Napoleon A life

Andrew Roberts, 1963-

Book - 2014

Napoleon Bonaparte was far more than a military genius and astute leader of men. Like George Washington and his own hero Julius Caesar, he was one of the greatest soldier-statesmen of all times. The biography takes advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon's 33 thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife

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2nd Floor BIOGRAPHY/Napoleon I Due Oct 6, 2023
New York : Viking 2014.
Physical Description
xli, 926 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : color illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 859-888) and index.
Main Author
Andrew Roberts, 1963- (author)
Review by New York Times Review

ON JULY 22, 1789, a week after the storming of the Bastille in Paris, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote to his older brother, Joseph, that there was nothing much to worry about. "Calm will return. In a month." His timing was off, but perhaps he took the misjudgment to heart because he spent the rest of his life trying to bring glory and order to France by building a new sort of empire. By the time he was crowned emperor on Dec. 2, 1804, he could say, "I am the Revolution." It was, according to the historian Andrew Roberts's epically scaled new biography, "Napoleon: A Life," both the ultimate triumph of the self-made man, an outsider from Corsica who rose to the apex of French political life, and simultaneously a "defining moment of the Enlightenment," fixing the "best" of the French Revolution through his legal, educational and administrative reforms. Such broad contours get at what Napoleon meant by saying to his literary hero Goethe at a meeting in Erfurt, "Politics is fate." Napoleon didn't mean fatalism by this, rather that political action is unavoidable if you want personal and national glory. It requires a mastery of fortune, and a willingness to be ruthless when necessary. If this sounds Machiavellian, that's because it is - Machiavelli's arguments about politics informed Napoleon's self-consciousness, whether in appraising fortune as a woman or a river to be tamed and harnessed, or assuming that in politics it is better to be feared than loved. Such views went hand in hand with the grand visions of politics outlined in the ancient histories and biographies Napoleon revered as a young man. "Bloodletting is among the ingredients of political medicine" was Napoleon's cool if brutal reminder of an ever-present item on his exhausting schedule. His strategy always included dashing off thousands of letters and plans, in a personal regime calling for little sleep, much haste and a penchant for being read to while taking baths so as not to waste even a minute. He compartmentalized ruthlessly, changing tack between lobbying for more shoes and brandy for the army at one minute, to directing the personal lives of his siblings or writing love letters to the notorious Josephine at another; here ensuring extravagant financial "contributions" from those whom he had vanquished, there discussing the booty to send back to Paris, particularly from the extraordinary expedition in Egypt where his "savants had missed nothing." The personal and the political ran alongside each other in his mind. Yet when his longtime collaborator but fair-weather political friend, the diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, suggested that Napoleon try to make those he conquered learn to love France, Napoleon replied that this was an irrelevance. "Aimer: I don't really know what this means when applied to politics," he said. Still, if grand strategy and national interest lay behind foreign affairs, there were nevertheless personal rules of conduct to uphold. Talleyrand was a party to Napoleon's strategy since supporting his coup d'état against the French Directory in 1799. That was O.K. And by short-selling securities he made millions for himself. But he was called out by Napoleon and dismissed as vice grand elector when found facing both ways politically at a crucial moment. Napoleon understood those temptations because he was also flexible enough to tilt toward the winning side, regularly supporting any form of local religion that could help him militarily. Nonetheless, Roberts's Napoleon is a soldier, statesman and "bona fide intellectual," who rode his luck for longer than most intellectuals in politics ever do. Testing himself against fate seems to have been his mantra. A relative outsider to the French elite, he forced his way up its ranks through ferocious hard work, making the best of his natural talents, particularly in mathematics and artillery. He was among the few selected for the prestigious École Militaire in Paris, and there he grasped every opportunity. He was a severe young man with little small talk. "His favorite entertainments were intellectual rather than social," though he eventually cultivated a happy marriage with Josephine, only later to annul it for strategic reasons. Having arrived early at the view that political life needed to be determined by an all-powerful state, he was delighted when first appointed to a part of it in the Historical and Topographical Bureau of the War Ministry, which was described as "the most sophisticated planning organization of its day." But before gaining state power for himself, Napoleon first had to suppress the many enemies of revolutionary France, particularly Austria and what one observer called the "geopolitical expression" known as Italy. Roberts brilliantly conveys the sheer energy and presence of Napoleon the organizational and military whirlwind who, through crisp and incessant questioning, sized up people and problems and got things done. His rapport with soldiers was unparalleled, and his ability to cultivate a stable image of authority while taking advantage of shifting situations made him not only an astonishing soldier but a terrific statesman as well. He was as comfortable in dramatic nine-hour diplomatic encounters with Prince Metternich of Austria at the Marcolini Palace, or on a raft with Czar Alexander in the middle of the Neman River discussing the reorganization of Europe, as he was slicing through enemy lines. His dynamism shines in Roberts's set-piece chapters on major battles like Austerlitz, Jena and Marengo, turning visionary military maneuvers into politically potent moments that could bolster the four pillars of his rule at home - low taxes, property rights, centralized authority and national glory. When his political antennas ultimately deserted him, it proved fatal. He attempted to impose, through the "continental system," a blockade on English goods to damage an enemy he could not beat at sea, which led him toward a form of imperial overreach that backfired. England built continual coalitions against France, and eventually Napoleon fell into a coalition trap as messy as the bogs and marshes that slowed him up on his ill-fated Russian campaign. Napoleon was outthought and outmaneuvered as Moscow burned. Meanwhile, typhus wiped out nearly a fifth of his men. He was a master tactician of relatively localized battlefields, but one of his generals put his finger on Napoleon's Russian problem. Here was "a man annihilated by the presence of space." In the retreat his enemies struck hard, but even then his engineers were able to pioneer an astonishing escape, erecting flexible bridges across the freezing Berezina River, hidden from the advancing Russian Army. Even this, however, couldn't thwart the inevitable, and Napoleon tasted defeat in Leipzig. Simultaneously, Wellington entered France. The devious Talleyrand supported the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and Napoleon was forced into exile on Elba. Though he soon retook Paris in another coup, his ultimate defeat at Waterloo was, as Roberts implies, tragic because it was so odd, the result of some elementary mistakes. During his second exile, on Saint Helena, he died of stomach cancer in 1821, at the age of 51, finally falling victim to a fate not even he could master. He was as comfortable in diplomatic sessions as he was slicing through enemy lines. DUNCAN KELLY teaches political thought at the University of Cambridge.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 2, 2014] Review by Booklist Review

