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The Death of Napoleon

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  353 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
Napoleon has escaped St. Helena, but the impersonator he left in his place has unexpectedly passed away. Travelling incognito through the Continent, he experiences a series of bizarrre adventures that bring him face to face with the myth of Napoleon as it is disconcertingly played out in everyday life.
Paperback, 144 pages
Published July 5th 2002 by Picador USA (first published 1986)
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Krysia Rodic My opinion:
Nigger- Nicholas appears to Napoleon to be an ordinary, "boisterous brute," yet his role in 'The Death of Napoleon' may be the most…more
My opinion:
Nigger- Nicholas appears to Napoleon to be an ordinary, "boisterous brute," yet his role in 'The Death of Napoleon' may be the most significant. Nigger- Nicholas' displays the "glorious dawn" to Napoleon, which allows Napoleon to temporarily "become one with Eugene," which is a great fear of his demonstrated when Napoleon refers to Eugene's existence as "mediocre" and "purely physical." When Napoleon see's the sunrise, the "cloud architecture" reminds him that there is something far greater than himself, something that is out of his control. Constant references toward nature and the external world are repeatedly made throughout the novella to signify that Napoleon does not have control over everything, whether he likes it or not. Nigger- Nicholas' "innocent triumph" constrasts with Napoleon's, whose triumphs and glories are often dealt with through pride and witnessed by the rest of France. This emphasises Nigger- Nicholas' triumph as being "innocent" and modest, privately between himself and Napoleon.(less)

Community Reviews

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Glenn Russell
Aug 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

“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.”
― Simon Leys, The Death of Napoleon

Such lyrical, precise language, a cross between extended prose poem and novelistic meditation on the natu
Mar 24, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: translation
Inspired. A beautifully nuanced novella. (The optimal narrative form for our time, according to Ian McEwan and others.) Napoleon leaves a double on St. Helena and sneaks back to Paris on a merchant vessel as a lowly ship's hand. When the ship is rerouted to Antwerp at the last minute he loses touch with the cabal that would return him to power, and so becomes a regular joe. He may or may not revisit Waterloo. It's not entirely clear. I don't want to say more. It's quite a story. You can read it ...more
"Other napoleons came and went around him; in the middle of the lawn, where a patch of white mist now hovered, one of them peered into the shadows through a cardboard telescope; another spread an old newspaper on the stone balustrade, as if it were a staff map. There were some who sat astride rusty garden chairs, lost in thought." In The Death of Napoleon (originally published as La Mort de Napoléon), Belgian writer Simon Leys twists fact with fiction by envisioning Napoleon Bonaparte's escape f ...more
Jun 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: french-walloon
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Douglas Dalrymple
"He began to perceive more clearly that greatness should always be on its guard against the snares of happiness."

Simon Leys is one of my very favorite essayists. The Hall of Uselessness, a collection of his essays, was one of the best things I read in 2014. I didn’t realize that he had also written fiction, so when NYRB republished his novella The Death of Napoleon I bit without hesitation. I’m glad I did. This book is a little masterpiece.

The premise is irresistible: What if after six years of
Daniel Polansky
Yeah… uhhhh….Napoleon’s last attempt to free France from the tyranny of perfidious Albion falls apart and Napoleon is forced to live out the final brief shred of his life as a humble Parisian fruit seller. It’s slight and sweet and short. Will I Keep It: It’s an NYRB classic, they just look so goddamn pretty on my shelf I can’t help it.
Apr 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: if it's Time you read a well-written classic
Recommended to Wayne by: my interest in Napoleon

