One of my personal goals is to read every known work of fiction dealing directly with, or having significant bearing, on the Age of Napoleon. See my separate lists and guides for an overall orientation.
Including this book, Max Gallo has written an ingenious and significant work of fiction of four volumes spanning the inner life of Napoleon Bonaparte. This volume is the third of four volumes recently made available in English for the United States market. This book, which I have seen often on news stands of Paris in recent years, covers the time from the immediate aftermath of the French victory at Austerlitz up to the moment just before the Grand Armee embarks across the Neiman on the road to Moscow.
I read Napoleonic fiction for personal perspective on the historical events. As with most fictional accounts, this work follows from imaginative extrapolations of first hand accounts of events.
Professor Gallo offers the highly personal perspective from within the mind of Napoleon himself. The structure of the novel is based on the personal correspondence of Napoleon. In the genre of Napoleonic fiction, Gallo operates on par with Patrick Rimbaud for writing skill. He falls just below Stendhal and Tolstoy as the leaders in historical fiction based on the Age of Napoleon.
For the avid follower of the genre, Gallo's work is extremely valuable in at least three respects. First, it is comprehensive. Second, it develops the inner psychological perspective of Napoleon himself. Third, in a completely modern technical style, it imparts a sense of virtual reality from where the reader can see events of fifty years compressed into a single life.
An earmark of this volume (as with the other three) is the torrid pace of events comprising the 7 years from Austerlitz to the Neiman. Very noticeably when you first take up the Gallo books you feel rushed. You feel like you are watching a slient movie with characters speeding from one scene to the other. It feels like a 33 rpm record played at 72 rpms, or a video locked in fast forward.
The sense of rush will be less if you begin with the first volume of the series called The Song of Departure because it winds up more slowly with a careful development of the childhood of the Napoleon and his early path to power. Regardless, however, of where you begin, before long you will settle into the pace and begin to view events in a natural rhythm from the personal perspective of Napoleon the man.
As a caution to the uninitiated, I can't see how anyone uninitiated in the events of Continental Europe between 1789 and 1815 can possibly read, comprehend and enjoy Max Gallo's Napoleon. In this book alone, the momentous battles of Jena, Eylau and Friedland pass in a moment. The same is true of Aspern-Essling and Wagram. Important characters like Calaincourt, Fouche and Talleyrand, along with many others, pass in and out of the story rapidly. In the meantime, our attention is focused on the foreground of Napoleon's thinking and on Josephine, Maria Waleska, Czar Alexander, the King of Rome and Marie Louise.
It seems practical to me to say that the only way to enjoy fully this book and its companions is to read them in parallel with a comprehensive historical account of the Napoleonic Campaigns. Lesser works might do the job of historical concordance, but my choice for the duty would be David Chandler's exhaustive Campaigns of Napoleon. By reading such a work along with Gallo, the full scope and power of the age becomes visible and, on the personal human scale, the struggles of the man at the center of the story finds more meaning and context.
This book is obligatory for any serious student of the Napoleonic Age. The times cannot be mastered without this valuable and interesting viewpoint. If Gallo had not written from this perspective, someone else would have had to do so eventually. The lesson of the work is that even in one of the greatest lives in all of recorded human history, there is still only 24 hours to a day and still only a finite time over which the narrow path of life leads us all to our destiny -- no matter how great or small we may be.