The Black Room
Napoleon's Exile on
(Four Walls, Eight Windows)The Encyclopedia of Military History tells us that "The first coherent new concept of warmaking to manifest itself since Genghis Khan had been demonstrated in the early campaigns of young Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy and Egypt ... he fought more battles than Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar combined." In 1811, Napoleon and his armies controlled Spain, the Rhine Confederation, the Austrian Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, Holland, Prussia, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Denmark and Norway.
This is the man who --- for the last six years of his life --- was confined to a tiny house on a tiny rock in the south Atlantic. St. Helena lies 1250 miles west of Angola, 1500 miles south of the Ivory Coast, and 2500 miles east of Brazil. It's a mountain out of the sea, really --- and the trade winds blow from the northwest constantly.
After Waterloo, Napoleon was a prisoner of the English. They didn't want to make the same mistake as they had with Elba. They picked the furthermost corner of the earth, this bleak island, and shipped him there on 15 October 1815. He died there 5 May 1821.
Naturally, for one who had been at the head of such an army, had conquered so much territory, he was restless, depressed, strutting and fretting his last days on earth. He had wanted to escape to America, but he waited too long. The English made him believe that he would be retired to a rural area in their own country, to become a squire --- but then they put him in a place where there was no possible escape, in a house where the winds blew constantly, where the humidity was devastating, where the termites consumed everything, a house which they called Longwood:
This book began the very moment I entered the house [says Kauffmann]. I had only to breathe the air, the odor of a damp cellar mixed with a strange tropical perfume --- the heavy, rather peppery smell that fills your nostrils as soon as you open a cigar box --- to become aware of the dimension of time on St. Helena. It's of no real importance that the exotic smell comes from the African wood in the floorboards --- the original parquet was destroyed by termites long ago. There's still a strong whiff of mildew, made a little less unpleasant by creosote, the sooty smell that comes from old fireplaces.
Captivity is first of all a smell. Napoleon had an extremely sensitive olfactory sense. "I have seen him move away from more than one servant, who was far from suspecting the secret aversion he had inspired," wrote Baron Fain, the Emperor's personal secretary from 1813.
Kauffmann has constructed a Doppelgänger. There is the St. Helena of Napoleon; and there is the St. Helena that the author visits in order to create this book. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, this could be a lunky show-off literary exercise. But Kauffmann has a fine eye, an excellent ear for phrasing, and the present and the past get intertwined --- a rare double helix of time and history and thoughts and smells.
He has so immersed himself in the last days of Napoleon that we have a work laden with facts, interesting facts --- not the nonsense with which most fake historians fill out their pages to impress us --- but rather, those key moments that reveal the past to the present, all mined with a delicacy.
As Napoleon dictates his memoirs to the four faithful followers who live there in exile with him, "he ceaselessly goes over the battle plan, looks for signs, indications, mistakes that always escape him." There is the beginning of depression: "the Emperor is fighting himself. He stays in his room and will not see anyone." There is a child, who lives on the island, who comes to visit:
It is difficult to imagine that the god of battle, the thundering Jupiter, the terror of Europe, could play the fool to cheer up Betsy Balcombe and amuse himself by frightening her. He's not afraid to tousle his hair, make horrible faces, and roar like a lion.
What a picture: the terror, the Jupiter, roaring like a lion, to amuse a child. Napoleon hated stink --- especially B. O. of people. Towards the end, he would get in his bathtub at Longwood, floating, suspended, staying for hours. And always, there were the smells:
The smell of Longwood...It was an obsession of the Emperor's. He had had to prolong his stay at the Briars [his first house on St. Helena] because of the fresh paint. He couldn't stand the slightest whiff of it.
The smells, the atmosphere, the history. So many portrait painters tried to capture him, yet none of them were able, it is said, to reproduce his startling face. In the morning, when they first came to his room, none of his entourage spoke until he spoke first. His memoirs, dictated to four of them (for the four fields of battle) are dry, filled with dates and time, with none of the noise, none of the improbable adventure of a man who terrified Europe for fifteen years, a man who had ranged through Spain, Egypt, all the way up to the gates of Moscow --- now in a cottage with four rooms, a billiards table, and the wind, the constant wind.
It's a mix we have here in The Black Room at Longwood. The island now, as always, so distant from the world. Everything is imported from England. The locals --- called "Saints" --- are indifferent to the history, to their most famous inhabitant. Their conversations with Kauffmann at times border on the churlish. "Now explain to me why you're so keen on this character," one of them says. "You're really obsessed by Napoleon. You're tracking him."
So much they miss in their tiny --- obviously boring --- present: these 6,000 "saints." They cannot conceive of one fascinated by this fascinating person from 200 years ago. But he is ... is so very fascinating, strange; and in his last days, so melancholic --- there at Longwood, captured, and captured so well, by a writer who has the fine ability to turn the exile into a study of a rich, claustrophobic past ... mixed with a dry, claustrophic present: and the people on the island in the midst of their own exile, both physical and mental.--- I. A. Schwartz