Napoleon: The Unsolved Enigma

Bonaparte: 1769–1802

by Patrice Gueniffey, translated from the French by Steven Rendall
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1,008 pp., $39.95
‘The Coronation of Napoleon’; detail of a painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1806–1807
Musée du Louvre, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
‘The Coronation of Napoleon’; detail of a painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1806–1807

Andrew Roberts recounts yet another tale about Napoleon. A month after Waterloo, the British prime minister, Lord Liverpool, wrote to his foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, in Vienna, to suggest that St. Helena was suitably distant and isolated as a place of exile for “General Bonaparte,” such that “all intrigue would be impossible; and, being so far from the European world, he would soon be forgotten.” Yes, nobody will notice him—well, except maybe Goethe, who thought this life “the stride of a demigod.”

Lately, the monstre sacré can be seen and heard all over. Since he died there have been thousands of books about him, but for reasons mainly pertaining to the déclassement of the genre of biography in the academy, years passed with no serious biographies of the first French emperor appearing. Then, suddenly, in the last decade, we have half a dozen or more. Still, as Patrice Gueniffey notes in the introduction to his book, this attention should not astonish us, rather “we should be astonished by this astonishment.”

The books under review (and their number could easily be doubled or trebled after the Waterloo bicentennial year) range from good to very good to excellent, although their approaches—all legitimate and established—are quite different. They do not give definitive answers to the intricacies of psychological and historical causality. What they contribute is original thinking about Napoleon and the clearing away of many myths about him. They represent real advances in biographies of this man. Each is the product of strong and informed authorial reasoning and emotion, and the effect of reading them is to renew our sense of awe at the inexhaustible fount of meaning that pours out of this particular life story, so uniquely coincident with, and formative of, world history. The cumulative effect, which their authors perhaps did not anticipate or desire, is to increase significantly a reader’s ability and wish to consider quite neutrally the endlessly controversial, fascinating figure whom Chateaubriand called “the mightiest breath of life that ever animated human clay.”

Still, if Bonaparte the general, the emperor, and the politician have been portrayed more deeply and accurately, Napoleon the man remains the enigma he has always been. And so what these books do best is to reveal to the reader something about their authors. That’s far from nothing when you have interesting ones, as we do.

Andrew Roberts, a respected writer on military history, has produced a highly enthusiastic and engaging telling of the Napoleonic story in one volume. The book has many fresh anecdotes and the occasional finely turned phrase, and is one of the most readable single-volume biographies, and certainly the most up-to-date. It amounts to a tableau vivant of great episodes…

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