Man of destiny: the complete Napoleon
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