NAPOLEON BONAPARTE: A Life.<i> By Alan Schom</i> .<i> HarperCollins: 888 pp., $40</i> : HOW FAR FROM AUSTERLITZ? Napoleon 1806-1815.<i> By Alistair Horne</i> .<i> St. Martin’s: 430 pp., $26.95</i>
What do actors Rod Steiger, Charles Boyer, Marlon Brando and Albert Dieudonne have in common? They have all played the role of Napoleon. And they are not the only ones. Napoleon Bonaparte, next to Jesus Christ, is the most performed historical personality in cinema. There are Arabian films about him, along with Japanese films, Communist films and Nazi films. This year is the centennial of the first footage ever made on him. It was shot in a Paris studio and called “The Interview of Napoleon and the Pope at Fontainebleau,” not the most alluring title, but the name Napoleon was enough to guarantee the pioneer filmmakers Brothers Lumieres a large audience. Since then, directors as different as Abel Gance, Henry Koster, Sacha Guitry, Veit Harlan and Woody Allen have offered interpretations of the “little corporal” for the screen. Now, it is rumored, Stanley Kubrick has a Napoleonic project up his sleeve.
In the next 20-odd years, with bicentennials coming up of Napoleon’s coup d’etat, the establishment of his empire, the Battle of Austerlitz, the retreat from Moscow, Waterloo and ultimately his death on a South Atlantic island, we can expect plenty more. Why the continuing fascination? The most important single cause must be Bonaparte himself. In his green chasseur uniform, his black two-horned hat and a right hand tucked neatly into his coat, the man developed--years before the camera was invented--a curiously cinematic sense of self-promotion.
In our own time, it is chiefly men, not women, who perpetuate the cult of Napoleon. It is men who make the films, watch them, collect the posters, dress themselves up as the emperor and reenact his battles. Napoleon Bonaparte, who appears so young and resolute, provides more than a mere opportunity for boys to play at soldiers; his image satisfies an absolutely masculine type of lust for power that is today held in question. Napoleon thus fills a vacuum of contemporary male uncertainties.
That is surely our most lasting memory of Napoleon: his image. It was this image that inspired some of the greatest painters of his time. The sculptors too were hard at work before he turned 30, although not always to the taste of their subject: Napoleon had a 15-foot nude statue of himself banned to the cellars of the Louvre, where it was discovered by the British in 1815 and carried off for display in the Duke of Wellington’s home. Popular images of Napoleon could be found in the French countryside before the empire fell; his familiar profile decorated plates, cups, pots, spades, hammers, fire pokers and candleholders--all early 19th century precursors to the Disney souvenirs of our day.
The image also kindled some of the most brilliant pieces of 19th century literature. He was an idol of the Romantics--Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo and Stendhal--before he became an object of historical study. Beethoven tore up his dedication to Napoleon of his Third Symphony, renaming it “Eroica” after he learned, in 1804, that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor. A black legend and a white legend were born: Napoleon the ogre and Napoleon the hero.
Since his death in 1821, more than half a million books have been published on him. Yet, rather than add to our knowledge, the effect of this profusion has actually been the opposite. It has become exceedingly difficult to bypass the legends and get to the man; and, when one does eventually arrive there, one is more disappointed than excited. Like Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei when gazing into Napoleon’s eyes after the Battle of Austerlitz, one is struck by the “unimportance of greatness.” Napoleon’s most intimate letters to Josephine, to Marie Walewska and to Marie-Louise appear adolescent. His expressions of male friendship are a caricature of Latin macho culture. His jokes fall flat. His attempts at literature during his youth are indeed very youthful. His proclamations to the army--"Soldiers! The enemy must be chased out! The cowards!"--could be put to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan.
With all these books and films, it is hard to imagine anybody still having something original to say about him. Nonetheless, Alan Schom makes the extraordinary claim that his book is the first single-volume “full life” of Napoleon in English. One can, of course, argue endlessly about what constitutes a “full life” or go along with A.N. Wilson’s idea that full lives about anybody are neither possible nor desirable. But Felix Markham, E.M. Thompson and Vincent Cronin--to mention but three--seem to have made competent efforts at the impossible task.
Naturally, the first thing one wants to know when presented with a “full life” is what is missing. In Schom’s case, it’s sources. His six chapters on the ill-fated Egyptian expedition of 1799 rely on one work. His accounts of Napoleon’s private life and family are drawn from Frederic Masson’s volumes written 80 years ago. For diplomatic history he turns to R.B. Mowat’s “Diplomacy of Napoleon” of 1924. Schom shows an excessive dependence on the memoirs of Napoleon’s secretaries, particularly the unreliable Bourrienne. Out of the half-million books on Napoleon, Schom chooses to expose himself and his readers not to the tip of the iceberg but to a mere chip off its side.
Shallow research leads inevitably to howlers. No, Talleyrand, Napoleon’s future foreign minister, was “never a member of the hated Convention,” so he could not have voted for the death of King Louis (he was actually flirting with Mme de Stael in England at the time). Schom has Metternich in a Parisian “featherbed” with Napoleon’s sister Caroline in June 1811, when he was in fact desperately trying to solve Austria’s economic problems as chancellor in Vienna. Louis XVIII was the comte de Provence, not Lille (the British insisted on calling him the “comte de l’Isle” when he arrived on their shores in 1807, but that was a joke). Napoleon did not “reintroduce slavery” during the Hundred Days of 1815, he abolished it.
