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Now in Paperback: Napoleon

Napoleon: A Biography

by Frank McLynn

Arcade (Skyhorse Publishing), 2011

The odd historical anomaly that is the life of roly-poly Corsican brigand-cum-emperor Napoleon Bonaparte has been the source of innumerable biographies. The Notes and Bibliography of Frank McLynn’s masterful and gripping 1997 biography (amplified in subsequent years and here reprinted in a very handsome paperback from Arcade Publishing) run to almost 100 pages, and even so, they only begin to sketch out a methodology for dealing with the deluge.

Still, McLynn is one of our best working biographers, and Arcade (a subset of Skyhorse) is to be congratulated for rescuing this fat one-volume Bonaparte biography from the oblivion into which its boring-as-dirt cover design had consigned it. The cover of this edition features Jacques-Louis David’s magnificent fantasy of Bonaparte crossing the Alps with all the fateful assurance of Hannibal (oddly, the cover painting is nowhere credited in the book), is certainly worlds better than the bland painting on the cover of the original hardcover. If this attractive new design brings the book even a hundred new readers, it will have done its job and then some.

McLynn is a very refreshing throw-back to the now-unfashionable ‘great man” approach to history, and he maintains Bonaparte’s central importance even while consistently cutting him down to size:

Because Napoleon was an artist manque and saw his life as a novel, nothing in it surprised him. People have often wondered how it was that an obscure Corsican could ascend an imperial throne like a duck taking to water. But wearing the purple to such a man would simply be another chapter in the book of his life. This is surely the hidden subtext to his own apology: ‘It is said that I am ambitious, but this is an error; or at least, my ambition is so intimately allied to my whole being that it cannot be separated from it.’

The confident (merry, even?) slightly provoking tone runs through the 700 + pages of this biography, in which McLynn comes an inch away from snickering at his subject and certainly finds Bonaparte guilty of more wrong-headedness than any previous English-language biographer has done:

… the propensity to improvise and to opt for short-term solutions, combined with the impatience and boredom, explains many things otherwise inexplicable. For a man so gifted, it is surprising how many failures, impracticable schemes and false starts there were in his career. A great decision-maker, who however seemed to forget so many of his own decisions, Napoleon took up and dropped a bewildering variety of plans which at the time he declared to be indispensable for the future of France.

Assessments like these – at once thought-provoking and quotable – pepper the book from start to finish and combine to make this easily the most enjoyable Bonaparte biography in English. Because McLynn isn’t shy in attributing some measure of military greatness to his subject (the battle-scenes in this book are sharply, memorably done), he’s that much more willing to spot flaws when the spotting makes for compulsive reading:

Napoleon’s mistakes in Spain were legion. A wiser man would have pulled out as soon as he saw the depth of the opposition or at least held a defensive line north of Madrid, possible from Mediterranean to Atlantic on a Catalonia/Galicia axis. As it was, the Emperor seemed woefully ignorant of the real problems of campaigning in the peninsula. He provided insufficient resources to achieve total pacification – admittedly this would probably have entailed committing most of the Grande Armee to this one theatre – close his eyes and ears to the truth, continued his ludicrous underestimation of Wellington and the British (even at Waterloo he regarded Wellesley as no more than a ‘sepoy general’) and seemed almost wilful in his refusal to make a close study of the politics and culture of Spain. Until 1812 he directed operations from Paris, invariably making the wrong decisions.

Indeed, upon a second consideration (some of us enjoyed this book ten years ago, despite its deplorable cover), these knuckle-rapping sessions aimed at deflating the great man become a string of surly pearls draped over the book’s spiky skeleton. The narrative starts to pause and wait for them, and they never disappoint:

The legend of Napoleon as political saviour can be safely laid to rest. A close analysis reveals that he has also been severely overrated as a military commander. There is much hyperbole of the ‘greatest captain of all times’ variety, but this cannot survive critical scrutiny. He had two great victories, at Austerlitz and Friedland, but otherwise his record was not outstanding.

When this book first came out, many critics hailed it as the finest, most engrossing one-volume biography of Bonaparte in English, and the intervening decade has made this judgement all the more certain. Even in a very crowded field, it stands out for scope, speed, and readability. And it blackens the little Emperor’s eyes on a regular basis, which is always nice.

 

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