A rich portrait, packed with anecdotes and historical data, of the world-shaping general and dictator.
Veteran biographer McLynn (Villa and Zapata, 2001, etc.) invokes “the mystical powers of quaternity” to explain why Napoleon Bonaparte, born on the island of Corsica, exiled to the island of Elba, exiled again to the island of St. Helena, was fated to have a fourth island—England—figure in his stars. Set this odd mysticism aside, and never mind that the shelves devoted to Napoleon are already sagging: McLynn has done his homework and turned in a refreshingly useful biography that shows the author to be a capable student of tactics, strategy, and politics as well as human character. We learn much here that has not been widely reported elsewhere, including some titillating details on the emperor’s sex life (his wife Josephine complained “that her husband made love too fast and suffered from ejaculatio praecox”) and on his infamous temper (he once kicked a minister in the genitals “for presenting an unpalatable set of statistics” and apparently thought nothing of slapping his servants in the face when they displeased him). Despite these quirks and a raft of other character flaws, McLynn notes, Napoleon accomplished much. He planted the French tricolor over most of continental Europe, albeit at a terrific cost; he gave the English and Russian empires a good run for their money; and despite his disdain for the people, he advanced the spread of democracy far and wide. McLynn offers a curious take on Napoleon’s ultimate downfall, suggesting that his empire collapsed “because he was not ruthless enough” and allowed the intriguing, feckless ingrates surrounding him to have their way. The author also weighs in on the age-old question of how Napoleon died, offering a cogent argument that makes yet another good reason to read this account.
A sturdy addition to an overstuffed literature, and just the thing for military-history buffs.