Despite its length, there are also some strange gaps in Schom’s narrative. We are given an account of how the Clary family of Marseille rejected Napoleon’s proposal of marriage to their daughter, but we are never told how he met them, or the daughter, in the first place. More space is devoted to the administration of Egypt than to that of France; the Civil Code and educational reforms, normally considered an essential part of the Napoleonic regime, get less than a page between them. There is no serious discussion of diplomacy in this book; Britain resumes war with France in 1803 without our ever knowing why (the main issue, in fact, was Napoleon’s Italian annexations). Schom spends an entire chapter on the insignificant Malet conspiracy of 1812, when a mad royalist general escaped from a lunatic asylum and got involved in a hopeless attempt to overthrow the empire. On the other hand, Schom dismisses in less than a paragraph a momentous event like Napoleon’s order, in 1804, to kidnap and execute the duc d’Enghein, a royal prince sheltering in the German state of Baden; it was the most famous and most emotionally charged issue of the Napoleonic era.
However, Schom has a lively style. He has the cannon of the Invalides regularly thundering and gilded processions marching through the French capital. His technique of beginning his chapters with a set piece, like Joseph Bonaparte’s grand reception for the Americans at Mortefontaine in 1800 or the arrival of the Hapsburg princess, Marie-Louise, at Compiegne in 1810, followed by a flashback to the events leading to that scene, is very effective and corresponds well to the “cinematic” element of the Bonaparte era.
This is also a timely book in that it rejects a current white legend now developing in France. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, former French fans of Lenin and Stalin have been turning, in large numbers, to Napoleon. Max Gallo’s new four-volume biography of the emperor has been followed up by his daily French radio broadcasts, lasting through this summer, that popularize the myth that Napoleon consolidated the great democratic revolution, defended the ordinary man against European oligarchs and aristocrats, was the savior of peasants and left us a blueprint for l’Europe sociale.
Schom will have none of this. He tells the story of a hungry Corsican aristocrat, disdained by the French, who discovers at an early age the pleasures of independent military command. He runs an army that pays for itself through plunder and extortion, an army that survives by conquest. With the overthrow of the civilian government in Paris, he opens the way to unlimited profiteering. Napoleon pushes his troops remorselessly onward, ignoring all pleas for peace, for trade, all laws of economics and, ultimately, all political constraints--such as language and culture. He can never retreat. He blames others for his losses and reserves the victories (ridiculously so in the case of the Battle of Auerstadt-Jena) for his own personal glory. Napoleon’s empire, Schom argues, was held up by a permanent army of 600,000, while “large armed convoys of gold had to be kept moving in the direction of Paris.”
The tale will have a familiar ring to historians of any age. Alistair Horne in “How Far From Austerlitz?” skillfully complements it by evoking the Greek idea of hubris--the dramatic device that destroyed the heroes of ancient mythology. Horne re-explores the paths that led to Napoleon’s final exile. “How far is St. Helena?” asked the poet Kipling. “How far from Austerlitz?” asks Horne, for it was at Austerlitz in December 1805 that Napoleon became irrevocably committed to extending his empire into the heart of Europe. What could the French do with this victory over Russians in southern Moravia? Every day from then on, Napoleon and his Grande Armee--"one of the finest weapons in military history"--were landlocked in the peninsula that was Europe; they faced a deadly trap set by a coalition of enemies. After Austerlitz, Napoleon, though he continued to order his troops forward, was on the defensive. His tactics were brilliant, but strategically he had lost the game.
Horne is an old accomplished hand at writing history; he must have at least two dozen good books to his name. In the 1960s, when other historians were getting lost in their graphs and in sociological argument, Horne kept the narrative alive in such works as his story of Verdun in 1916, his account of the German invasion of France in 1940 or his history of the Franco-Algerian crisis of the 1950s. Now, he has the satisfaction of watching that narrative come back into fashion through scores of younger historians, like Schom.
Hubris has always been an element in Horne’s narratives. His account of the Imperial Guard’s triumphant entry into Paris in July 1807, along with the following parades, balls and fetes--at a time when Napoleon was already on a war footing in Spain--reminds me of his vivid description of the pomp and glitter of the second empire in the opening pages of his “Fall of Paris,” which covered the Paris siege and the Commune of 1870-71.
Hubris is present on the battlefield at Austerlitz. Horne relates how a great red orb of sun appeared out of the mists at 8 o’clock on the morning of the battle, “le beau soleil d’Austerlitz!"--epitomizing the empire’s summit of glory along with its ineluctable demise. It is the kind of detail that makes reading Horne a delight.
So, we are back to cinematic images and literature again. They’re, in the end, what Napoleon bequeathed us, images and literature. My favorite piece remains the second volume of Chateaubriand’s “Memoires d’outre-tombe” and particularly the chapter “If Bonaparte Left Us in Renown What He Had Taken From Us by Force"--three pages of required reading for anyone bitten by the Napoleon bug.