Friday, December 17, 2010


The first half of Zamoyski’s book is truly top-quality narrative history, it is written lucidly, and it is packed with interesting facts and observations. A coherent picture emerges of all the many forces at work in that vast and terrible enterprise, the invasion of Russia.

Zamoyski does an especially good job of explaining Napoleon’s reasons for invading Russia, and I think adds new clarity to them. The author also has wonderful passages in which we see Napoleon’s view and considerations at certain points and then those of various Russian commanders facing him. He does something similar with Tsar Alexander, an intelligent and ambitious man, but not a leader to assume command in battle. He does a deft job at giving the reader some appreciation of the massive, complex preparations necessary for the campaign, almost exhausting a reader’s imagination of how one man could put all of it into motion. His other great strength is the description of the battles for Smolensk and Borodino: these are remarkable passages.

The second half of the book declines from that high level, in my view, not in the quality of the writing but in the subject matter. There is an awful lot of graphic detail of individual deaths and perils on the ghastly march out of Russia. Some of this is of course necessary to give readers a full appreciation of a situation where climate and the weather played greater roles in Napoleon’s defeat than the Tsar’s armies, but I think there is too much, becoming effectively padding.

The trouble with those kinds of anecdotes is that they cloud the true sense of what is happening. First, they may or may not represent the experience of the army as a whole, and what we really want to know is more along the lines of statistical truths in a book of this nature, not peculiar anecdotes. Second, one actually loses some sense of what is happening with too much of this sort of thing. After reading of terrible events, men frozen like statues or hands freezing to muskets, when the author returns to a new battle or action, you just ask yourself, how was it even possible for them to fight?

Zamoyski treats Tolstoy’s hero, Kutuzov, as a buffoon, braggart, and a poor general, and I am inclined to agree with that view. Napoleon, despite his errors in the campaign and despite what has generally been characterized as his declining abilities – a disease the author appropriately speculates – remains capable of striking fear into the hearts of most opponents and of inspiring his soldiers to endure hardship.

Napoleon surely was one of the most extreme examples in history of Freud’s great discovery, the principle of human ambivalence. Was he a true son of revolution, ready to destroy encrusted old ways and privileges, the start of a new more enlightened age in which talent mattered more than birth? Or was he just one more in a line of gifted soldier-conquerors – Alexander, Caesar - ready to use others for his own gain and glory?

He was in fact both of these things, and he was both at one and the same time. In the end, I think we can only understand stories like his in those terms. Napoleon cannot be reduced to H.G. Wells’ view of him as a mere cock crowing on a dunghill. Napoleon was simply one of the most extraordinary people who ever lived, and he was that from several perspectives.

This book is excellent reading for all students of European history, lovers of biographical insight, military campaign buffs, students of human psychology, and those who just love a gripping story.