"Is Simon Leys Belgium's best gift to Australia?" asked The Canberra Times.
(Canberra NOT Sydney or Melbourne is Australia's capital...stuck out in the mulga miles away from the coast!)
Well, of course !!!...Leys is Best Gift !!!
Especially since Susan Sontag,"probably the most intelligent woman in America"(Jonathan Miller)
had followed up his Canberra residency with her :
"Lucky Australia that Pierre Ryckmans has chosen to live there."
The Chinese had something to do with it too,
because they had
Frank Edwards
Nov 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This very short novel, originally written in French, imagines Napoleon escaping from St. Helena with the help of conspirators who plan to reinstate him once again as emperor. But the scheme quickly unravels and he ends up as a private citizen on a much shrunken stage, ignored and ignoble, suffering at one point even the humiliation of being just another tourist at Waterloo, listening to a tour guide tell lies. The story pivots on the lyrical irony of a hero's descent into irrelevance and invisib ...more
Fascinating "what if?" novel about Napoleon escaping from Elba. It's interesting to read the interior monologue of a great (but physically short and in this case not all that recognizable) man who has to reinvent himself in a world he's not accustomed to. He might also be crazy (I though the ending might have left some ambiguity, but I'm reviewing this two months later so don't take my word for it).
Aug 16, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: thoughtful people on a long train ride
A charming and somewhat delicate little novella that puts an answer the longstanding question, "what if Napolean dissapeared at Waterloo, was thought dead, but actually escpaped the battlefield and found contentment among the merchant class?" This literary petit-four is well worth the one or two days you will spend reading it.
Sep 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very satisfying tale.
Kobe Bryant
Nov 02, 2015 rated it liked it
I liked the cripple who pretended to have been a soldier and scammed people by giving Waterloo tours
Oct 07, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I like the idea: a brilliant strategist like Napoleon was focused on the wrong things all along: It's about the little things, Napoleon. Take it easy. It might seem simple and naive, but it's so often true. This story had a few powerful moments and was well-written, but for me this was an accidental parable on how it's hard to get emotionally invested in a parable. There's not enough time! This tale wishes for Napoleon to slow down and focus on the finer things while failing to do so itself, and ...more
Jeff Nelson
Oct 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Perfect little novella on how you can't go home again – no matter who you are and what you've done.
Paul Tamburro
Jun 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Simon Leys was a brilliant essayist and this novella is a very funny and well-written story.
Jun 21, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Je remercie tout d’abord Babelio et les éditions Espace Nord pour ce livre qui est donc mon premier livre reçu lors d’une masse critique de Babelio =)

Je dois avouer qu’en fait, je ne m’attendais pas du tout à ça lorsque je l’ai coché. A la lecture du résumé, je pensais lire un véritable livre de fiction avec des évènements et un Napoléon tel qu’on a l’habitude de l’entendre décrire. Or, on découvre là un homme qui avance sans même paraître conscient lui-même de qui il est et qui vivote un peu, p
May 23, 2011 rated it really liked it

Fiction should play with truth and reality and this whole story does it wonderfully. Starting off with the premise that Napoleon has escaped from his prison island St Helena to be replaced by a double the story charts what might happen.

The Emperor heads back to France leaning on the planning of an organisation dedicated to restoring him to power. But delays and bad weather means he is diverted and there is a wonderful moment when Napoleon goes with some British tourists to see the battlefield of
Rebecca Sorriaux
Titre : La mort de Napoléon

Auteur : Simon Leys

Editeur : Espace nord

Date de parution : 02/04/2015

Résumé : « Messieurs-dames, hélas ! l’Empereur vient de mourir ! » La nouvelle se répand rapidement à travers toute l’Europe. Pourtant, Napoléon n’est pas mort. Après une ingénieuse évasion, il a réussi à regagner la France, laissant un sosie occuper sa place à Sainte-Hélène - et ce n’est que ce dernier qui vient de trépasser. Mal ajusté a son incognito, Napoléon va traverser une série d’étranges épre
David Ranney
May 14, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
He muses. 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 of his destiny. There is no doubt in his mind that the bizarre pilgrimage he made that morning was also part of that mysterious grand design, but the for the moment he gives up any attempt at exploring its obscure significance. Perhaps it was necessary to stir up the shadows
Ismail Salhi
Aug 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: summer-reading
The novel focuses and uses one of history’s must prolific individual as a fictive story. Simon Leys, the novel’s author, was able to utilize the legacy and significance of Napoleon Bonaparte by building a plot based on alternative history. To be more specific, in novel Bonaparte owns a different identity as Eugène Lenormand as he anonymously embarks a ship in St. Helena and is substituted by a loyal supporter as he attempts to regain power over France. Napoleon’s journey was purposely organized ...more
Mike Nettleton
Jul 22, 2015 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this more. I did enjoy reading it, enjoyed the way a simple premise is treated with gravity, how its not bogged down in detail yet details are peppered in with precision, how the plot development felt natural even when it took unexpected turns. It reminded me of a stony insight that actually made it to paper. A sketch of an initial idea that is fleshed out completely, but only in isolation, unconnected to anything else.

