Man of des­tiny: the com­plete Napoleon

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Con­rad Black

Bon­a­parte: 1769-1802 By Pa­trice Guenif­fey Trans­lated by Steven Ren­dall Belk­nap Press, 1024pp, $96 (HB) It is al­most in­con­ceiv­able that there could be a more densely de­tailed book about Napoleon than this: 1000 crowded pages to take him from his birth in 1769 to his ac­cla­ma­tion as First Con­sul for life in 1802. When com­pleted in three or more fur­ther vol­umes, Pa­trice Guenif­fey’s bi­og­ra­phy will be an ex­tremely com­pre­hen­sive study.

As only French bi­og­ra­phers can do, ev­ery con­ceiv­able mo­tive and al­ter­na­tive sce­nario is pre­sented at ev­ery stage in the as­ton­ish­ing rise of the sub­ject from the petty and par­venu and rather im­pe­cu­nious no­bil­ity of Cor­sica to a greater po­si­tion of power than any­one had ex­er­cised in Europe since Charle­magne, if not the greater Ro­man em­per­ors.

June 13-14, 2015

The end­less squab­bles and shift­ing al­liances within Napoleon’s fam­ily, and in the tan­gled, un­for­giv­ing, al­most Si­cil­ian pol­i­tics of Cor­sica, re­ceive a fuller air­ing than all but the most in­sa­tiable Napoleonic devo­tee would aspire to read. Though the in­tense pol­i­tics even in his bed­room is in­ter­est­ing: Josephine wanted noth­ing to do with Napoleon as monarch, as she saw she would be dis­em­barked be­cause of her in­abil­ity to pro­duce an heir.

The au­thor does as well as any­one can to de­scribe where Napoleon’s as­tound­ing sense of des­tiny and fierce mo­ti­va­tion to achieve it orig­i­nated, and how, although he was not re­li­gious, he be­lieved in a de­ity of des­tiny that was fickle, and im­pos­si­ble to pro­pi­ti­ate.

No mat­ter how much any­one may have read on the sub­ject, this book will pro­vide new in­sights into how Napoleon be­came con­vinced of, and clung to his be­lief in, his ex­alted and ex­cep­tional des­tiny through many years of ob­scu­rity and in­dif­fer­ence or even mock­ery at the hands of his young French peers. He could not pos­si­bly have had the op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance so quickly with­out the chaos of the revo­lu­tion, which opened up im­mense hori­zons for those who showed dar­ing and bril­liance in de­fence of the young and en­dan­gered French repub­lic.

Once the French state was in the hands of a gang of swiftly chang­ing schemers and ad­ven­tur­ers, and no one had any pur­chase on the fury of events, op­por­tu­ni­ties for one so bril­liant, en­er­getic and un­con­strained by con­ven­tional lim­its of imag­i­na­tion as the young Napoleon were end­less, and he saw it as soon as the Bour­bon monar­chy started to wob­ble.

In the prim­i­tive, fam­ily-based, blood-an­dretri­bu­tion man­ner of Cor­sica, Napoleon had no loy­al­ties to any­one ex­cept his fam­ily (treach­er­ous in­grates though many of them were) and de­voted sup­port­ers, and never seems to have be­lieved in any­thing ex­cept him­self. But from early years he saw the at­tach­ment of most other peo­ple to their re­gion, na­tion­al­ity, cul­ture, oc­cu­pa­tion or reli­gion — none of which counted for much with him — as a hand­i­cap re­strain­ing their abil­ity to ad­vance their ca­reers as op­por­tunis­ti­cally as he could by ex­ploit­ing th­ese at­tach­ments.

Thus he po-facedly told the Egyp­tians and Turks he was con­vert­ing to Is­lam when he was in Cairo. In a sta­ble po­lit­i­cal sys­tem such as Bri­tain’s or a con­ser­va­tively struc­tured so­ci­ety, he doubt­less would have got on but would not have been able to per­se­vere so ve­he­mently and make him­self mas­ter of a vast sweep of Europe with such elec­tri­fy­ing sud­den­ness.

And if he were not a sol­dier, his tal­ents would not have brought him the power it so quickly did in this fluid era where ev­ery­thing had bro­ken loose and only the army could re­store the co­her­ence and pros­per­ity that France came to view with nos­tal­gia af­ter 10 years of rev­o­lu­tion­ary vi­o­lence and cor­rup­tion.

Guenif­fey, like some of Napoleon’s other French bi­og­ra­phers, sees and ex­plains more clearly than for­eign bi­og­ra­phers usu­ally do the fluc­tu­a­tion of the po­lit­i­cal con­stituen­cies within rev­o­lu­tion­ary France. Even be­fore he re­turned from Egypt in 1799, and it was the prin­ci­pal rea­son he did re­turn, Napoleon recog­nised that the peo­ple yearned for a re­turn to tran­quil life, as long as the egal­i­tar­i­an­ism of the Revo­lu­tion

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