Tuesday, November 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

 As part of my plan to increase my knowledge of the Regency Era, I thought I really needed a better handle on Napoleon. I knew the basics: French General, French Emperor, lover of Josephine, defeated at Waterloo. Also that he was not only a brilliant military commander but also an innovative administrator. But, overall, kind of a bad guy.

Wanting more detail, I plunged into what is called the definitive biography, Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts. This is a superb biography. It did, unfortunately, take me a very long time to read and bogged down my reading progress in general. (I took a couple of breaks, but always felt guilty reading other things.)  I finally finished it today. I’m pleased to note that my basic knowledge was basically correct.

This is a comprehensive birth-to-death biography. The bulk of the detail is centered on his military career, which makes sense. However, for a reader like me who zones out when the battle tactics are described in depth and who skips over battlefield maps, it was more than I needed. It was fascinating in a big picture way, but the details will never stick with me.

More impressive to me was the way the book touched on the personality of the emperor, showing his hubris and his (possibly feigned at times) humility, his wit, his sang-froid, and his extraordinary charisma. His micro-managing attention to detail boggles the mind. His superhuman energy (especially in his younger days) is hard to fathom. And his intelligence, memory, and analytical skills are as impressive today as they were to his contemporaries. 

It’s impossible to come away from this biography unimpressed with Napoleon. At the same time, without the benefit of being exposed to his personal charm, it was impossible for me to come away from it favorably impressed in the balance. The wake of death and destruction his ambitious empire building left across Europe was enormous. And despite his protestations that everything he did, he did for France – he was clearly doing it for personal glory and profit. I found myself astonished by the magnitude of his victories, yet rooting against him the whole time.

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