Napoleon's life in miniature: A lesson for the 21st century

On Books

May 05, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

History is made by individual humans -- great leaders, scientists, scholars and teachers who shape their eras. Good biographies are the most valuable window into the world's wonders and woes.

It is distressing that so many biographies seem longer than the lives themselves. Some day, perhaps, I'll finish Master of the Senate, the third volume of Robert Caro's projected four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson -- all 1,152 pages. It was released last week to virtually universal huzzahs. As a reporter, I covered Johnson for several years. He fascinates me beyond familiarity. To finish it, though, I could do little else but eat and briefly sleep for a week or more. Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex fills 772 pages. Many are longer.

Thus it is with acute enthusiasm that I greet Paul Johnson's Napoleon: A Penguin Life (Lipper / Viking, 208 pages, $19.95). This is the 22nd in a series of works that Penguin, in collaboration with the financier and novelist Kenneth Lipper, began publishing in 1999 -- with the promise that all would be "elegant, succinct biographies." The ones I've read have fulfilled that pledge.

Nabulion da Buonparte was born in Corsica in 1769, son of an impecunious family of noble background, originally from Tuscany. He grew up speaking Italian and did not learn French until he was sent to military school in France as a boy. He then came to detest Italians and Italy, regarding Italian cities he conquered as coins to toss to relatives.

He had no religious belief or convictions, though he was adept at the political use of the Catholic clergy. He called himself Bonaparte, never using "Napoleon" until he became emperor, conceding to royal usage. As Johnson insists, "He had no patriotism, as such, for he had no country."

He was small -- 5 feet, 5 inches tall -- pale, in many ways effeminate (though a user of innumerable, quickly tossed-aside women). In his monumental vanity, he was ridiculous in many ways -- famously posturing, talking but seldom listening. He was more than quirky. He ate meals in 10 minutes if he had the choice, watered wine if he drank it with meals and was never known to have been drunk.

Perhaps his most important natural talent -- beyond his incendiary, incomparable will -- was an immense capacity to handle mathematics, keeping track of the tiniest details of warfare, planning battles down to the minute and the kilogram of food and ammunition.

An eminent historian who writes often for newspapers and magazines, Johnson is a brilliant writer, fluent, precise, crisp and in full command of the music of words. Consider:

"Constitutions were important in the sense that window dressing was important in a shop. But the will was the product to be sold to the nation and, once sold, imposed. If this be ideology, it was the ideology of an opportunist who could adapt himself to the phases of the revolutionary evolution, as they occurred, until his personal moment came. That was a matter for the stars, and the stars had no ideology, merely motion."

Bonaparte went to military academies, quickly distinguished himself as an officer, then rose to power with unmatched swiftness, during the worst of the French Revolution, when the Terror was butchering leader after leader, including many who had favored him and helped his career. Johnson writes that "with his overarching scheme for Europe, [he] was not so much a liberator as a conqueror ... unjust and cruel. Warfare, from being a means to an end, became an end in itself."

By 1797, he had risen to lead huge French forces, had defeated the Austrians and controlled much of Italy. As Johnson writes: "Aged twenty-eight, he was now, in military terms, the most powerful man in the republic, a loose cannon, loaded and primed, on the map of Europe, whom the politicians wanted to keep from Paris by giving him fresh assignments well away from the capital -- thereby, of course, risking even more spectacular triumphs on his part."

Not atypically, after taking Gaza and Jaffa in preemptory attacks against the Turkish forces in 1799, he ordered 4,500 prisoners, including women and children, slaughtered by bayonet, to save ammunition. Everywhere his troops went, looting enriched him and his subordinates and hangers-on.

Treasures of art from all of continental Europe and North Africa were brought to Paris, allowing Bonaparte to present that city as the cultural capital of Europe. He fled defeat in Egypt and went to Paris and seized control of government, creating himself First Consul in 1802 and then Emperor in 1804. Though often a hero to his men, he led 50,000 of them to death each year of his command.

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