Napoleon Symphony

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

When Beethoven began the Eroica, he dedicated it to the honor of Napoleon, but by the time he finished its composition, Napoleon had antagonized the composer by proclaiming himself Emperor, and the symphony was rededicated as a hymn to Prometheus.

In Napoleon Symphony, Anthony Burgess has once again proven his virtuosity by meticulously weaving a raucous biography of Napoleon Bonaparte within a structure parallel to Beethoven’s third symphony. The novel is written in four sections, representing the four movements of the symphony, with an overture and a coda. The various themes that constitute Napoleon’s life—his love for Josephine, his brilliance as a strategist, his political tyrannies, and his ruined life devolved into a heroic myth—are interwoven into the symphonic pattern.

The overture is handily paralleled by a scene of officials waiting with Josephine for Napoleon to arrive and begin the wedding ceremony and leads to the first movement with his arrival as he pronounces the word “Begin.” The first movement of the symphony is allegro con brio, or brisk with animation. The exposition of the theme here covers the campaign in Italy, and the development is effected through the campaign in Egypt. The recapitulation comes with Napoleon’s election as First Consul of France, and the coda ranges from the Duc d’Enghien’s assassination attempt through the coronation.

The funeral march which encompasses the second movement of the symphony and is paralleled in the second section of the book presents as its main theme a recurring nonsense poem of heavily beating syllables. Just as the music for this movement is written in a minor key, so the emphasis in this section of the novel is on defeat.

Beethoven’s third movement was truly revolutionary in that he substituted a scherzo for the traditional minuet. Technically, a scherzo is something of a lively musical joke, and for his joke, Burgess presents a hilarious Prometheus ballet. Additionally, one can almost see the defeat at Waterloo as a joke played on the over-confident Napoleon.

The fourth and final movement gives us variations on the theme of INTERFECIMUS NAPOLEONEM REGEM IMPERATOREM, the initials of which, INRI, are the same as those placed on Christ’s cross during the crucifixion. The main theme of the final section centers around Napoleon’s martyrdom as an exile and his death. The coda is an epistle to the reader written in heroic couplets.

In the presentation of this work, both its peculiar structure and its popular style, Burgess treads the thin line between the ridiculous and the sublime. His portrait of Napoleon vacillates between extremes, showing him to be a violent amalgam of the intellectual and the physical, a coarse, energetic, and charismatic man. The Napoleon who is presented to us has been reduced to life-size. We see not only his military brilliance and brash political aplomb, but his inability to realize the true consequences, in human terms, of his actions on the lives of others. In his coldblooded contemplation, for instance, of the most efficient way to kill four thousand prisoners (settling, tellingly, on gas chambers as the ideal method of the future, though he was forced to use bayonets), he is concerned purely with technique.

Burgess does a particularly good job of advising his audience as to the effect of many of these decisions on the soldiers in the front lines, including much of the violence and misery and dreariness of war from the foot soldier’s point of view. The device he uses is a picaresque Everyman who crops up intermittently throughout the work to complain as he slogs through the mud or the desert or the snow at finding himself once more in untoward circumstances, the political consequences of which he does not understand. He is there to fight more out of loyalty to the Napoleonic myth than to his commander in chief’s political dreams.

In one particularly chilling example of this dedication, the army’s retreat from Russia is chronicled in part by a nameless member of the Corps of...

(The entire section is 1686 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Aggeler, Geoffrey, ed. Anthony Burgess: The Artist as Novelist, 1979.

Aggeler, Geoffrey, ed. Critical Essays on Anthony Burgess, 1986.

Boytinck, Paul W. Anthony Burgess: An Annotated Bibliography and References, 1985.

Boytnick, Paul W. Anthony Burgess: A Bibliography, Works by and About Him, 1977.

Brewer, Jeutonne. Anthony Burgess: A Bibliography, 1980.

Coale, Samuel. Anthony Burgess, 1981.

Matthews, Richard. Clockwork Universe of Anthony Burgess, 1978.