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Joseph Roth: Die hundert Tage (The Ballad of the Hundred; later: The Hundred Days)

A French friend once asked me how Napoleon is portrayed in British history books, given that French history books portray him as a hero. My response was that he does not seem to have much importance in general British history books, more of a nuisance than a great leader. After all Nelson, Wellington and the Russian winter all managed to beat him. He made the same mistakes as Hitler did over a hundred years later, namely not invading Britain, and invading Russia in the wrong season. However, given that the main square in London is named after a victory over him, with a towering statue of the victor in the square, and the busiest railways station in London is named after another victory over him, presumably the British must have been quite pleased with beating him.

This book, which deals with his hundred days, i.e. the period when he fled Elba, where he was being held prisoner, to his surrender to the British after his defeat at Waterloo, prior to his exile in St Helena, was somewhat controversial in Britain, as it was fairly sympathetic to him. Roth was a great lover of Paris and things French, despite what Napoleon had done to Austria.

The book actually has two related stories. The first, of course, concerns Napoleon himself. We follow him from his arrival in Paris, where he is cheered by huge crowds, while Louis XVIII, an unpopular king, who had replaced him, flees to Belgium. Like a true king, he was also lonely. He was loved and hated, feared and venerated, but seldom understood. People could only hate him or love him; fear him or worship him as a god.

However, he is well aware he is not universally loved.

I’ll let them ring once I’ve defeated my powerful enemies, my true enemies.”
“To whom are you referring?” asked his brother.
The Emperor said slowly and solemnly: “The whole world

We see this loneliness throughout the book. Josephine is dead. His wife and son are in Vienna and the Austrians will not let them return. He seems to spend much time alone thinking about his strategy and his life.

One of his first acts is to reappoint Joseph Fouché Minister of Police, even though he had been supportive of Louis XVIII. It is he who will forecast what is to come. He can only make war and not politics! In three months I will be more than him!

He has his fortune told by Véronique Casimir and she tells him that he is going to win but we immediately know that she is lying and she, too, has seen his downfall in the cards.God help us all . . . and him especially!, she says.

While we are following Napoleon we are also following Angelina Pietri, a fellow Corsican and niece of Véronique Casimir. She works as a laundrywoman in the Tuileries, where Napoleon is living and we follow her story from her first arrival in Paris. Though she has (reluctantly) sex with a soldier, gets pregnant and then declines to marry the soldier, there is only one man she loves and that man is Napoleon Bonaparte. During her career, she will come across him several times, speaking to him more than once, and seeing him several times. Napoleon will also, by chance, speak to her son once he becomes a drummer boy in the army and even encounter him on the battlefield of Waterloo, knowing in both cases who his mother is.

Angelina is obsessed with Napoleon. She will have two offers of marriage during the course of the book and reject both. The father of her child is disappointed but not too disappointed – he has other girlfriends – but the Polish cobbler and former soldier in Napoleon’s army is devastated by her rejection.

It is Véronique Casimir who understands Angelina. She knew that Angelina, just like all the women in France, loved the Emperor not Sergeant-Major Sosthène — for every woman in the entire land (and perhaps even in the entire world) loved the Emperor at that time and not their own men.

Napoleon is, of course, oblivious to Angelina’s devotion. Though he has occasional flings, he is too busy with his military activities as his enemies move in. He had had the devotion of his soldiers and the people of France but that also starts to fray. We meet some who are critical of him and Roth comments He had long since ceased being the hero of the common man. They no longer understood him. It was as if the power that emanated from him had enveloped him in a transparent but impregnable sphere of ice. He lived within this sphere in some kind of noble isolation, terrible and solemn.

The culmination is, of course, Waterloo. Initially the people of Paris had thought he had won but the news of his defeat soon reaches them. Many of them soon turn against him though there are some, like Angelina, who remain devoted and cheer Vive l’Émpereur! Even in his defeat, Roth gives us a superb piece where we see Napoleon thinking it all through and planning his next campaign, including invading England to get his revenge.

It is Wokurka, Angelina’s Polish cobbler, who sums it up One should not give one’s heart to the great and mighty when one is as small and insignificant as we are. Angelina and many others take no heed of his advice.

Roth is, indeed, somewhat sympathetic to Napoleon but not overly so. He sees his faults – the hubris of a powerful man, his often erratic and rash nature, his inability to play the political game, his failure to listen to others and inability to realise that he is not as great as he thinks he is. However, he does show some concern for his men, and indeed, for Angelina and her son. However, like many great men his fall was as much his own fault as that of others.

First published in 1936 by Albert de Lange
First English translation in 1936 by Viking Press
Translated by Moray Firth (Viking Press edition); Richard Panchyk (Peter Owen/New Directions edition)