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Book Review: Bonaparte, 1769-1802

By (April 6, 2015) No Comment

Bonaparte: 1769-1802bonaparte cover

by Patrice Gueniffey

translated from the French by Steven Rendall

Harvard University Press, 2015

It’s a deeply mysterious aesthetic choice, for a major publisher to put out a thousand-page book with a boring black-and-white dust jacket. It’s a move endemic to American publishing (and the barren waste of Maoist China), and yet who in American publishing will risk the torches and pitchforks of an irate and wrist-sprained reading public by even attempting to justify making a book the size of a cinder block actually resemble a cinder block?

The latest example is the Harvard University Press printing of the English-language translation (by Steven Rendall) of Patrice Gueniffey’s 2013 biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, which adorns its 1000 pages with a black-and-white dust jacket featuring some miscellaneous sketches of Bonaparte done by Jacques Louis David. A less inviting enticement to tackle yet another enormously long biography of the pestiferous little Corsican could scarcely be imagined, and the whole idea isn’t all too terribly inviting to start with. After all, Bonaparte has been the subject of many thousands of books; over a dozen have appeared just in the still-young 21st century. Gueniffey’s book itself, even at its gargantuan length, is only one-half of its own job: a second volume covering Bonaparte’s rule as emperor is yet to come – and this same two-volume approach has likewise been inflicted on the long-suffering reading public many times as well, including just recently and engagingly by Philip Dwyer. Any repetition of this vast approach to this diminutive subject, much like a baby in a nunnery, must be rigorously interrogated as to the reason for its very existence.

Patrice Gueniffey, devil take him, is having none of such Bonaparte boredom. He doesn’t justify his endeavor with a revisionist approach, as Andrew Roberts did in his recent stunning bestseller Napoleon the Great, nor does he make any great claims about new tranches of documents. Instead, he faces the ennui of his potential critics straight-on and dares them to contradict him:

People are sometimes astonished by the large – even enormous – number of studies that had been devoted to Napoleon: several tens of thousands, and the list grows longer every day. Instead we should be astonished by this astonishment. At what other time has such a profusion of unprecedented events, sweeping changes, and monumental collapses been packed into such a short time?

The approach of Bonaparte: 1769-1802 is plain and personal, and the story it tells is intensely familiar. In it, we watch a chubby, morose Corsican bambino become a chubby, weirdly intense cadet, captain, and young general on high-profile campaigns in Italy and Egypt, a chubby martinet inexorably locked into the idea of his own greatness and willing to do anything at all, sacrifice anything at all, in order to achieve that greatness. One of the most dramatic of these sacrifices happened in the 1798 campaign in Egypt, a campaign Gueniffey describes with wonderful vigor:

To properly understand the expeditionary corp’s stupor and dejection, from the humblest soldier to the highest-ranking generals, it has to be recognized that perhaps no army was ever less prepared for the kind of war it was going to wage. When the Army of Italy began its campaign, its leader had told the men that there would be hard fighting before they could enjoy the booty they had been promised. Here, secrecy having obliged him not to reveal the expedition’s goal, Bonaparte had not been able to name the enemy and use the resources of his eloquence or of propaganda that could have prepared the men for combat … They had just arrived, and they were already longing for home, and even more for that beautiful Italy whose splendors and pleasures had amply compensated for the suffering they had endured there.

In fact, Gueniffey, devil take him, writes all of this so-familiar stuff with wonderful vigor that never flags throughout hundreds and hundreds of pages chronicling events that have been chronicled hundreds and hundreds of times, and it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that this unflagging vigor derives from our author’s fascination with the person Bonaparte was. The personal aspect is accented here more strongly than it’s been since Frank McLynn’s 1997 biography; Gueniffey is interested in every little detail of how this chubby, vicious parvenu spent his days – like the work-schedule he established at the Tuileries in 1800:

Bonaparte’s life was reclusive, “serious and full,” “frugal and solitary.” Baron Fain, his last secretary, went so far as to say that there was something of the soldier-monk in Bonaparte. Like all great workers, he was a man of habit, not to say routine, and just as nothing was ever to change in the arrangement of the places or classification of his papers, he did not much like new faces. He still had relatively few servants. In 1800 we are still far from the 176 employees of the first consul’s “household” on the eve of the proclamation of the Empire, and still farther from the 3,381 staff employed on January 1, 1812!

“In a little more than two years he head achieved everything he had promised: peace abroad, order at home,” Gueniffey writes:

The record was impressive, and it is not without reason that historians are generally amazed by it. Contemporaries were no less amazed. No one had ever seen before, or ever would see again, so many ills remedied in so little time.

And if you read that and think, but what about the equally-staggering number of ills that were CREATED by this same person? – well, Gueniffey will get to those in his next juggernaut volume. Maybe it’ll arrive in its American version in a brown paper bag.