Monday, January 04, 2010

Metternich's alarm clock

One of the most arresting moments in Adam Zamoyski's Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (2007) comes in the early morning hours of March 7, 1815. Metternich, Austria's foreign minister, is woken "at the ungodly hour of 6 o'clock" by his valet, who has brought him a despatch marked "urgent." Metternich, tired equally by diplomacy and amours, chose to let it lie until 7:30, when he felt more like waking, at which point he opened it to find:
The English commissioner Campbell has just sailed into the harbour to enquire whether there has been any sighting of Napoleon, given that he has disappeared from the Island of Elba. The answer being negative, the English frigate put to sea without delay.
Though the note came from the Consulate General in Genoa, I can't help but hear a certain British faux-casualness in it, something like, "Say, old chap, have you seen that fellow Napoleon? No, no--no reason to worry: we've just lost track of him for a bit, that's all. I expect he's just popped round the corner for a spot of tea--I'm sure he'll turn up any minute now."* In one sense, such a momentous event seems to cry out for such downplaying, but I'm astonished nonetheless: this was the event that all Europe had feared, and the dread Napoleon soon proved those fears justified, parlaying his mere 1,000-man force into control of all of France.

Thoughts of Napoleon leading, as they inevitably do, to War and Peace, soon after finishing Zamoysky's book I turned to Tolstoy's letters, where I found this striking response to an inquiry about Napoleon from novelist Alexander Ivanovich Ertel, sent on January 15, 1890:
I can't tell you anything about Napoleon. No, I haven't changed my opinion, and I would even say I value it very much. You won't find any bright sides; it's impossible to find them until all the dark and terrible sides this person presents have been exhausted. The most valuable material is Memorial de Sainte-Helene. And his doctor's memoirs about him. However much they exaggerate his greatness, this pathetic fat figure with a paunch and a hat, loafing around an island and living only on the memories of his former quasi-greatness, is pathetic and nasty. I was always terribly agitated reading about this, and I very much regret that I didn't have to touch on this period of his life. The last years of his life when he plays at greatness and sees himself that it's no good--the period when he is shown to be a complete moral bankrupt, and his death--all this should be a very big and important part of his biography.
That letter offers an additional, unexpected pleasure: that defining phrase, "terribly agitated." It's how I always think of Tolstoy the man: fingers tightly gripping a book as he shakes it in anger and frustration, his lips atremble, his mind racing in counterattack. It could hardly have made him a comfortable spouse or father or even friend, but good god am I glad for it nonetheless.

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