Everybody loves a winner. Lose your throne to the combined armies of Europe, though, and it’s a different story.
Prix Goncourt winner Rambaud continues his epic study of Napoleon Bonaparte (The Battle, 2000; The Retreat, 2004) with the events of 1814, which find the world conqueror in dire straits. To the south stands Wellington’s army, “swollen by elite Spanish and Portuguese troops”; to the east and north are Russians, Swedes, Poles, Austrians, Prussians and Netherlanders, all mightily ticked off; back in Paris, the monarchists are dusting off their fleurs-de-lis, even though, as one provocateur admits, “Everyone has forgotten the Bourbons.” There are some rotten apples lurking in the Tuileries, such as Talleyrand (“prince of intrigue”), but Napoleon is the big prize. Rambaud draws sharply detailed portraits of the actors in his well-paced historical drama, which attains moments worthy of Hugo, as when a crowd of boulevardiers and solid citizens gathers to greet the allies: “We’ve been waiting so long for this liberation,” says an excited young noblewoman, which earns the rebuke, “Of course we have, Zoe, but a countess doesn’t hop up and down.” Finally caught, Napoleon is hustled off to a presumptively shameful exile off the Italian coast, where he stuffs himself with chicken dumplings and wine and plans great things, mostly in the nature of remodeling the house (“Ah, Pons!” he exclaims. “See how busy my mind is, spending money that I haven’t got”). The Bonaparte who emerges from Rambaud’s pages is a likable fellow, fond of practical jokes. But he’s too driven to stay put, and in no time, he’s organized agricultural reforms (so that the island of Elba no longer has to import wheat), recruited an army and worked his way back to the mainland to do his special mischief—a matter, we imagine, that Rambaud will take up in his next book.
Lively, true to history and a pleasure for period buffs.