(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Portrait of Napoleon III (1855), now in Museo Napoleonico, Rome; found here)
Towards the end of Hermes in Paris is a powerful chapter in which Napoleon III, weary and in pain, sits alone in his study contemplating the stand-off with Prussia. He looks at his two-volume set of Caesar and recalls a paragraph:
The kings are expelled from Rome. They vanish, because their mission is accomplished. We may say there exists, morally, physically, a governing rule which allows institutions and certain individuals alike a fated limit, marked by the extent of their usefulness. Until that limit, fixed by Providence, is reached, all opposition fails: conspiracies, revolts, all crumble against the irresistible force which supports what some wish to demolish; but if, on the contrary, a state of affairs, outwardly immovable, ceases to benefit human progress, neither the empyrium of traditions, nor courage, nor memories of past glories can delay by one single day the collapse decreed by Fate. Once the moment arrives, when the kings cease to be indispensable, they are toppled by the merest accident.
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting (1855), now in Château de Compiègne; found here; Vansittart refers to it in the novel)
This could be the epigraph of this strange, rich and fascinating novel. It takes place in Paris in 1870, just before the fall of the Second Empire to the Prussians. Hermes, trickster god, ‘always entertained by whatever goes awry: an ill-balanced marriage, a gullible child, a sententious but ludicrous lawsuit, adroit swindles, sea disasters, the breaking of oaths, [...] revolution, when the Minister of the Interior flees to the interior’, is haunting the cafés, unlit passages and high-society parties. Attracted by the imminence of catastrophe, which as yet only he can scent, he amuses himself with the petty hypocrisies of humanity which are particularly evident in this society of ‘seems, not is’. He ‘befriends’ two other outsiders and observers of the city: Jean-Luc de Massonier, a radical journalist rendered vulnerable by his spite and cowardice, and Emile, a young boy who roams Paris’s underbelly:
Streets had a way of making visible the unseen, angels were possible, a horse looked decidedly human. [...] The streets themselves were perpetual fairs, with water-sellers in cocked hats, blind men, dancing bears, organ-grinders with monkeys, lovers being ugly behind a statue or fountain, old soldiers with faces like dried-up oilcloth ready to thrust a hand into your trouser pocket, however little there was to find. The reek of vegetables and dog, the smell of a man damp from running.
His friendship is not to their advantage.
Meanwhile the politicians rant and posture, the aristocrats attend masked balls, the journalists spit vitriol at the powerful and crowds of ordinary people mass into a demonstration or disperse, uncertain of what to do. Gossip and hearsay drive and confuse people. In the end, war is declared over the flimsiest trifle.
I have outlined a ‘plot’ of sorts but this brilliant novel isn’t obviously plot driven. In fact, many of the subplots end abruptly, or dissolve; certainly there are no resolutions. It progresses more by symbol and suggestion. With its detached viewpoint, assumption of some degree of erudition and densely allusive prose, this is a novel which is deeply concerned with the process of history. Things happen by accident, misunderstanding, in a muddle; taken all together they create a force which is beyond anything individuals can control. Events are caught between the past and the future, gesturing at a much larger narrative. Napoleon III is overshadowed by his more famous predecessor. In contrast to Bonaparte, his foreign policy has been disastrous, and in his debased empire his ‘Tacitus’ is a second-rate journalist and the best-known composer is Offenbach, writer of grotesque and frivolous operettas. And behind the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte is the Revolution: the powerful classes fear it and the Parisian crowd are all too conscious of it. Haussmann has ironed the city into boulevards but old Paris lingers in dark alleys and superstitions, fairs and illusions, ready to rise up again bringing disorder. Meanwhile, the fall of the empire is prefigured but so too are the Paris Commune and the rise of Nazism with its cultural fanaticism and anti-semitism.
Vansittart died in 2008 at the age of 88; there is an obituary in the Guardian by his publisher, Peter Owen, and two more in the Telegraph and the Independent, all of which are worth reading for their portrait of him and splendid anecdotes. It is impossible for me to do justice to him, but judging by this and Secret Protocols he is a writer whose work you must seek out immediately and read for yourself.
(Portrait of Peter Vansittart, uncredited photograph from the New York Times)