In a writing class I took many years ago, the professor enc
Kenneth Iltz
May 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015-books
Imagine that Napoleon has escaped St. Helena. He leaves an impersonator behind. He sails as a deck hand on a ship that he believes are headed to Bordeaux to meet a contact that will help put him back in power. Napoleon's ship lands in Antwerp instead of Bordeaux, with the result that Napoleon entirely misses his underground contact. He journeys towards France by way of Waterloo where he visits the battlefield with a group of English tourists. A border guard who recognizes the great man and is st ...more
Aug 05, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Napoleon Bonaparte is a curious historical figure. An ultra French nationalist, despite his Corsican roots, he rampaged across Europe in a frenzy of expansionism, crowned himself Emperor and apepared to regard himself as something of a Godlike being. Perhaps it's the passage of time that leads him to be still largely viewed as a hero, unlike those cross-Rhine warmongers of the twentieth century. His tomb in Les Invalides is still an essential visit for anyone who wishes to understand the concept ...more
Kris McCracken
Feb 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Second up is The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys. The conceit of this short, but complex novel is that prior to his purported death in exile, Napoleon Bonaparte manages to switch identities with a noncommissioned officer by those plotting Napoleon's return to power. Then, as ever, things turn array.

This is a sparse little novel that zips along at a cracking pace. It raises all sorts of questions in natural ways: how much are we defined by those around us; is there such a quality as 'greatness',
Nicolas Walker
Interesting to see the interpretation of the author and how Napoleon as a Character would address issues and deal with problems. Slightly irnonical to see him apply World Politic Theories to his small family buisness. Then how he adapts to the situation and gets recognized by people. Overall interesting but i expected slightly more. There was not enough development of the character and the changing of scenes was lengthy. It became slightly rushed at the end with the quick speed up in time. It is ...more
Christopher Higgins
Apr 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
I recently joined the New York Review of Books Classic Book Club just for the hell of it and the Death of Napoleon was the first selection. It's not really the kind of thing I'd pick up on my own so I'm grateful that the book club turned me on to it.

This novella imagines a world where Napoleon escapes his exile and attempts to return to France and seize power. As you likely can guess from the title, things don't go all that well.

Rather than be a silly piece of alternative history though, this da
Apr 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
A really wonderful little jewel of a book that imagines what life was like for Napoleon after he (supposedly) escaped from St Helena. Rather than dying as an exiled eagle on an island, he slips back into Paris but is unable to connect with his supporters. Little by little, and surprisingly quickly, he settles into a very bourgeois life which he actually... loves. This book is short and doesn't have a lot of words, but it says a lot. It is like a meditation on the fear many people have after losi ...more
Tom Loomis
Jul 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I finished this book two years ago, but I still think of it as my favorite book of the last ten years. I had difficulty for a long time deciding why this book affected me so much. A central theme of the book, coming to terms with life transitions that lead to upheavals of our core identity, is a universal life theme we all go through. I read the book just as I was retiring and coming to terms with the ending of my professional identity and going through the the trials of forming a new identity d ...more
Jun 07, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A slim and unpretentious addition to the voluminous writing of the legend of Napoleon. An interesting take of the great man in different proletarian guises, and finally an understanding of him as a petty bourgeois trader. Is the ridiculously overwrought business plan for selling melons supposed to be a sign of the old emperor's encroaching madness, or a way for us to get an insight into his lucid mind, upon which he has finally decided to seize a project within reach, rather than those dreams th ...more
Jan 12, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This slim consideration of an alternate history in which Napoleon is helped off the island of St Helena by a group dedicated to restoring him to power was okay. It's a quiet book with very little action or dialogue so I can't really say why I liked it, but I did. It's probably best read in one or two sitting so one can get a feeling of what is to have to move through the through the areas where you fought, and lost, a major battle and hear from old soldiers, some still very loyal, what impact yo ...more
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NYRB Classics: The Death of Napoleon, by Simon Leys 4 35 May 11, 2015 08:47PM  
The death of napoleon 1 3 Apr 01, 2015 02:58PM  
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Simon Leys is the pen-name of Pierre Ryckmans, who was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970. He taught Chinese literature at the Australian National University and was Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney from 1987 to 1993. He died in Sydney in 2014.

Writing in three languages - French, Chinese and English - he played an important political role in revealing the true
More about Simon Leys...
“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.” 0 likes
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