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Napoleon: A Life Paperback – October 20, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, November 2014: There have been many books about Napoleon, but Andrew Roberts’ single-volume biography is the first to make full use of the ongoing French publication of Napoleon’s 33,000 letters. Seemingly leaving no stone unturned, Roberts begins in Corsica in 1769, pointing to Napoleon’s roots on that island—and a resulting fascination with the Roman Empire—as an early indicator of what history might hold for the boy. Napoleon’s upbringing—from his roots, to his penchant for holing up and reading about classic wars, to his education in France, all seemed to point in one direction—and by the time he was 24, he was a French general. Though he would be dead by fifty one, it was only the beginning of what he would accomplish. Although Napoleon: A Life is 800 pages long, it is both enjoyable and illuminating. Napoleon comes across as whip smart, well-studied, ambitious to a fault, a little awkward, and perhaps most importantly, a man who could turn on the charm when he needed to. Through his portrait, Roberts seems to be arguing two things: that Napoleon was far more than just a complex, and that his contributions to the world greatly surpassed those of the evil dictators that some compare him to. “The historian, like the orator,” Roberts quotes Napoleon as saying, “must persuade. He must convince.” I, for one, am convinced. A fascinating read. –Chris Schluep--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Praise for Napoleon
“An epically scaled new biography . . . Roberts brilliantly conveys the sheer energy and presence of Napoleon the organizational and military whirlwind who, through crisp and incessant questioning, sized up people and problems and got things done. . . . His dynamism shines in Roberts’s set-piece chapters on major battles like Austerlitz, Jena, and Marengo, turning visionary military maneuvers into politically potent moments.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Roberts is a masterly storyteller. . . . I would recommend his book to anyone seeking an accessible chronicle, rich in anecdote, of Napoleon’s fantastic story.”
—Max Hastings, The Wall Street Journal
“With his customary flair and keen historical eye, Andrew Roberts has delivered the goods again. This is the best one volume biography of Napoleon in English for the last four decades. A tour de force that belongs on every history lover’s bookshelf!”
—Jay Winik, bestselling author of The Great Upheaval and April 1865
“Is another long life of Napoleon really necessary? On three counts, the answer given by Andrew Roberts’s impressive book is an emphatic yes. The most important is that this is the first single-volume general biography to make full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters, which began being published in Paris only in 2004. Second, Roberts, who has previously written on Napoleon and Wellington, is a masterly analyst of the French emperor’s many battles. Third, his book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read.”
“Napoleon remade France and much of Europe in his fifteen years in power and proved himself one of history’s greatest military commanders. Roberts’s access to Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, only recently available, allowed him to create a fully human portrait of this larger-than-life figure.”
—The Wall Street Journal, Holiday Gift Guide
“A huge, rich, deep, witty, humane and unapologetically admiring biography that is a pleasure to read. The Napoleon painted here is a whirlwind of a man—not only a vigorous and supremely confident commander, but an astonishingly busy governor, correspondent and lover, too. . . . To dive into Roberts’s new book is to understand—indeed, to feel—why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world.”
—Dan Jones, The Telegraph
“Roberts in his Napoleon achieves the near impossible by writing on this extravagantly well-covered subject with a freshness and excitement that makes readers think they have stumbled on something entirely new.”
—Philip Ziegler, The Spectator, Books of the Year
“Truly a Napoleonic triumph of a book, elegantly written, epic in scale, novelistic in detail, irresistibly galloping with the momentum of a cavalry charge, as comfortable on the battlefield as in the bedroom. Here, at last, is the full biography.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard, Books of the Year
“Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is a brilliant example of ‘great man’ history, brimming with personality and the high-octane Bonapartist spirit.”
—John Bew, New Statesman, Books of the Year
“Entertaining, even addictive . . . Roberts writes with great vigor, style, and fluency.”
