Wonderfully lyrical, historically nuanced exploration of the irruption of this Romantic hero.
In this hefty first volume of a projected two-volume biography of the “magician” who was Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), French scholar Gueniffey (Director of Studies/L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris) places the patriot and dictator squarely at the center of unprecedented historical events—not for hagiographic purposes but for the sheer fascination of examining this self-willed character. In his first book in English translation, the author carefully delineates Napoleon's humble upbringing in Corsica to the declaration of Consulate for Life in 1802, from canny officer and negotiator for his extended family’s benefactors to single-minded workhorse and consolidator of centralized power. Throughout the book, Gueniffey allows the countless authors before him to range about the narrative—Stendhal, Chateaubriand, Taine, Emerson, Jacques Bainville and many more. For Gueniffey, there is an obvious joy to the historiographic journey. Having witnessed the excesses of the Revolution, Napoleon came down on the side of “law, tranquility and all the established authorities”; having pressed for Corsican emancipation, he and his family were banished in 1793. Marrying Joséphine de Beauharnais in 1796 was a way to establish French nationality that education could not afford him. His defeat of the British at Toulon set him on his course; as the author astutely observes, Napoleon was “born in war.” In search of a future, he worked tirelessly and imaginatively, often ill, and he was frugal, solitary and bourgeois. Across a consistently illuminating narrative, Gueniffey sifts his subject’s defining achievements of this period—e.g., concord with the Catholic Church (after the rupture of the Revolution) and establishment of a civil code, which confirmed his reputation as a legislator.
A masterful portrait, staggeringly complete and contradictory and fluently translated—a delight to read.