Book Review. Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth by Adam Zamoyski.

‘Zamoyski has done for Napoleon what Hibbert did for Wellington. Deliver an informative, entertaining and accessible personal history that has nothing to do with legend… the book is a remarkable achievement’.

ISBN: 9780008116071

Imprint: William Collins

On Sale: 2018-10-18

Format: Hardcover

Trimsize: 15.300

Pages: 752

BIC1 B00G0H000

BIC2 H00B0WH00

Short Review.

A thoughtful dust jacket, graphic and eye catching, with a young, stormy General Bonaparte on the front and a contemplative, troubled Emperor Napoleon on the back, plays with the dual themes of reality and legend explored in this brilliant biography by Adam Zamoyski.

Napoleon was a man who didn’t belong to any time or place other than that which he occupied, and even in that he seemed either dangerously alien, excitingly progressive or depressingly predictable. ‘There are men who appear at certain epochs to found, destroy or repair empires’ his plebiscite rigging and coup orchestrating brother Lucien wrote in, Parallèle entre César, Cromwell, Monck et Bonaparte. 

Zamoyski has done for Napoleon what Hibbert did for Wellington. Deliver an informative, entertaining and accessible personal history that has nothing to do with legend. In that sense, though at times too general, or at times overly favourable to those sources which are considered hostile, and overly focused on Napoleon’s early life the book is a remarkable achievement.

Long Review and Commentary.

Many admirers of Napoleon will probably dislike this book because it strikes an ordinary tone. That is to say it is cynical of the emperor and attempts to uncover his weaknesses, while admitting his strengths. However it would be wrong for pessimists to presume that this book is anti Bonaparte, when it is in fact anti legend. Zamoyski utilised a great many contemporary voices, many of whom were cynical of Bonaparte, but at one point in their lives admired him. Opinions about Napoleon rarely remained level.

When he came to power fortune hunters tried to find a connection between Napoleon and ‘Roman emperors, Guelf kings and even the Man in the Iron Mask’. But as anyone who reads this will see, Napoleon was nothing if not an original. That people should treat him in terms of a legend created within his own lifetime is evocative of a time when the bourgeois and educated echelons of France’s new, liberated society could not speak a sentence without praising or referencing some piece of the classical past that they sought to recreate. What, for instance, is important in a David painting? The subject is usually sickly idealised, but within those romantically overblown and puffed up creations, we see a sort of worship, the ancients were to be glorified and their society recreated and bettered. Their hero’s reborn. 

Zamoyski has seen Napoleon’s life as one sees a painting, he knows the subject well, and also its painter, this book is able to deconstruct each brush stroke, almost at times right down to the pencil outlines on the bare canvas. Removing the patina or heroic or demonic myth, and by process of narrative conclude how it got there. Wether or not the reader disagrees with the methods used to strip the paint away is really a matter of personal opinion.

However might Napoleon buy into the idolisation of ancient history, he picked and chose his role models. Or fitted himself into the roles. Brutus the elder, Hannibal, Caesar, Charlemagne and then a long stretch later, after he tried to be Themistocles he was Napoleon but not the same one who had set out from Corsica a lifetime before. A man of limitations and insecurities as well as brilliance whose central drive Zamoyski infers, was an cloying doubt about who he was and where he came from, this is never couched in accusatory tones, or even judgemental ones, but offered as the antidote to the superhuman legend.

This Napoleon who emerged on St Helena was a different creature to the humble revolutionary, Naboleone, or the gallant General/Citizen Bonaparte. He had changed his shape so many times, it would be difficult to find the real Napoleon in a lineup.

Zamoyski concentrates allot on the forces which moulded Napoleon. For example Corsica. Zamoyski writes that Napoleon was born into a ‘pre feudal society… [that] was also a fundamentally pagan society, with Christianity spread thinly, if tenaciously, over a stew of ancient myths and atavisms. A profound belief in destiny overrode the Christian vision of salvation’. Although he eventually rejected Corsica, he never really escaped it. Zamoyski uses these simple observations of pierce to the heart of his subject. Examining everything from his love life to his spiritual life. ‘I do not believe in religions, but in the existence of God’… Napoleon is quoted as saying, rejecting religion but declaring it necessary for society, he also said that atheism was ‘destructive of all social organisation, as it robs man of every source of consolation and hope’. 

This Latin element to Napoleon is not forcefully stressed, but his foreignness is. As well as speaking French, fluently but poorly, Napoleon, as a young general seems to have been quite fond of speaking in Italian when he wished to illustrate something more artfully. Nor was he particularly shy about using the language of the ranks, as any good republican should when he was excited or under stress. The Coup of 18 Brumaire proves one thing. Wellington was right, Bonaparte wasn’t a gentleman, and it is inferred that he knew others thought that way. 

