Thursday, January 14, 2010


Another biography of Napoleon you might ask?

You could fill a small library with biographies of this remarkable and notorious man, quite a number of them significant works.

Yet Frank McLynn has managed the considerable task of adding something new and quite interesting to the literature.

Here is a gripping version of the life of one of history's great soldier-conquerors. It is well written, roars right along much as a good novel, is packed with interesting anecdotes, but it does come with some controversial interpretations of its subject. So you have every reason to read it.

McLynn spends some time on Napoleon's love life and especially on his immensely complicated and messy relationship with Josephine, surely one of history's stormiest and most perverse love stories. He also gives readers a terrific appreciation for Napoleon's genuinely grotesque family. This immensely talented man dragged his family through his career, almost like a great actor with a wagon full of noisy, grasping, bickering relatives always parked just outside the entrance to the theater. For me, at least, McLynn broke new ground on both of these subjects.

There is a good deal of analysis here of some of Napoleon's battles, but the book is never a mere military history. One of McLynn's controversial views is about the decline of Napoleon's once razor-sharp military abilities.

McLynn does an excellent job in giving readers an appreciation of how utterly ruthless and deceptive Napoleon could be, in personal relationships - his twists and turns with Désirée Clary - and in politics - his dealings with Barras - and in campaigning - his murder of prisoners in the Middle East and the abandonment of the army he brought needlessly to Egypt.

McLynn stresses what he calls Napoleon's "Oriental complex," reminding me of Mark Anthony, and I think he is right in that.

I think, too, in the matter of Napoleon's mysterious death on St Helena, McLynn gets the story right, pointing the finger at one of his retinue, Montholon, who likely acted as an agent for the Bourbons in administering periodic doses of arsenic.

All readers of good biography and history will enjoy this book, and each will likely find something new or interesting in it, and that's a pretty high recommendation.