NAPOLEON: A Political Life

Steven Englund, Author . Scribner/Lisa Drew $35 (592p) ISBN 978-0-684-87142-4

The central question of any study of Napoleon is whether he saved the French Revolution or buried it. Fighting through the tangle of two centuries of interpretation, Englund, who has taught courses on French history at UCLA and elsewhere, defends the French emperor where others criticize him and skewers him where other praise. He draws sufficient comparisons to Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great to please Bonaparte himself, but underplays his talent and skill at his early signature victories and questions whether the Directory needed a savior in 1799 when the young general arrived seeking that role. Napoleon emerges from this study not as a great leader but as a lucky one. If he was not a great tactician, then he was simply the right man for his time: decisive, flexible, inspiring; idealistic yet pragmatic; equipped to be the modern leader with the education of the aristocrat but the spirit of the common man. Readers who are not already steeped in the Napoleonic era may struggle to follow the narrative of events. Englund (The Inquisition in Hollywood , etc.) slips forward and back chronologically and often uses terms and names before he has introduced them or neglects to identify them at all. When he is interested in a particular event or interpretation, he offers a strong reading, as in examinations of Napoleon's popularity with soldiers and the distinctions between Napoleon as first consul and as emperor. Elsewhere, the writing becomes uneven, plagued by shifting tenses, elaborate phrasing and occasional awkward wordplay. Multiple epigrams in each chapter, ranging from the very familiar to the strikingly tangential, become an almost comical commentary on the complexity of reactions to Napoleon and the difficulty of providing a definitive interpretation. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 10/27/2003
Release date: 12/01/2003
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Ebook - 592 pages - 978-1-4391-3107-7
Paperback - 575 pages - 978-0-674-01803-7
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