206 Years Ago

Sunrise, April 13, 2020.

On April 11, 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne of the French empire, and was sent off to exile. The first time he was exiled, it was to the relatively accessible island of Elba in the Mediterranean. (Those seeking to be done with him would not repeat the mistake — the second and final time he was exiled, it was to the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. This place is exceedingly remote, even by today’s standards.)

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time with Napoleon in the past year. I read The Count of Monte Cristo in the middle of 2019, and that book is set in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s reign. And Napoleon’s all over War and Peace. I’m 89% of the way through Tolstoy’s epic, and currently in the story, it’s October 1812 and Napoleon is hightailing it out of Russia.

Napoleon’s doings seemed to be the cause of a lot of uncertainty back in the day. I’d never really thought of it that way before, I think because I tend to look back at history as a concrete thing. “This happened, and then this happened because of it, and these were the effects.” But reading War and Peace has put me right back in that time, as only good fiction can. I felt the uncertainty of the characters as Napoleon’s army came into Moscow, and I feel it as the French abandon a burnt-out city and country.

It’s hard not to draw parallels with our current level of uncertainty.

So on Saturday, when I read that it was the 206th anniversary of Napoleon’s abdication, it had a little more impact than if I had not spent the better part of this past 12 months in Napoleon’s world. It was like a reminder of the fact that the French really did leave Russia, and Napoleon was forced from public life, eventually. And, oh yeah, he’s been dead for almost 200 years.

The live oak pictured at the top of this post could have been around 200 years ago. It’s not far from some oaks that are believed to be between 750 and 900 years old. While it may not be too long before we can all say, “this is what happened as a result of our 21st century pandemic, and these were the effects,” that’s little consolation for our immediate anxiety. Thinking of what that tree may have been around for, and seeing it still standing strong, makes it feel like a beacon of hope.

Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier

Photo by Trevor Kay on Unsplash

Alternate post title: How War and Peace introduced me to Corb Lund.

Corb Lund is a Western and Country singer-songwriter who’s been around awhile, but also someone I’d never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. His song “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier” is a catchy yarn that encapsulates some epic battles throughout history, specifically ones where soldiers fought on horseback.

Just see the opening lines to the song:

“I’m a hussar, I’m a Hun, I’m a wretched Englishman
Routing Bonaparte at Waterloo
I’m a dragoon on a dun, I’m a Cossack on the run
I’m a horse soldier, timeless, through and through”

And here’s a YouTube link to the whole song, it’s worth a listen: “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier

So how does this relate to my reading of War and Peace? Keeping in mind that the story is chock full of hussars, Cossacks and Napoleon, there is much to correlate. As it happens, I came across a reference to this song when I was looking up a definition of “uhlan.” (Uhlans were Polish-Lithuanian cavalry armed with lances.) An entry for “uhlan alles uber” caught my eye. I discovered “uhlan alles uber” is from the lyrics of “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier:”

“With a crack flanking maneuver, I’m an uhlan alles uber
Striking terror into regiment of foot”

That bit of the lyrics also led me to a really great article by Jim Mundorf on Lonesome Lands. (Click this link to check it out.) Mundorf gives the details on all the references in the lyrics, so you don’t have to research them yourself. Thanks! Though I disagree with him on “alles uber” being turned around just to make it sound right. I think the term “uber alles” is just so fraught that maybe Corb Lund turned it around to make it less so.

Anyway, so that’s the story of how War and Peace introduced me to Corb Lund and a really cool song.

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 22%

Frioul archipelago
Frioul archipelago, Marseille, France. Near the Ch√Ęteau d’If, where Edmond Dantes was imprisoned. Photo by Paul Hermann on Unsplash.

I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo via my Serial Reader app on April 1. It’s split into 208 issues, compared to Moby-Dick‘s 79, so I will be at this for the duration of spring and well into summer. But thus far, I find it a much easier read than Melville’s classic. The narrative is straightforward and the language is simpler.

This might be a good time to address my motivation for reading these two particular classics. Or for choosing these two as the “first in line” as I attempt to rekindle my reading habit. My motivation feels, to me, pretty layered, and I don’t want to bore you with all that unpacking. So I guess the simplest way to state it is: there are themes in both these stories that seem to tap into a very rich vein in our collective unconscious, to borrow from Jung. And I’m seeking a deeper understanding of those themes and how those storytellers managed to mine them so successfully.

Or maybe even simpler: I want to improve my ability to write interesting stories with some meaning, and I realize that while some of the best teachers are long gone, their lessons live on through their work.

Some particular observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, so far:

  • Napoleon: It’s been interesting to read a story written when Napoleon’s imprint on the world was still quite fresh. Napoleon’s former reign, and his attempt to reclaim the throne, are pivotal parts to the early part of the story. Since I live in the one U.S. state with a legal system still largely based on the Napoleonic Code, learning some of this history seems like a wise thing to pursue.
  • The south of France: Marseille, France has been the focal point of the story. Dumas’s depictions of the areas around the coasts of France and Italy are very evocative, and have sparked a new longing to see that part of the world, Marseille in particular. I’ve flown into Nice multiple times, and have spent considerable time in Cannes (in a former work life), but I have never made it to Marseille.
  • V for Vendetta: Going back to my motivations for reading The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta is one of them. It’s one of my favorite movies, and Monte Cristo is a recurring reference in it. It felt like high time to see what those references are all about.
  • Speaking of serials: Wikipedia tells me The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in 18 parts, over a period of about 18 months.

I’m on track to beat that time by far. I’ve upgraded the Serial Reader app so that I can receive multiple issues in a day, if I choose. My goal is to finish Monte Cristo in under five months, instead of the nearly seven months it would take me at a “one-a-day” pace. At any rate, this is not the last you’ll be hearing from me, regarding Edmond Dantes!