An achingly beautiful fictional account of the rise and fall of the Emperor Napoleon
“The sun emerged from the clouds, bloody-red, tiny, and irritable, but was quickly swallowed up again into the cold gray of the morning. A sullen day was breaking. It was March 20, a mere day before the start of spring. One could see no sign of this. It rained and stormed across the whole land, and the people shivered.”
So begins Joseph Roth’s The Hundred Days, an achingly beautiful fictional account of the rise and fall of the Emperor Napoleon. Detailing the roughly one-hundred-day period that followed Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba, his crushing defeat at Waterloo, and the reinstatement of King Louis XVIII to the throne, the book offers a first-person meditation on Napoleon’s final months in power. Originally published in 1935 in German as Die Hundert Tage, The Hundred Days has been released in English for the first time in seventy years, the last book in Roth’s oeuvre to be made available in English. Roth once said that for him, “a good translation is that which renders the rhythm of my language,” an unsurprising sentiment from a writer as lyrically minded as Roth. In this edition, translator Richard Panchyk has taken that to heart, producing an English translation that preserves the poetic nature of Roth’s writing.
Told in four parts that alternate between the point of view of Napoleon himself and the laundress Angelina Pietri, a Corsican immigrant and servant in the Imperial household who is desparately in love with Napoleon, the book, as Roth described it, allowed him to “make a humble man out of a grand one,” turning a man known for chasing greatness into one who ultimately craved nothing more than anonymity. While from the perspective of Napoleon we experience only the tumult of his final three months in power, through Angelina’s tale we are privy to the years preceding Napoleon’s exile, his brief but glorious return, and his spectacular defeat. Through the lens of her small peasant life we feel the full weight of the Emperor’s reign, and the catastrophic impact of his final flight on the people of Paris.
Roth was born in Brody in Eastern Galicia in 1894, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1916 he dropped out of university to serve the Imperial Hapsburg Army during World War I. The war, and the subsequent collapse of the Hapsburg Empire in 1918, had a devastating effect on him, leaving him feeling adrift and burdened by a deep sense of homelessness. Though he moved throughout Europe, eventually settling in Paris—a city that he loved—his sense of geographical dislocation lingered, permeating both his everyday life and his writing.
While Napoleon’s reign feels like an unexpected topic for Roth, who concerned himself primarily with writing about the events leading up to and the aftermath of World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, The Hundred Days continues Roth’s exploration of a topic that he was deeply interested in—what it means to be forgotten when the pages of history take a sharp and unexpected turn. Through Angelina’s love for and loss of Napoleon we experience the crush of having one’s patriotism betrayed; and through this story we are given a window into the profound loss Roth experienced when his own homeland was destroyed, and from which he never fully recovered.
By telling the story through the alternating perspectives of the humanized yet arrogant Napoleon and the pitiful and self-destructive Angelina, Roth imbues his historical fiction with a fairy tale-like quality. The characters are part human and part parable, and we are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by them. As Napoleon’s grasp for power decimates France’s young men, we see through Angelina’s naïve eyes why so many followed the fearless leader.
Unlike in most accounts of Napoleon’s rise and fall, Roth makes every attempt to portray a complex person, someone who is fallible and feeling, arrogant, but destructible. As the Emperor retreats from battle, Roth writes:
The Emperor lowered his head. He forced himself to see only the undulating silvery mane of his animal and the yellowish-gray strip of road along which he rode . . .. But against his will all the miserable sounds forced themselves upon him from both sides, and it was as if his army’s weapons were whimpering pitifully, as if the fine, strong, defeated, ashamed, and humiliated weapons were weeping.
Written on the precipice of World War II, after his departure from Berlin following the rise of Hitler, Roth was consumed by dread and fear. Charting the futile destruction of a population—in this case the vast majority of Napoleon’s army—and the devastating remorse that followed when Napoleon realizes that all is lost, and flees, Roth meditates on the cruel casualties of fleeting power. In the final moments of Napoleon’s story the emperor stands looking at himself in the mirror in a tiny room on the île d’Aix before he surrenders:
The real Emperor Napoleon was hidden deep within the most remote corner of his heart. The real Emperor never saw the light of day. Everything in the world was no more than a game. It was meaningless theatre and he himself, the Emperor Napoleon, was now performing the role of the Emperor Napoleon giving himself up to enemy hands.
With a mournful sigh Roth turns to the inevitable fact that leaders will rise and fall, but it is the people who will always pay the highest price, as even in their darkest moments the kings and dictators who play God manage to fly just a bit higher than the rest. As if to reconcile this inevitability, in the final pages Roth turns back from Napoleon to little Angelina, tracing her final demise. Trampled in a riot following Napoleon’s departure, Angelina lies still on the banks of the Seine. While Napoleon sails under the cover of darkness to England, alone among the enemy but at home in his knowledge that he will be immortalized, Angeline slips away, having given away everything but remembered by only one.
The Hundred Days, when it was published, was received largely with criticism, dismissed by some as nothing more than a prose poem. Read today, however, the book feels as though it has managed to transcend time. Through language that is no doubt poetic, Roth has told a story of the rise and fall of Napoleon that reads as an allegory for modern war, and for the senseless destruction that follows in the wake of power. Napoleon is a naturally captivating figure, but Roth, through his ficitionalized account, is able to paint a more complex portrait of the man, creating a figure whose flaws still resonate today.