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20 January 2006

When I bought my copy of André Castelot's Bonaparte last year in Paris, the woman at the bookstore checkout directed a stream of invective at the book, tapping its cover, raising her eyes to heaven. I had no idea what she was saying. All I wanted was a straightforward book about Napoleon. All I understood was that there are no straightforward books about Napoleon.

The signal problems are that most English-language lives of Napoleon are contemptuous of their subject, while most French lives (whether contemptuous, adulatory, or both at once; there are no dispassionate lives of Napoleon) assume that you already know everything about Napoleon, so they don't have to do anything more than embroider a well-known story. I started to read about Napoleon knowing pretty much that he had left the island of Elba (where I once spent an afternoon wanting to leave, too) and lost the battle of Waterloo. But my choice of further reading always seemed to be divided between books that wanted to point out what a profligate swine Boney was, and those that made dark allusions to the subtleties of 18 Brumaire and its parallels to the coup of Fructidor.

André Castelot's life of Napoleon in two volumes, while it shares the presumptions of all French biographies of the Emperor, is at least detailed enough to sketch in the events so that one can comprehend them. At almost 1,750 pages, it ought to be. Bonaparte is the first volume, taking the life of its subject up to 11 Frimaire an XIII – 2 December 1804 to the rest of the world – when Napoleon Bonaparte stood in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and, in the presence of Pope Pius VII, crowned himself. The image is famous: the Emperor seizing the crown and turning his back on the Pope, because he was no vassal to Rome. The self-coronation was no impulse, however. It was carefully worked out beforehand by diplomats, and the Pope was OK with it. He didn't mind being on hand to anoint Napoleon and Josephine, but one senses that he was just as happy not to imply that the new Empire was somehow his idea.

One of the things that my bookstore clerk may have been angry about is the Great-Man theory of history. Castelot is completely charmed by Napoleon. He loses no opportunity to reveal Napoleon's foibles, vanities, and irrational furies, but his Napoleon is quick-witted, boundlessly energetic, and possessed of a freeze-drying sense of humor that carries all before it. You'd forgive him anything. If they had ever made that movie, within the movie Get Shorty, where Danny DeVito plays Napoleon, it would have been Castelot's Napoleon to a T.

Napoleon Bonaparte, a member of the minor Corsican gentry who rose in the ranks of the French army thanks to merit and ruthlessness, is perhaps the archetypal Great Man of history. But somehow, even from a volume that plays his greatness to extremes, one can carry away a sense that if it hadn't been him, it would have been somebody else. France emerged from its Revolution with great, multiple, contradictory, and unworkable plans for a future Republic. Most of its competent leaders spent the next few years guillotining one another. No systems were in place to facilitate the leap from the fossilized corruption of the old monarchy to a modern constitutional system like that of Britain or America. So it was almost inevitable that in a few years, the monarchy would return (as it had to England in 1660). But since the Bourbon dynasty was incompetent and hated, the more likely outcome was that someone competent and at least feared if not loved would become the new monarch. Bonaparte was the man.

Napoleon had great talent, even genius. He understood that winning wars (as he'd done against Austria in Italy in the 1790s and again in 1800) was all well and good, but that nation-building was the main event, and in France between 1800 and 1804, with Europe relatively at peace, he went to work reforming and stabilizing French institutions as no other leader has done quite so single-handedly in any country, at least with any semblance of endurance. But I have to imagine that his work was so cut out for him that if he hadn't done it, some other warlord would have.

When I think of a Great Man, I think of John Brown – someone who had such bizarre and unpredictable ideas that you cannot imagine history having taken its contingent directions without the specific push he gave it. Bonaparte was almost in that category. As First Consul of a vibrant, nascent Republic, he reached his greatest glory. After 1804, he was just another bloated monarch waiting to be deposed; the Empire was pretty much Ancien Régime 2.0. Or maybe I shouldn't say that till I read Castelot's second volume . . .

Castelot, André. Bonaparte. 1967. Paris: Perrin, 1996.