Zamoyski does not just attack the gilded legend, though much of it can be seen to crumble and flake, he also goes against that which is critical. Napoleon’s reign is often seen as a reign of chaos, and of the great despot often painted as an embodiment of the revolution, yet he was not at home with either. We find here that he admired Rousseau but, Napoleon feared the mob, disorder and the rule of the people, almost as much as Wellington did. ‘When one sees all this close up one has to admit that the people are hardly worth the trouble we take to win their favour’.  Bonaparte wrote on witnessing the storming of the Tuileries in 1792. 

Despite Zamoyski’s creditable efforts, destiny is hard to subtract from the emperor’s life. And at times it even weighed heavily on him. ‘History will tell whether it would not have been better for the peace of the world if neither Rousseau nor I had been born’. Napoleon said once in a melancholic, and far from monstrous moment of reflection. In any biography of this “spirit of the age” you might expect to find some revaluations, and redressing of the record. Interestingly Zamoyski attempts to do this by returning to the basics, some of which will win him no favours amongst the Bonapartists of the scholarly world. Most notably by quietly supporting a much discredited view of his appearance. The author never outright calls Napoleon small or short, he leaves that to everyone else:

‘He was small in stature, but well proportioned, thin and puny in appearance but taught and strong’. Said, Claude Victor of Bonaparte. When he was seen in 1797 his aides-de-camp were said to be all ‘taller than him’. Indeed I found it very surprising how many of Napoleon’s contemporaries in France described him as diminutive. Barras called him ‘a little Corsican officer’ who would not be squeamish about putting down a revolt. The point is recycled so many times that, Zamoyski’s choice of descriptions now and then leaves one to wonder if some sort of caricature is being built up.

When Napoleon was suggested as her future husband, Josephine is shown to mock the idea, calling Bonaparte: ‘puss in boots’ from a ‘family of beggars’.  A direct slur against his Corsican heritage, and his self-importance, which is rich when you remember Josephine was a Creole ‘courtesan’. Napoleon’s marriage ceremony to Josephine, in itself, is ripe for some sort of Howard Hawks farce, as it is so awful it’s funny. Another choice anecdote is that Napoleon was so fidgety when sitting for Gros in 1797, that Josephine had to sit him on her knee and hold his head and caress him in order to make him quiet down. Think about that next time you see Bonaparte in a Gros painting, I certainly will, though such scenes will outrage some as the peddling of caricature.

In this sense Zamoyski may be wanting to myth-bust a myth-bust, and perhaps goes too far without qualification. Sgt. Francois Vigo-Roussillon of the 32nd Demi Brigade 1796 is quoted as saying that ‘His appearance, his dress, his bearing did not appeal to us… small, slight, very pale, with great black eyes & hollow cheeks’. Pontécpulant describes Bonaparte’s height specifically, when others merely talked of stature ‘His height, below the average, rarely equalled that of his interlocutors’. What does this achieve? Except to challenge every commenter with a measuring tape who has given forth on the average height of a man in Napoleon’s lifetime, without actually declaring their findings overreaching, nothing. 

The Man Behind the Myth is easy reading despite it’s weighty subject, indeed from the above excerpts you can see that although it is large, it is pleasingly humorous in places. Not least surprising and entertaining use of individual stories to make up a whole, and why would you not want to read stories such as how Fouché, Using all that remained of a nag, (a head and a portion of leg), was able to uncover the face and name of the principle plotter connected with the bombing of Napoleon’s coach? Tall tales? Far fetched? Zamoyski leaves that up to the reader.

With small chapters, concentrating mostly on the man, rather than his accomplishments, Napoleon’s life is built up piece by piece, a chimerical, insecure, brilliant, absurd and obsessive, driven character. Never accepting anything, either revisionary or legendary. In so doing it delivers moments of pause. Personally, I wasn’t expecting an oft-unobserved humanity to emerge in the record. In Napoleon’s early soldiering, he was quite childlike about cruelty for instance, and if it took him off-guard it had a deep and lasting effect, but he learned to use his energy and purpose like a wall to block the horror of war out. Zamoyski’s portrait is much less monstrous than some, and less of a tyrant and dictator as well. You’re unlike to read a clearer more reasoned account of why republican France chose, or was manipulated depending on your bias, to return to having a dynastic head of state as in this book.

As Zamoyski observes in the beginning, brilliant though he was, can a man be regarded as a military genius if he presided over one of the greatest military disasters in history, all of his own doing? Can a man be a military genius if he goes campaigning in Egypt without issuing water bottles to his men? That being said, his military accomplishments though covered, are not central to the book. Rather than observing that in the life of this man, truth and reality are oceans apart.

This is Napoleon the man in the shadows, the shape shifter, the hunter of a vague and unclear destiny, ever heeding it’s call. Had Dante novelised his life, this guiding spirit would have been revealed as malevolent by the end. A man who fitted himself to different roles, rebel, protector, conqueror, emperor & martyr. Ever proving himself and ever falling to pick himself back up again.

The man behind the myth shows Napoleon as anything but mythic, at times he seems almost too approachable, stripped of the mystic powers usually attributed to him which Zamoyski brilliantly demonstrates only became his own when he died and man became myth.


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