Next year will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, so a massive, single-volume biography of Napoléon is, perhaps, appropriate, especially given the recent release of more than 33 thousand of Napoléon's letters. Although there was hardly a shortage of primary source material on Napoléon and his era, Roberts, a prizewinning historian and fellow of the Napoleonic Institute, has effectively used these new sources to offer some interesting and probably controversial perspectives on the man, his career, and his lasting impact. In a cradle-to-grave format, Roberts devotes some pages to Napoléon's Corsican boyhood and his difficult years in a French military academy. But the strength of the narrative emphasizes his brilliance as a military commander and his lasting political reforms in France. Unfortunately, Roberts' admiration for Napoléon, which borders on idolatry, leads him to minimize or even ignore his subject's unsavory personal qualities and actions, including his ego-driven selfishness, his willingness to abandon friends when it suited his advancement, and even his leaving his soldiers to face their fate without him in Egypt and Russia. This is a well-researched, absorbing, but unbalanced biography of a historical giant.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2014 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Military historian Roberts (The Storm of War) examines Napoleon Bonaparte's life and times in excruciating detail, leaving out little, if anything, of consequence that happened to the legendary general and ruler of France during his 52 years. Roberts moves from Napoleon's obscure Corsican origins to his meteoric rise to power, through his fraught personal relationships and his numerous military campaigns, to his sad and ignominious exile on St. Helena, where he died of stomach cancer. Basing his conclusions on a vast trove of Napoleon's published letters and other contemporary sources, along with personal visits to 53 of 60 battlefields that figured in Napoleon's career, Roberts argues that Napoleon was not only a brilliant military strategist but also a great statesman and a true intellectual. A micromanager, Napoleon effectively "compartmentaliz[ed] his life" to achieve success in both political and military realms-although less so with his wives and mistresses. "Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback," Roberts writes, describing his coronation as Emperor of France as "a defining moment" of the Enlightenment. He contends that Napoleon's downfall was due to a combination of unforeseeable circumstances and "a handful of significant miscalculations," including the invasion of Russia. This is a definitive account that dispels many of the myths that surrounded Napoleon from his lifetime to the present day. Maps. Agent: Georgina Capel, Capel & Land. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

A life as full and influential as that of Napoleon Bonaparte, the obscure Corsican artillery lieutenant who in a few short years rose to become Emperor of the French, warrants a book of meticulous detail and stylistic flourish. Roberts (The Storm of War) has succeeded in crafting just such a book. Making good use of the thousands of letters written by Napoleon that have recently become available, the author delights listeners with a hitherto unthinkably intimate examination of the mind and personality of the European colossus. The resulting portrait of Napoleon is rich. He was indefatigable and possessed a sparkling dry wit that surfaced in good and bad times. He could be chummy, even gracious, with friends and strangers alike but exacting and stormy when he expected perfection. Napoleon was a voracious reader and often traveled with a library on his many campaigns; his eclectic interests included modern novels, ancient history, and the latest scientific developments. He was not only a master military strategist but also capable of deft political maneuvers. He had a heart that sought romance and a mind for statistical calculation. This is as complete and enjoyable a biography of Napoleon as one could want. The voice work of John Lee is crisp, and the pace as brisk as the ceaselessly active soldier turned emperor. VERDICT Recommended for all history lovers. ["This voluminous work is likely to set the standard for subsequent accounts of Napoleon's life," read the starred review of the Viking hc, LJ 10/15/14.]-Denis Frias, -Mississauga Lib. Syst., Ont. © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

More books have been written with Napoleon (1769-1821) in the title than there have been days since his death, writes prolific historian and Napoleonic Institute fellow Roberts (The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, 2011, etc.) in this 800-page doorstop. Entirely conventional and mostly admiring, it fills no great need, but few readers will complain. After his early years in the backwater of Corsica, Napoleon's influential father sent him to France at the age of 9 to learn French and be educated in an elite military academy. An obscure officer when the revolution broke out in 1789, he left his post to spend most of those years in a complex factional struggle in Corsica, which he ultimately lost. He fled to France in 1793, a penniless but fiercely ambitious artillery captain. Six years later, already a national hero after a brilliant campaign in Italy, he engineered a coup that made him dictator. For the next 15 years, except for a brief armistice, his armies rampaged through Europe, mostly crushing opposing forces until he overreached in Spain and Russia and went down to defeat and humiliating exile. "Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment," writes the author, "over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record." Readers will find this book to be a long but mostly pleasant reading experience, although some will doubt that Napoleon "saved the best aspects of the Revolution, discarded the worst, and ensured that even when the Bourbons were restored they could not return to the Ancient Regime." Other opinionated observersPaul Johnson, Charles Esdaile, Alan Schomconsider Napoleon a self-absorbed opportunist plagued by his incompetent economics, pugnacious foreign policy, totalitarian government and massive propaganda, but Roberts offers a solid reconsideration. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.