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Napoleon: A Biography


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After visiting Corsica, Rousseau declared, "I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe." Corsica did. Born there in 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte would convulse the Continent, precipitating thousands of books about him since. This latest, by British historian and Strathclyde University (U.K.) literature professor McLynn (Villa and Zapata; The Jacobites), is a crowded and persuasive one-volume life. McLynn's study but for his addictions to clich and to repetition, and his labored leaning on both Freud and Jung is one the best of the new breed (since the 1978 discovery of Bonaparte's arsenic poisoning made earlier volumes obsolete). No hagiographer, McLynn is hard on Napoleon both as general and as statesman, and faults his failures to rein in his openly "venal" marshals, treacherous administrative elite and astonishingly rapacious siblings. Indifferent to people except as he needed their loyalty, this Napoleon's embodies ambitions not tempered by any idealism, and McLynn dismisses "credulous" previous biographers for seeing anything in him beyond a familiar French grasping for "grandeur" and "glory," apparent on a lesser level from Louis XIV to de Gaulle. To McLynn the difference is that Napoleon's dreams were truly Alexandrine that "His genius was of a kind that needed constant warfare to fuel it and... that all the hopes vested in him were illusory." While deftly exposing the material realities underlying the Napoleonic wars, McLynn also graphically describes the battles, suggesting that few (Austerlitz is an exception) demonstrate any authentic military brilliance. He is even more explicit about the general's tumultuous domestic and sexual life, in which Napoleon allegedly found little but masochistic satisfaction. "The true representative of the nation," Napoleon declared desperately in 1814, as his empire was collapsing around him, "is myself. France has more need of me than I have need of France." Such is still the case, McLynn claims, as France continues to cultivate his myth. Although McLynn's is a well-researched, convincing portrait, aficionados will find it not quite up to the standard of Alan Schom's 1997 Napoleon Bonaparte, which is both better written and more psychologically astute. 16 pages of b&w illustrations. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Numerous biographies of Napoleon are available, but this monumental work, first published in the United Kingdom in 1997, is clearly one of the most pleasurable to read. Using an interesting mixture of narrative and analysis, McLynn (Stanley: The Making of an African Explorer, 1841-1877) explores aspects of Napoleon's life often ignored by other authors. For example, he discusses the influence of the Corsican independence movement and the failures of Napoleon's father as the major influences they were. All of the personalities surrounding Napoleon, including both of his wives and his large family, are thoroughly analyzed in conjunction with the events of his fantastic career. The author is as nearly objective in his characterizations as one can be, holding nothing back as he probes Napoleon's entourage more deeply than did Alan Schom in Napoleon. What results is a less psychopathic, more human view of this much mythologized European. Strongly recommended for all collections. David Lee Poremba, Detroit P.L., MI Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

"Solidly crafted and seemingly balanced.... Napoleon on the battlefield, Napoleon in the bedroom, Napoleon in spectacular triumph and shameful defeat--McLynn shows us all the countless Napoleons in their inexplicable inconsistency."

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