Monday, 30 March 2015

Anthony Burgess and Napoleon

According to Anthony Burgess's not always reliable autobiography, at his birth his father breathed beer on him and said He may be a new Napoleon.

Not Wellington. The Catholic northwest, like Ireland, had looked to the French being on the sea, and the decay of the Orange (1)

In the event Burgess did not turn out to be a leader of men, and the highest rank he attained was a Sergeant Major in the Army Educational Corps. At the advanced age of 37 he became a writer. At the same age Napoleon had already written a romantic novel, won countless battles and become Emperor of the French, so Burgess's father had almost inevitably set him up for failure.

In the early 1970's Burgess wrote a script on Napoleon for Stanley Kubrick, producer and director of A Clockwork Orange, which the latter rather tersely declined. Burgess instead turned it into a far from complimentary novel about Napoleon, Napoleon Symphony, a somewhat whimsical attempt to recast the life of Napoleon in the form of Beethoven's famous Eroica symphony which legend has it was intended to be dedicated to Napoleon until he crowned himself Emperor. (2)

Before this novel was published in 1974 Burgess gave his thoughts on Napoleon to Charles T. Bunting

a great demonic force .. a very modern man, really a very contemporary man, because he - well can I say that even - he's half animal and half computer. It's only possible to think in those terms in the modern age. His head was a computer. His body was the body of an ape. .. Napoleon was over-energetic, even sexually so. His excessive sexual energy, of course, explains why he had so little success with women. And he was also a very obscene man, which never comes out in the official biographies. (3)

Burgess also added some pertinent comments about his reactions to Napoleon as an Englishman and about the views of the English lower classes. He concluded with a brief reference to what we used to call the Common Market, which the United Kingdom (including England!) had recently joined, despite the efforts of another French leader to prevent it from doing so:

I've never really known much about Napoleon. Being an Englishman, I've never been attracted to Napoleon because, after all, he was the enemy. This is what I have been brought up to believe, but having done some research and having seen it from my wife's point of view - my wife's an Italian - I see now that he was not really the enemy; he was only the enemy of the ruling class in Britain, and, of course, he was very popular with the lower class. And in my own town of Manchester when the Peterloo Massacre took place, the working people were animated by Napoleonic principles. They were more on the side of the Revolution, and Napoleon seemed to them to embody the ideas of the Revolution. they were not on the side of the ruling class, and I see now that it's possible to be an Englishman and a Bonapartist. I see also that Napoleon has fulfilled posthumously his intention of bringing England into Europe. It's been done by peaceful means, but the great dream of a united Europe with England as part of it has been fulfilled with the Common Market. So Napoleon is still a living force. (4)

Contrary to the claims of modern Eurosceptics, Burgess had no doubt in 1973 that England had become part of something rather more than a mere market! That is my memory too!

The support for Napoleon amongst sections of the English population to which Burgess refers does not fit in with conventional views of English history. It was certainly not part of the curriculum that I studied, although it has appeared on a number of occasions in my blog.

At some point I intend to return to Napoleon Symphony, which I read on my last trip to St Helena two years ago, and have been mulling over ever since.
1. Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (Vintage Edition 2002) p. 17
2. An earlier post covers Burgess's script for Kubrick. I have since examined a document at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester which is certainly nothing like a full script, but a few pages which lay out a number of themes recognisable in Napoleon Symphony . If this is what was sent to Kubrick, then his short reply turning it down is entirely understandable.
3. "Dressing for Dinner in the Jungle", Charles T. Bunting/ 1973 Studies in the Novel v.5, No 4 Winter 1973 pp 75-76.
4. ibid.

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