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the hundred days

10 may 2015

The Hundred Days (1935) is not the first book by Joseph Roth that you're supposed to read – that's The Radetzky March – and in fact The Hundred Days may be pretty much the last you should read, since it languished for a long time out of print in English. An American edition of Richard Panchyk's 2011 translation appeared just last fall, and who knows how long the novel will stay in print this time. But there were two good reasons for me to start reading Joseph Roth here and now: it's precisely two hundred years from the Hundred Days, Napoleon's return from exile that ended at Waterloo; and a paperback copy was on deep discount at a local used-book store.

Translator Richard Panchyk notes that "a pathos-filled story about a dictator's fall from power" (9) might not have been trending in 1935, and indeed it seems odd that Roth, who had fled Germany after the rise of Hitler, would be drawn to that story. But it seems to me that for all Napoleon's pathos, "fall" is the operative word. "I would like to make a humble man out of a grand one," Roth said (8), and The Hundred Days certainly accomplishes that.

Elba had accomplished it, in fact, even as The Hundred Days begins:

At that moment the Emperor saw himself as his devotees saw him, on thousands of pictures on plates, knives, and walls; already a legend, but still living. (39)
For the washerwoman Angelina Pietri, who has nourished a longterm blind devotion to the Emperor, "he was now himself like a copy of his own portraits" (111). Roth's Napoleon is grotesquely dissociated from his won body and being. In one of the novel's most striking images, Angelina and her lover, the cobbler Wokurka pour wine from a carafe decorated with an image of
Napoleon in his traditional costume, a glass Emperor coloured and infused with red wine, a crystalline Napoleon of glass and blood. As the glass was emptied, the Emperor grew pallid and more remote, truly glass. Angelina felt she was watching his body die bit by bit, his head first, then his shoulders, his torso, legs, and finally his feet. (131)
Roth may have intended his humbled Emperor to be sympathetic, but the first and third sections of the novel, which center on Napoleon, are far less interesting than the second and fourth, which center on Angelina. For all his hyper-individualism, his brand that's stamped on everything in sight, Roth's Emperor has a fairly generic personality. Maybe that's the point; extreme power and fame have burnt out his individuality and left him naked inside his role.

Panchyk and other readers have noted that the world-historical narrative is somewhat downplayed here; there's almost no mention of Wellington and little enough of Talleyrand and other major players. Of course, why should there be? Waterloo is briefly imagined, but it's been done on the big scale elsewhere: in La Chartreuse de Parme, in Les Misérables – and even there, the historical narrative is subordinated to the stories of characters tangential to the battle but prominent in the novels.

By contrast to Roth's Napoleon, his Angelina, her aunt Véronique (chief laundress and fortune-teller to the Bonapartes), her son's larger-than-life father Sosthène, and the disabled veteran Wokurka are strongly-drawn individuals with quirky, contingent lives. If this is the least of Joseph Roth's novels, I'm going to greatly enjoy working my way toward the best.

Roth, Joseph. The Hundred Days. [Die Hundert Tage, 1935.] Translated by Richard Panchyk. London: Peter Owen, 2011.

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