—Sunday Times (London)
“Magnificent . . . Roberts’s fine book encompasses all the evidence to give a brilliant portrait of the man. The book, as it needs to be, is massive, yet the pace is brisk and it’s never overwhelmed by the scholarly research, which was plainly immense.”
—Mail on Sunday
“Roberts not only brings the Napoleon story up to date but, with new evidence from the archives and an original spin on the present, makes a compelling case for why we should all read anew about the little Corsican in the 21st century.”
—The Observer (London)
“Magisterial and beautifully written . . . A richly detailed and sure-footed reappraisal of the man, his achievements—and failures—and the extraordinary times in which he lived.”
“A definitive account that dispels many of the myths that surrounded Napoleon from his lifetime to the present day.”
“A compelling biography of the preeminent French general that stands apart from the rest, owing to the author’s thoroughness, accuracy, and attention to detail. Roberts relies on his military expertise, Napoleon’s surviving correspondence (33,000 items in all), and exhaustive on-site studies of French battlegrounds. . . . This voluminous work is likely to set the standard for subsequent accounts.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
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For far too long, Napoleon has been subjected to over-sized myths and slanderous libel. Roberts' thesis is that Napoleon was not at all some kind of proto-Hitler dictator but rather the last and greatest leader of the Enlightenment who had many admirable qualities. A surprisingly sympathetic view from a Brit! Of course he had an ugly side (responsibility for wars that killed 4-6 million isn't easily forgotten or forgiven) but I was impressed to learn of his involvement in the regeneration of post-Revolution France, patronage to the arts, and establishment of equality under the Napoleon Code.
From his upbringing in the obscure (yet lovely) town of Ajaccio, Corsica, only recently purchased by Louis XV from the Genoese, Napoleon never lost the sense that he was not-exactly-French. Napoleon led his life with remarkable order and discipline and his dream to lead benefited France almost by accident. Politically, his impact on his country and Europe was clearly profound, but militarily he was out of this world! Roberts' captures his revolutionary touch of warfare, military supplies, logistics, and the use of artillery and tactics, especially in such battles as Austerlitz in 1805 and Friedland in 1807.
The one area that I found flaw in the book was in Roberts' retelling of Napoleon's strategic failings. One of his key arguments that the catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812 was beyond his control, really overlooks what Napoleon overlooked - which is that he underestimated not just the skill of their generals (ie. Barclay de Tolly) and fighting quality of their troops, but also the determination of the tsar. And although Roberts concedes that "Napoleon's understanding of naval affairs was dismal," his brief mention of losing Trafalgar in 1805 really understates the issue. The Battle of Trafalgar was pivotal in determining world trade systems and killed French hopes of invading England while boosting British economy so that even by 1815 France had barely reached Britain's level of industrialism in 1780.
In short, I recommend this book whole-heartedly as a one-volume history of Napoleon which reassesses his rule from a distance of time. Hopefully you don't mind that I came to this opinion by reading a review copy of the book and instead found this review helpful!
Therefore, the biography written by Andrew Roberts stands drastically apart from the majority of scholarship in the last 40 years of Anglosphere scholarship that has undeniable attempted, with vigor, sometimes very eruditely, and at other times poorly--to destroy the "great man" historiographical tradition and with it, any attempt to view Napoleon as "Great" in the same tradition of the other "Great" leaders in world history. From Charles Esdaile (2008) who attempted to destroy the credibility of the Great Man historiographical tradition, to Philip Dwyer (2008 and 2011) whose two-volume work on Napoleon attempted to cast him as a myth-maker and brutal battlefield butcher, to Alan Schom (1997) whose biographical work was described as a "hatchet job" on the French emperor, to Owen Connelly (1987) whose work Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns cast Napoleon as an otherwise incompetent battle-planner whose real genius was his ability to improvise in the heat of battle that won him fame and glory on the battlefield, the list goes on of Anglo-American historians who apparently have an axe to grind with Napoleon. While Connelly's work is, perhaps, somewhat pro-Napoleon in an awkward way, the majority of Anglosphere scholarship has constantly attempted to tear down Napoleon's status--but Andrew Roberts eruditely attempts to dispel and overturn these constant attacks against one of the modern period's last great rulers and generals. Rather than cast Napoleon as an "Anti-Christ," butcher on the battlefield, or a bloodthirsty ego-maniac, Roberts casts Napoleon in the same vein that Napoleon saw himself as, one of the great individuals of history: a general, husband, emperor, and lawgiver.
