Napoleon Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers.
Hardcover: 608 pages
Publisher: Faber & Faber (6 Mar 2014)
There are some books that just smell good. Yes it’s odd but that was my first thought when I opened the 1st volume Michael Broers’ biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, still fresh from the mail packet. As I let the pages fall in a fan from under my thumb the aroma of paper and ink that I have found most commonly in good quality history books, wafted up to me and I thought this book smells good.
For me a book should not only have a pleasing fragrance but also feel good in my hand, this one did, and I liked that by opening the cover the red of the inside dust jacket blended with the blue of the facing page and the crisp white of the thick chunk of paper to make up the hues of the French Tricolour. It made me smile, and that’s without even reading a word, a good start. I found when reading the introduction a warmth for the style and felt disappointed when I had to stop reading as the timer controlling the light I was reading by clicked off, leaving me in darkness.
The book is exceptional value, even in the intimidating hardback, priced RRP £30. Out of 608 pages only 59 are given over to acknowledgements, notes and index (Don’t worry, there’s still detailed navigation and qualification back there), and 8 for illustrations (averagely 2-3 per page) and 12 for maps, an incredible feat for such a large book, which gives the buyer allot to sink their teeth into. I would have liked to have had more illustrations in such a large book, it will take you two the three weeks to be able to read it, depending on your speed, but that’s just me, I like pictures and the selection he has is good. Faber and Faber has made a very good eye catching product that will look attractive on a shelf. The cover is light in tone, with a fine painting of Napoleon as First Consul after Marengo by Gros. Black, red and soft yellow gold letters make up the title, copying Napoleon’s uniform, and the back if full of reviews and a battle scene showing Austerlitz.
The book charts Napoleon’s rise to power from his birth in 1769 to 1805, a journey that was meteoric but not assured, and one can see by its end the forces that moulded Napoleon into what he was, setting up the next volume admirably. From the Presidio boy from Ajaccio, to the young man at military school in France searching for an identity and clinging to the dream of Corsican nationalism, to the more cynical soldier, converted Frenchman and defender of the Republic, to the victorious General adventurer and then to Consular and Imperial dictator. It was a rocky road to glory and an unsteady plateau to rest. Far from being the master of all and fear of Europe from the first, when the book ends just before Ulm and Austerlitz, he was known more for military fiasco’s and near run things than stunning victories.
Broers tells a very complex story in as simple a way as possible and one cannot help but admire him for the skill he shows in doing so, indeed it’s amazing given the subject that he has managed it at all. He sways between deep character assessment, and the story of Napoleon’s life very fluidly. The approach is therefore at once distant and up close with a certain leaning towards magnifying points through a spyglass, the observer is far away but viewing points of critical importance closely.
When dealing with a figure like Napoleon, authors must have to write with the conscious cloud of hindsight looming over them, this shows itself now and again with Soldier of Destiny, as the author often dips into the future to illustrate a facet of his developing character, giving the impression that he is writing to a knowing audience. And I suppose if I had not known about the Napoleonic wars and had a basic understanding of Napoleon, I think I might have gotten a little lost now and then but hindsight is 20/20. I also can’t comment on how it shapes up to earlier biographies as I have never read a biography of him before, but don’t worry I’ve read enough to give the book the treatment it deserves. For the book is a model of clarity and intelligent thinking and the erudite, astute treatment of the subject should leave a reader fascinated by the many enigmas of Napoleon, and by the end you should have a clear image of the man standing on the precipice of undeniable greatness.
It is succinct, definitive, concise, erudite and well-paced, he quotes allot of secondary sources, almost as many as primary ones, which he admits in the acknowledgments, but this is actually rather brave as, most historians usually can’t help loading a text full of heavy quotations, thus he maintains a steady and lively pace. It is the story of a man’s life plain and simple, an exploration of his character and achievements in light of unpublished evidence, but it’s not an expose on Napoleon’s personality, his likes and dislikes and the way he lived his personal life. The reader must draw their conclusions about Napoleon the man, through the events themselves and I quite like that. What you will certainly find out is the forces and happenings that shaped him, and by the end you have much fuller understanding of what sort of man he was, and what he was capable of. As a man we first find a survivor, a genius, a cunning and ruthless manipulator, and the beginnings of what was to come stirring in him from the corners.
This book is enlightening, surprising and entertaining, it will be better if you know things already about the Napoleonic wars, but what is left out can only encourage you to delve deeper into this pivotal and fascinating period of history. I can’t wait for volume 2 in which the legend is finally born.
If you read it, contact me and tell me what you thought, it should be a great Adventure in Historyland.