Critical Context

At the time Burgess wrote Napoleon Symphony, he was deeply steeped in the work of James Joyce. He had presented detailed assessments and explications of Joyce in Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader (1965; published in the United States as Re: Joyce, 1965), in The Novel Now (1967, 1971), and in Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce (1972). In 1973, he also produced the radio drama Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake. Napoleon Symphony is so filled with Joycean invention and has so many direct parallels to Joyce’s work that the novel, like Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), bears reading and rereading and rereading. The book is rich with literary allusion, and besides the calculated parallels with Joyce and with Beethoven, it often presents sustained parodies of Henry James and of other notable writers.

The book makes apparent Burgess’ great interest in and admiration for Napoleon. It presents both the public and private Napoleon and, because Burgess uses Napoleon as the narrator through whose eyes the story is seen, readers not only see his actions but also are continually privy to his thoughts, which results in their being presented with a sympathetic view of an imperious emperor who had his distinctly human side.

Burgess, as a writer, is exceptionally well-read and well-informed about literature. He also has a deep understanding of music and language, a combination which makes Napoleon Symphony a complex intellectual game as well as a satisfying work of fiction. This book will delight relatively unsophisticated readers, who can read and enjoy it at a somewhat literal level, but it also will entice the most sophisticated readers and will richly reward those who enjoy rereading and digging for allusions. In this book, Burgess is more accessible than Joyce often is, and for readers who are wary about approaching Joyce’s more demanding novels, Napoleon Symphony will serve as a good introduction to the kind of writing that Joyce produced.