her aunt, a fortune-teller, also does some procuring for Napoleon. Angelina is rejected by Bonaparte, but eners a liaison with another soldier. This union produces a son, who is the other point of contact between Napoleon and Angelina, as Napoleon recognizes the boy after the battle of Waterloo.
There are some issues that make the text difficult: long paragraphs of inner monologue, abrupt switches in point of view, and some confusion over timing – while most of the book is set after Napoleon’s return from Elba, the detailed description of Angelina’s love life and the conception of her child by necessity take place about 16 years earlier.
But the writing makes up for it. Roth, and his translator, according to the translator’s note, were very interested in the rhythms of speech, and some of the English is quite beautiful. Here’s one example:
With increasing solitude [the Emperor] sat before his maps, huge, colored, and complicated, his beloved maps. They showed the entire great world. And the entire great world consisted of nothing but battlefields! Oh, how simple it was to conquer the world if one just studied the maps upon which it was represented. Here each river was a hindrance, every mill a stronghold, every forest a blind, every church a target, every stream an ally, and every field, meadow, and steppe across the world a spectacular setting for spectacular battles! Maps were beautiful!
Maps are beautiful, and perspective is everything, even, or especially, for an emperor. This book is not for everyone, but it will repay the reader who gives it time. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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