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Napoleon. A Life.

Napoleon. A Life. By Adam Zamoyski. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2018. Pp. 784. $40.00.)

Biographies of Napoleon abound. Indeed, a further spate in the unending flow was prompted by the recent bicentenary, which also stimulated some excellent work on the Napoleonic era as a whole, the full scope of which is all too frequently neglected. Yet the demand for big books like this one, not least from English-language publishers, remains insatiable. Some of the current competition, which is readily acknowledged here, runs to two, or even three, volumes. To be sure, the scope of the subject matter is enormous, not to mention the accumulated mass of documentation, so how has Adam Zamoyski approached it?

As he explains, "my aim in this book is not to justify or condemn, but to piece together the life of the man born Napoleone Buonaparte, and to examine how he became 'Napoleon' and achieved what he did, and how it came about that he undid it" (xx). The personal dimension predominates over the political or the military, though readers interested in that particular aspect of Napoleon's odyssey will find plenty of incisive remarks on the great battles. Zamoyski devotes significant space to the formative years, though he is not the first to focus on Napoleon's Corsican background and his convoluted early career in France. Throughout the book there is much on his relationships with women, as well as his complex extended family, which turned into a veritable game of thrones after Napoleon had taken the imperial title.

Zamoyski opts for a brisk narrative, moving from birth to death in forty sharp chapters and keeping contextual analysis to a minimum. The historical background is sketched accurately, save for the odd slip, over the prefects, for example, who were a key administrative creation in 1800. Restoring order in France after the coup that brought him to power was a crucial task for General Bonaparte, and more might have been made of the religious settlement, which was especially important in this regard. What the author calls "fusion", synthesizing monarchy with sovereignty of the people, or attempting to integrate new and old elites into a ruling class, were vital means of ending the Revolution. Napoleon wrongly believed that he could only hold the allegiance of the French people if he continued winning wars, though, as Zamoyski emphasizes, therein lay his downfall and notably in the disastrous Russian campaign.

Much reliance is rightly placed on Napoleon's own words, combined with comments from trustworthy contemporaries and a host of historians. Those acquainted with the material will find little that is original. What Zamoyski does offer, as an eminent free-lance writer who is well versed in the period, is an extremely readable account of the life of this outstanding individual. There are few biographies that recount the full story in such a captivating fashion. Napoleon was a protean character, constantly reinventing himself as new opportunities arose. The Hundred Days offers an especially astounding instance, while even those desolate, final years on St Helena fostered the legend, an afterlife on which there is still more to be said.

Keele University

Malcolm Crook

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Title Annotation:EUROPE
Author:Crook, Malcolm
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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