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NAPOLEON IN EGYPT by Paul Strathern

NAPOLEON IN EGYPT

By Paul Strathern

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-553-80678-6
Publisher: Bantam

Strathern (James Joyce in 90 Minutes, 2005, etc.) wades into the muddy waters of France’s fabled North African campaign in 1798–99.

It’s well established that Napoleon fancied himself a new Alexander the Great, eyes voraciously turned on conquering Egypt and then India, and the author crafts a solid account of the young general’s ambitions. Having gained notoriety as the “liberator of Italy,” steeped in Constantin Volney’s seminal 1787 text Voyage en Égypte et en Syrie and harkening cries by Talleyrand and others to liberate Egypt from the Mamelukes and jump-start French colonial expansion, Napoleon in 1798 ransacked the Vatican’s coffers and set out with an armada of 335 ships. The campaign was as much a “civilizing” enterprise as a military venture: The general took along 167 “hand-picked savants” from France. Among them were mathematician Gaspard Monge and chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, who intended to plant European ideas and extract the essence of Egypt’s ancient grandeur. Pursued by Admiral Nelson, however, the general was thwarted at the Battle of the Nile and later at the Siege of Acre; what was planned as a triumphal progress ended with his precipitous flight back to France in 1799. In between the battle scenes, Strathern paints a portrait of Napoleon the man, sketching his humiliation over wife Josephine’s infidelities and his implausibly lofty ideals, which spawned a generation of Romantic artists. His team of savants spurred the discipline of Egyptology, thanks to painter Vivant Denon’s sketches of fabulous ancient ruins and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, among other valuable artifacts.

Inserting extracts from diaries and letters, the author does a solid job re-creating Napoleon’s “dream of an Oriental empire” without offering many new insights.