More than 40 years ago, Peter Brooks — who now teaches at Princeton after a long career at Yale — brought out a study of late 18th- and early 19th-century French writers. It was called “The Novel of Worldliness” and concluded with reflections on the work of Stendhal. How appropriate, then, that his new book, and second novel (“World Elsewhere” appeared in 1999), is a highly Stendhalian affair, with the great French writer himself being one of three major characters.
“The Emperor’s Body” is, loosely speaking, a work of historical fiction, set in 1840. Drawing on diaries, letters and memoirs, Brooks describes the French expedition to retrieve the body of Napoleon Bonaparte from its tomb on the island of St. Helena and return it to Paris for reinterment in the Hotel des Invalides. Philippe Chabot, a handsome, sensitive and perfectly mannered young aristocrat, leads this somewhat macabre mission. A third of the book, written from his perspective, presents this junior diplomat’s perplexities over the reality, legend and legacy of Napoleon in the quarter century since his death.
When not reflecting on the emperor’s mystique, Philippe moons over Amelia Curial. This auburn-haired beauty, daughter of a famously tempestuous mother, has been strangely noncommittal about his obvious wish to marry her. Amelia is, in fact, a classic Stendhal heroine, passionate, generous-hearted and thoughtful, determined to realize her own nature, no matter what the strictures of society: “I am not going to let my life be ruled by worry about my reputation.” As Philippe voyages to St. Helena and back, Amelia journeys into herself.
But the young woman’s quest — for personal authenticity, for a vocation — soon grows entangled with a third narrative, centered on Henri Beyle, the 57-year-old French consul at Civitavecchia, better known to posterity under his pen name Stendhal. While Philippe is conscientious and reserved and Amelia full of fire and resolve, Beyle is, as he has always been, a highly self-aware yet distinctly wistful man of the world. As he says, what’s interesting is “what someone is like past fifty. It takes that long to become a character of some depth. It is the weight of past history that makes someone interesting, the accumulation of past loves.”
At the moment, however, Henri Beyle feels rather in the doldrums. Aside from desultorily performing his consular duties, he regularly daydreams about the women in his past, recalls his youthful adventures with Napoleon’s army and makes episodic visits to an old flame in Siena for mutual comfort. Recently, though, he has taken to mulling over a possible novel, one based on the news reports about the expedition that has just set out to retrieve Napoleon’s body. He even tries to imagine what Philippe Chabot must be like, what would bring this young man happiness.
Then, one afternoon, the consul unexpectedly meets Amelia, who is visiting friends in Rome after the sudden death of her mother. He is utterly bowled over, primarily by Amelia herself, but also by vivid and intimate memories of her mother Clementine, “the most passionate woman he had ever encountered.” Instinctively, Beyle begins to play the gallant and wit, remarking, for instance, that “neglect of duty is a finely tuned instrument I have learned to make the utmost use of.” But he doesn’t need to impress Amelia, who is quite willing to reveal her inmost thoughts:
“Men are so stupid. At least the ones my age. They speak of their eternal devotion, their desire for a future of domestic bliss. Slavery and more slavery. Boredom.”
Instead of such domestic suffocation, Amelia wants “adventure. Worlds to conquer.” Beyle comments that she should have been born a man, to which Amelia boldly replies: “You don’t like me as I am?” Beyle looks hard at the pale but intense young woman and says:
“Of course I do. You have the spirit I always dreamed of in a woman. If ever you can find the right man, he will be a most fortunate fellow. I envy him already.”
At which point, Amelia glances up into his eyes and says, “Why must you talk of another man?”
Beyle is overwhelmed. From here on, the novel takes up a series of very worldly questions: Why does Amelia offer herself to Beyle? Should the aging writer accept this unexpected gift? (“Isn’t it time to begin to behave with the dignity of age, for once?” he tells himself, and to “stop pretending to be one of your young heroes?”) What will Amelia do about Philippe’s proposal when he returns? What will happen to them all?
Amelia Curial is Brooks’s own creation, but her mother Clementine — Menti — really was one of Henri Beyle’s great loves. Many readers will recognize at least some of the novel’s numerous Stendhalian touches: Beyle alludes to “the happy few” who appreciate his work and writes that the destiny of his novels is “to be read in 1940.” He dreams of what it would be like to be invisible (one of his imaginary “privileges”). He mentions Balzac’s enthusiastic but off-the mark review of “The Charterhouse of Parma.” A woman’s “grave smile and serious eyes” remind him of a Correggio painting. He gives thanks for the glorious music of Mozart (but where are his other favorites, Rossini and Cimarosa?) After some reflections on love-making, Beyle even concludes, “That’s all it is” — an echo of Julien Sorel’s famous post-coital observation in “The Red and the Black” (“Is that all it is?”). The aging consul even compares himself to his own shrewd but weary-hearted Count Mosca, while the name Amelia is the anagram of “Lamiel,” the heroine of Beyle’s last incomplete novel about a woman who practices absolute freedom.
At the climax of “The Emperor’s Body,” its thematic and plot strands come together, some “twisted, fraying at the ends, snapping even,” as the dead Napoleon finally reaches his new resting place. Philippe wonders whether his long absence during the voyage to and from St. Helena has cost him the love of Amelia. Beyle realizes that his own youth is buried with the emperor in his tomb. And Amelia impulsively acts, with consequences only clearly revealed in an epilogue set in 1851.
Peter Brooks made his reputation as a literary critic and scholar, but it’s obvious that he possesses an enviable gift for elegant and urbane narrative. He reminds me a little of another superb writer who only began to write fiction late in life: Penelope Fitzgerald. I suspect that she admired Stendhal, too.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.
THE EMPEROR’S BODY
By Peter Brooks
Norton. 268 pp. $23.95