This sophisticated and masterful biography, written by a respected French history scholar who has taught courses on Napoleon at the University of Paris, brings new and remarkable analysis to the study of modern history's most famous general and statesman.
Since boyhood, Steven Englund has been fascinated by the unique force, personality, and political significance of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, in only a decade and a half, changed the face of Europe forever. In Napoleon: A Political Life, Englund harnesses his early passion and intellectual expertise to create a rich and full interpretation of a brilliant but flawed leader.
Napoleon believed that war was a means to an end, not the end itself. With this in mind, Steven Englund focuses on the political, rather than the military or personal, aspects of Napoleon's notorious and celebrated life. Doing so permits him to arrive at some original conclusions. For example, where most biographers see this subject as a Corsican patriot who at first detested France, Englund sees a young officer deeply committed to a political event, idea, and opportunity (the French Revolution) -- not to any specific nationality. Indeed, Englund dissects carefully the political use Napoleon made, both as First Consul and as Emperor of the French, of patriotism, or "nation-talk."
As Englund charts Napoleon's dramatic rise and fall -- from his Corsican boyhood, his French education, his astonishing military victories and no less astonishing acts of reform as First Consul (1799-1804) to his controversial record as Emperor and, finally, to his exile and death -- he is at particular pains to explore the unprecedented power Napoleon maintained over the popular imagination. Alone among recent biographers, Englund includes a chapter that analyzes the Napoleonic legend over the course of the past two centuries, down to the present-day French Republic, which has its own profound ambivalences toward this man whom it is afraid to recognize yet cannot avoid. Napoleon: A Political Life presents new consideration of Napoleon's adolescent and adult writings, as well as a convincing argument against the recent theory that the Emperor was poisoned at St. Helena. The book also offers an explanation of Napoleon's role as father of the "modern" in politics.
What finally emerges from these pages is a vivid and sympathetic portrait that combines youthful enthusiasm and mature scholarly reflection. The result is already regarded by experts as the Napoleonic bicentennial's first major interpretation of this perennial subject.
The central question of any study of Napoleon is whether he saved the French Revolution or buried it. Fighting through the tangle of two centuries of interpretation, Englund, who has taught courses on French history at UCLA and elsewhere, defends the French emperor where others criticize him and skewers him where other praise. He draws sufficient comparisons to Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great to please Bonaparte himself, but underplays his talent and skill at his early signature victories and questions whether the Directory needed a savior in 1799 when the young general arrived seeking that role. Napoleon emerges from this study not as a great leader but as a lucky one. If he was not a great tactician, then he was simply the right man for his time: decisive, flexible, inspiring; idealistic yet pragmatic; equipped to be the modern leader with the education of the aristocrat but the spirit of the common man. Readers who are not already steeped in the Napoleonic era may struggle to follow the narrative of events. Englund (The Inquisition in Hollywood, etc.) slips forward and back chronologically and often uses terms and names before he has introduced them or neglects to identify them at all. When he is interested in a particular event or interpretation, he offers a strong reading, as in examinations of Napoleon's popularity with soldiers and the distinctions between Napoleon as first consul and as emperor. Elsewhere, the writing becomes uneven, plagued by shifting tenses, elaborate phrasing and occasional awkward wordplay. Multiple epigrams in each chapter, ranging from the very familiar to the strikingly tangential, become an almost comical commentary on the complexity of reactions to Napoleon and the difficulty of providing a definitive interpretation.
Obviously well informed but too close
Just wanted to say after reading this it is obviously written by a well informed person, but it really doesn't flow well. It bounces all around with references to all areas of Napoleon's life picking pieces and writings to try to tell us what kind of person Napoleon was in his time, and I feel it's very sympathetic to him. It's a fine book but I just wanted a look at his life the way it happened and less opinions from the author. All the bouncing around he does in his writing makes you need a decoder ring to get at the facts. The information is there but if you want to learn something about Napoleon and you don't already know a great deal already, I would start elsewhere.