Napoleon Bonaparte was a bully, rude and insulting. Women did not like him. But even so, writes Frank McLynn, "he had an amazing ability to sway other men to his purposes," which earned him one of the greatest empires Europe had ever known. McLynn, a noted biographer of difficult personalities, gives us a many-sided Napoleon: the shrewd strategist, the intolerant prude, the scrappy fighter, the charismatic leader, the sadist. ("He liked to strike people of both sexes, to slap them, pull their hair, pinch their ears and tweak their noses.") He nonetheless managed to extend French rule to the gates of Moscow. Why, then, was he so resoundingly defeated? McLynn argues that, among other things, Napoleon was not ruthless enough in dealing with the "endless list of ingrates" that surrounded him.
McLynn's book has several virtues, and readers interested in Napoleon's brief but brilliant career will want to have a look. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
After visiting Corsica, Rousseau declared, "I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe." Corsica did. Born there in 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte would convulse the Continent, precipitating thousands of books about him since. This latest, by British historian and Strathclyde University (U.K.) literature professor McLynn (Villa and Zapata; The Jacobites), is a crowded and persuasive one-volume life. McLynn's study but for his addictions to clich and to repetition, and his labored leaning on both Freud and Jung is one the best of the new breed (since the 1978 discovery of Bonaparte's arsenic poisoning made earlier volumes obsolete). No hagiographer, McLynn is hard on Napoleon both as general and as statesman, and faults his failures to rein in his openly "venal" marshals, treacherous administrative elite and astonishingly rapacious siblings. Indifferent to people except as he needed their loyalty, this Napoleon's embodies ambitions not tempered by any idealism, and McLynn dismisses "credulous" previous biographers for seeing anything in him beyond a familiar French grasping for "grandeur" and "glory," apparent on a lesser level from Louis XIV to de Gaulle. To McLynn the difference is that Napoleon's dreams were truly Alexandrine that "His genius was of a kind that needed constant warfare to fuel it and... that all the hopes vested in him were illusory." While deftly exposing the material realities underlying the Napoleonic wars, McLynn also graphically describes the battles, suggesting that few (Austerlitz is an exception) demonstrate any authentic military brilliance. He is even more explicit about the general's tumultuous domestic and sexual life, in which Napoleon allegedly found little but masochistic satisfaction. "The true representative of the nation," Napoleon declared desperately in 1814, as his empire was collapsing around him, "is myself. France has more need of me than I have need of France." Such is still the case, McLynn claims, as France continues to cultivate his myth. Although McLynn's is a well-researched, convincing portrait, aficionados will find it not quite up to the standard of Alan Schom's 1997 Napoleon Bonaparte, which is both better written and more psychologically astute. 16 pages of b&w illustrations.
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