Book: The god of very big things

NAPOLEON by Frank McLynn, Cape pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
To contemporaries, Napoleon was never just another general or politician. Rather, he embodied all the potentialities that politics and power held in an age which had overturned the old certainties. The mere glimpse of him could stir even the philosopher Hegel to unaccustomed excitement: "It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reach out over the world and master it ... It is only from heaven, that is, from the will of the French Emperor, that matters can be set in motion." Hegel saw "this world-soul" in 1806 just after the battle of Jena, a significant victory over the Prussians but hardly the unalloyed triumph the Emperor's publicity machine claimed. And soon he would almost offhandedly commit a good part of his grande armee to the debilitating campaign on the Spanish Peninsula. Beyond lay a lengthening catalogue of disaster: Russia, exile on Elba, and then, after the brief rally of the Hundred Days, Waterloo and terminal confinement on St Helena. To Hegel, his fate was a "frightful spectacle", more tragic than anything in Greek literature.

Napoleon himself took a more prosaic view: "What a novel, anyhow, my life has been!" he exclaimed shortly before he died. Historians, though, have followed Hegel in taking the grand view, whether for or against. To them, Napoleon's career has seemed either a great good destroyed by mediocre enemies or a great evil destroyed only at terrible cost. The approach Frank McLynn takes in this new biography is altogether more cautious. He does not aim, he warns in his Preface, at a definitive account but, instead, at "a clear synthesis of our existing knowledge". Even so, it runs to nearly 700 pages that fully justify Napoleon's view of himself. His life did indeed have all the richness and excitement of a novel as, in the nineteenth century, novelists as diverse as Stendhal, Thackeray and Tolstoy were quick to appreciate. McLynn may not have their gifts, but the story he tells has enough impetus of its own to survive a pedestrian and sometimes battle-weary style.

McLynn's best asset is his fair-minded determination to set aside the prejudices that have so often animated previous historians, French and British, and look coolly at the record. Napoleon the general? Not in the same league as Alexander or Hannibal, despite the comparisons that his propagandists and court painters fostered. By his own tactical standards, his only complete victories were at Austerlitz and Friedland; the rest of his battles were temporary victories, partial victories and, increasingly, defeats. Napoleon the politician? He showed the same sense of timing that inspired his command on the battlefield but also the same poor judgement of lieutenants - not, interestingly enough, the paranoid suspicion one expects of a dictator, but rather a willingness to keep on trusting those who had proven themselves to be untrustworthy, and relying on those who were patently unreliable. Napoleon the leader of France? Not a revolutionary, but not a man who could be accused of betraying the revolution either, since long before his advent it had already signally failed to establish its first principles. The Code Napoleon revealed him as essentially an old-fashioned autocrat rather better at the job than his predecessors had been. Foreign policy found him no better than they at squaring his vision of France's imperial destiny with the implacable challenge from across the Channel.

McLynn reaches these sensible conclusions by scrupulously inspecting the evidence, often inconclusive, and judiciously scouring the interpretations, often antagonistic, which encrust virtually every aspect of his subject. Valuable though the result may be, it everywhere lacks a grasp of character. The absence is felt most in the treatment of the family and subordinates who made up Napoleon's circle. They may have been a pretty ghastly crew but they still require more than the flat and simple-minded portraits McLynn offers. They deserve at least the satiric verve showed by Napoleon when he called Talleyrand "a shit in silk stockings" or by Chateaubriand when he depicted the conspiratorial alliance of Talleyrand and Fouche as "vice leaning on the arm of crime".

Inevitably, Napoleon is the chief victim of a book which rarely captures the texture of personality or points to the mainsprings of his motivation. McLynn supplies an avalanche of detail, yet Napoleon remains an enigma. "Remember that I walk accompanied by the god of war and the god of luck," he told the Council of Elders as he brushed its power aside in the Brumaire coup. That was always how he saw himself and how he struck others; not as the representative of a principle, a programme or a party, but as a man with no idea but the idea of himself. That idea pushed the possibilities of Romanticism to the limit, making him capable of unexampled greatness but still leaving him the plaything of destiny. It was what prompted Beethoven to write the Eroica Symphony, and then to cancel its dedication. It was what made Tolstoy see Napoleon's shadow as the longest cast by his century of European history.