THE LINGUIST AND THE EMPEROR: Napoleon and Champollion's Quest toDecipher the Rosetta Stone

Daniel Meyerson, Author
Daniel Meyerson, Author . Ballantine $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-345-45067-8
Reviewed on: 01/12/2004
Release date: 03/01/2004
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-345-44872-9
Ebook - 978-0-345-47218-2
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This florid adventure tale, presented in colorful episodes that read as if drawn from a Hollywood film treatment, interweaves Napoleon's obsessive empire building with Jean François Champollion's determined mission to crack the code of hieroglyphics. The story hinges on the long, drawn-out Napoleonic campaign in Egypt (1798–1801), during which the Rosetta stone, which enabled Champollion's breakthrough, was discovered. Meyerson, an Ellis Fellow at Columbia and the author of a previous book on despots, conjures two fanatic visionaries, lingering on Napoleon's insecurities and cruelties and on Champollion's dogged devotion, flashes of passionate intuition and periodic exhaustion. Beginning with an account of Champollion's obscure childhood and experience of the revolutionary Terror, and tracing the prodigy linguist's early interest in ancient languages in the context of narrow-minded lycée life, the book renders Champollion's adult career as one long struggle to justify his theories. The Napoleonic campaign in Egypt is mined for its colorful generals and scenes of thirst-crazed soldiers, while the history of Egypt and how its ancient language came to be lost is skimmed, with an emphasis on sensuous detail. Overwritten and festooned with continuous anticipations of the various fates and destinies of each of its personages, repeatedly casting Egypt as a mysterious muse or virgin, this romance treats neither history nor linguistics with any degree of seriousness. B&w photos and illus. (Mar.)

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