This is a work of non-fiction (though one might as easily consider it fiction, the lines are so blurred) about Napoleon’s time in exile on St. Helena; – or, perhaps it would be fair to say it isn’t really about that at all, but it’s about a trip that Kauffmann took to St. Helena to pontificate about the time Napoleon spent there: to evoke it, both for us and for himself. In contrast to Rambaud’s The Battle which we finished last week, Kauffmann is very much the Napoleon admirer, though he undercuts his admiration by having two English women (or did they really exist, in this wonderfully contrapuntal way?) visiting the island at the same time as him, who mock him for his excessive love. Of course, the novel (sorry, the work of non-fiction), is also about the English and the French, their attitude towards one another (through their attitude towards Napoleon) and their attitude towards the past. St. Helena itself stands as a relic of both their lost empires, a place frozen in time. (Yes, I’ve been to Gibraltar and I imagine it’s all much the same).
Kauffmann wants to know how it was for Napoleon on that island, and acts as if being where Napoleon had once been and touching objects which Napoleon had once touched, will lead to a greater understanding of this; – though one senses he knows that it won’t. (I read a short story recently too – or rather an account – by the German writer Peter Weiss, of a man visiting Auschwitz after the war – his utter failure then to be able to imagine what it had been like; and his frustration at the fact that he couldn’t, that more or less no insight at all could be gained by his now being there and looking at these remains).
It is Kauffmann himself, however, who conjures up Napoleon’s exile, and it is a very fine piece of writing. It made me feel sad for the man, being stuck out there; – but then I started reading Rambaud’s The Retreat, and well, I guess he did cause the deaths of a few millions; – so, you know….