Upon the eve of the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, in which Napoleon's forces would utterly devastate the Prussian armies and lead to the emperor's swift capture of Berlin, forcing a Russian intervention, the German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote of his encounter with "The World Soul" (speaking of Napoleon) whom sent shockwaves through Hegel's body. As the tradition story goes, Hegel even altered aspects of his great work Phenomenology of Spirit (one of the most important works of modern Western philosophy) after this encounter with the Frenchman who could only ever be admired by his onlookers (pp. 415-418). Napoleon, likewise, as Roberts' shows throughout his work, thought of himself as a great "World Soul" pushing the progress of humanity forward. Rather than an usurper and tyrant, as Anglo-American scholars have often depicted Napoleon for us, Napoleon himself saw himself as the embodiment of French Enlightenment philosophy. Any student of the French political philosophers would naturally agree, the Enlightenment philosophes were extremely elitist and saw institutional absolutism as the only avenue for the progress of humanity since the normal peasant was a brutish animal by their very nature. In this same tradition, Napoleon truly did see himself as the pinnacle of the Enlightened absolutist political tradition, and paradoxically for many, saw himself as the protector of the French republican tradition despite becoming an emperor. Contrary to Anglo-American scholarship, Napoleon isn't a pseudo-republican despot, but the very epitome of Enlightenment republicanism, or better, Enlightened Absolutism. After all, this is why Andrew Roberts says of Napoleon, "[He] was the Enlightenment on horseback."
Roberts', while certainly presenting a positive case for Napoleon, is not short of his criticism of the French emperor. Roberts highlights some of the battlefield brutality that Napoleon was capable of committing. He has no apologetic defense for Napoleon's invasion of Russia and the fallout that ensued, Roberts equally makes clear that many Europeans, but especially Frenchmen, died in Napoleon's gambit to wrangle Europe under his boot.
Yet, at the same time, Roberts doesn't shorthand Napoleon's battlefield brilliance, his ability to inspire friends and foes alike, but more importantly, does not attempt to destroy Napoleon's Legal reforms: the Napoleonic Code. Napoleon, as a Law Giver, is perhaps the most successful legislator or administrator of any figure in Europe in the last 200 years. Napoleon's institutions that embodied meritocracy, religious tolerance and pluralism, and a legal structure that certainly curbed the influence of favoritism in politics due to one's noble birth rank have remained, at least structurally, the mainframe of modern European law ever since Napoleon's ride across Europe. His armies may have failed to conquer Europe, but his legislation, in bitter irony, conquered his conquerors. Roberts' chapter on the Napoleonic Code is where his work shines most brightly, even if it is a short chapter--for Napoleon himself saw his civil code as his greatest accomplishment nearing his deathbed (p. 270).
Upon reading Roberts' book, while it seems impossible that a figure as towering as Napoleon can ever have "the definitive one-volume biography," Andrew Roberts comes as close as it can get. One is left only to awe at Napoleon's meteoric rise to power, his battlefield ability, his own egoism, his political ability as lawgiver and administrator (which is where Napoleon has been most successful, now, almost 200 years after his death, his legal reforms still have more widespread influence than his armies ever died), and at the same time, one can see the propaganda machine and battlefield brutality hard at work. Roberts has written a biography of Napoleon not casting him as "Great" in the sense that Americans view the deified trio of Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, but "great" in the historiographical sense--no other figure from 1796-1815 held the world in his hand, and moved almost 20 years of European history with a single breath, or had the rest of a continent trembling in their boots and reacting to his every move.
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