"In 1813," writes Mérimée (translated by Leys), "Beyle unwittingly witnessed the rout of an entire brigade, which had been suddenly attacked by a charge of five hundred Cossacks.
Beyle saw some two thousand men -- including five generals with their embroidered hats -- all running for their lives. He ran too, though clumsily, for he was wearing only one boot and carried the other in his hand. On the French side, only two heroes stood their ground against the Cossacks: a gendarme named Menneval, and a conscript, who, trying to shoot at the Cossacks, succeeded only in killing the gendarme's horse. Beyle had to report this episode of panic to the Emperor, who listened in mute fury ..."
Masterful bit of deadpan detail, that "embroidered hats," the embroidery making the hats a little too decorated, the moment of precision -- the conscript, with all the world to fire a gun in and five hundred Cossacks to hit, manages to get his bullet precisely into the gendarme's horse -- against the flood of rout. In The Charterhouse of Parma, which I'd quote from if it hadn't gone back to the library months ago, Stendhal, working from the kind of biographical experience that, years later, gave his friend the material for that part of his memorial tribute, writes a battle that makes other battles in literature seem ridiculous. From memory then: his idealistic hero, hoping to serve under Napoleon, stumbles into the Battle of Waterloo and wanders around the battlefield, filled with innocent hope and a desire to help out in some way, searching for some solid encounter that he can identify as the battle itself. Instead he finds a weird confusion, lone men in uniform running to and fro, shooting coming from somewhere-or-another, horses going who-knows-where, and unexpected light copses of trees that get in the way. The battle, as an object, does not exist.
Other authors describe armies meeting, clashing -- Stendhal makes those descriptions seem simplistic. Victor Hugo tries to describe this degenerating aspect of Waterloo in Les Misérables (as translated by Norman Denny), "A disintegrating army is like the thawing of a glacier, a mindless, jostling commotion, total disruption," but he can't resist the urge to tidy things up: "One who is Unanswerable had taken the matter in hand, and thus the panic of so many heroes is explained." This compulsive tidying turns the rout into a monument. It becomes the work of the Unanswerable, deliberate and huge. In Stendhal's book it is something incongruous, multiple, and slippery, confetti, or jelly.
Hugo goes on to explain that morally the French won the battle, and that the only reason they didn't win it in any other way was that God ("One who is Unanswerable") didn't want them to. This piece of face-saving chutzpah seems unlikely to convince anyone who is not already French, although he's able to turn it into a capstone for his theme, the majesty of insignificant people, by sticking General Cambronne's "Merde!" on top of it all like an angel on a Christmas tree. Le mot de Cambronne was an event so memorable that Proust's characters were able to allude to it in conversation six decades after the general died in 1842 and everyone still knew what they meant.*
Simon Leys won several awards in the early 1990s for his Death of Napoleon, a book that Peter Craven praised during an Age review of the Mérimée/Stendhal translation. If Misérables elevates the ordinary human being then Napoleon de-elevates the exceptional one. Napoleon, in this book, escapes from Saint Helena, leaving a double in his place, and spends the rest of the story trying to regain his position -- trying to become Napoleon. He visits the Waterloo battlesite (the one where Cambronne shouted, or didn't shout, merde!, and where Stendhal's Fabrice received his single wound at the hand of the army he had come to help) only to find that it has been turned into an entertainment for English tourists. A sign on a farmhouse invites him to VISIT NAPOLEON'S BEDROOM explaining that THE EMPEROR SLEPT HERE THE NIGHT BEFORE THE BATTLE. He goes in, hoping to reinvigorate his memories.
Suddenly he feels faint. The vague malaise that has been upon him all morning ... abruptly gives way to an overwhelming certainty: he realizes with horror that HE HAS NEVER BEEN IN THIS PLACE BEFORE!
A little while later he sees another venue advertising the same experience. His past has been appropriated, pulled apart, and packaged by tour guides. (And reading this you might go on to wonder about the effects of Disneylandification elsewhere: the Ballarat goldfield experience, the Mito Komon TV show.) Thwarted everywhere by accidents, half-saved then lost, afflicted with ulcers, he, like Nigel Hawthorne in Alan Bennet's Madness of King George, has lost the ability to seem. (Ian Holm, who plays the doctor who restores the king's seeming in George, takes the role of Napoleon in the movie based on Leys' book.) Waterloo evades these people: it evades Stendhal's Fabrice, it evades Leys' Napoleon, it slides around Hugo's grip as he fight to pin it down, define it, have the final word. "To form a clear idea of the Battle of Waterloo we only have to draw a capital A."
Long after the fact, Edmond Goncourt decided that none of it mattered.
Monday 6 May 1889
... I thought about the fine article there would have been to write on the greatness of present-day France, if only there had not been that revolution in '89 and Napoleon I's victories and Napoleon III's revolutionary policy. True, France would probably be under the rule of an imbecile Bourbon ... but would that rule be very different from that of a Carnot, chosen as everyone knows for his nonexistent personality?
(A few years later President Carnot was stabbed to death in public by an anarchist.)
* In a joke.
"But surely these Cambremers have a rather startling name. It ends just in time, but it ends badly!" she said with a laugh.
"Yes; that double abbreviation!"
The footnotes to the Kilmartin translation explain: "This rather forced joke on the name Cambremer conceives of it being made up of abbreviations of Cambronne and merde." Lydia Davis' footnote says the same in slightly different words. It comes up again in The Guermantes Way when a character delivers her opinion of Zola: "His is the epic dungheap. He is the Homer of the sewers! He has not enough capitals to print Cambronne’s word."
The merde is probably apocryphal. A reader named Richard Edgecombe wrote to the Times in 1932:
In 1850, when I was about seven years of age, I was taken by my father to visit General Hugh Halkett, who then commanded the King's Army at Hanover. The old general seemed to have taken a fancy to me, and often allowed me to accompany him on his morning walks through the groves and avenues of Kingly Herrenhausen. As I knew that this fine old gentleman had served in the German Legion at Waterloo, that great subject often cropped up, and he told me many things which I have long forgotten. But I well remember his telling me that he alone took Cambronne prisoner. He said that this gallant French officer, who was reconnoitering on foot at some distance from and ahead of his troops, was taken completely by surprise when Halkett, who was mounted on a spirited Irish horse, galloped close up to the French lines, seized him by his aiguillette, and dragged him breathless into the British lines. "If you are an officer," said the unfortunate commander when he had recovered a little from the exertions he had undergone, "if you are an officer, here is my sword." Cambronne was taken to England as a prisoner of war, and there died; but he certainly did not ride off triumphant with one of the immortal slogans of history.