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Filling in facts when what we crave is legend

Napoleon: A Political Life; Steven Englund; Scribner: 576 pp., $35

June 20, 2004|Douglas Johnson | Douglas Johnson is emeritus professor of French history at the University of London.

It's inevitable that those who write about Napoleon Bonaparte find themselves thinking of their youth and when they discovered the emperor's existence. Steven Englund remembers reading "The History of Napoleon the First" as a boy attending a Los Angeles junior high school. In his new book on the larger-than-life French leader, he tells us in his concluding chapter -- "Introduction (Misplaced)" -- that it was "the hobgoblin" of his thoughts while writing the book that he was not presenting either Napoleon the soldier or the art of war in a manner that would have met the enthusiastic approval of that young Los Angeles schoolboy. He has, he tells us, written on the political, not the military or intimate, life of his subject.

Yet in "Napoleon: A Political Life," Englund has written a most distinguished book recounting Bonaparte's life with clarity and ease, drawn from an enormous body of documents, letters, books and publications detailed in 60 pages of notes. The author's sly comments accompanying this display of erudition add to one's enjoyment.

Bonaparte, Englund tells us, lived during a most unusual quarter-century in the "unlikely history of France," a period that saw not just the overthrow of one of Europe's greatest monarchies but a revolution that he contends has redefined the very nature of human existence and social order. The Corsican-born Bonaparte supported the French Revolution, he writes, because without it the major aristocrats would have taken all the best posts in the army, leaving lesser posts for minor aristocrats like himself. Bonaparte was won over to the revolution, Englund says, "from the first time that a snot-nosed aristo" at a French school in Autun or the military academy in Brienne snubbed him.

There is a national, and one is tempted to say constant, debate about the man who crowned himself emperor. It is as if there is a mystery about Bonaparte that demands resolution and specialist historians are obliged to participate in the discussion.

Naturally it is of no importance that French television programs suggest that Napoleon escaped from the island of his final exile, St. Helena, and that he did not die there. Others contend that during his first exile on Elba he reformed the whole system of waste collection and disposal. But should one organize the specialists of French history to take part in a debate over whether to celebrate Bonaparte as a revolutionary general or lament him as a tyrant who seized power on Nov. 9, 1799 (known as "18 Brumaire" by the revolutionary French calendar), and established a military dictatorship? Naturally one is eager to know what Englund says about this episode and this debate.

Gen. Bonaparte, who had seized Malta on his campaign to conquer Egypt, returned to France on the frigate Le Muiron in late August 1799. The journey took six weeks (including a five-day stay in Corsica, the last visit he would pay to that island). He landed at the port of Frejus, on what is now the French Riviera, on Oct. 9 and reached Paris a week later. Englund emphasizes that he returned a hero. The workers "sang the triumphs of our armies and the return of our father, our saviour, Bonaparte." With this heightened popularity, Bonaparte is described as imposing himself on one and all simply by the fact of his returning. We also learn that for the first time since 1793, there was the danger of imminent invasion and of subversion by counterrevolutionary forces. Englund uses the phrase "national mess," attributing it once to the Marquis de Lafayette.

He also discusses some of the powerful ideas circulating at the time, including those of Francois Noel "Gracchus" Babeuf, who was arrested for leading a plot to overthrow the young Republic's moderate government, and of Emmanuel Sieyes, Madame de Stael, Benjamin Constant and others who shared an 18th century conviction that society's problems were amenable to improvement by a better "document," meaning a better constitution and the creation of a smaller and stronger executive branch of government.

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