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Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars An entertainingly written and thought-provoking polemic, 29 Sept. 2013
This review is from: Napoleon (LIVES) (Paperback)
This is an intriguing book. Essentially a hatchet job, but one in which admiration for the character being assassinated seeps through.

Putting to one side the caveat that this book may contain some simple factual errors (some other reviewers draw attention to this; I haven't checked if they're correct), Paul Johnson can and does, at times, write extremely well: I may disagree with a fair amount of what he says, and I'm certainly even more at odds with some of the unstated premises that lie behind what he ultimately says, but I can't deny that this was a thoroughly engaging read, and works very well both as a brief outline biography of this persistently fascinating man, Napoleon, and a polemic about both him and his legacy.

Johnson is both Catholic and conservative, and his religiosity and conservatism are very apparent throughout. This is the first book about Napoleon and his times that I've read that refers to religion so frequently that one knows it's a big deal for the author. For me there is a real irony here, in that I kind of agree with some of what Johnson says regarding Napoleon - inasmuch as there is a moral bankruptcy in the pursuit of rampant egotism on the world stage - but I fundamentally disagree with Johnson's unstated (and very largely religiously derived) subtexts.

It's not surprising that someone like Napoleon should excite both admiration and revulsion, and one detects almost as much of the former as the latter in Johnson's writings here (often seeping through in terms of begrudging concessions, but even sometimes in plain terms), for all his indignant frothing at the mouth and lapses into sermonising. Johnson kind of reminds me a little here of Gillray and Cruikshank, cartoonists whose depictions of Boney are brilliant and beguiling as art, but nakedly conservative as propaganda.

One of the most telling strands in this respect, aside form the religious stuff, comes through when Johnson refers to 'legitimists', by which he means 'legitimate' rulers of some of the other major European powers, Czar Alexander being a prime example. In the technical or legalistic sense legitimacy is simply an issue of issue. But Johnson doesn't appear concerned to probe deeper into the issue of any other kind of legitimacy. So whilst Bonaparte is the unscrupulous and amoral (read irreligious and relatively common) murderer of the Duc d'Enghien, there's no equivalent penetration of the holy miasma (read religious and indisputably 'well-born') of the 'legitimate' Romanov ruler, who may well have been complicit in his father's murder!

David Chandler, in the fascinating book he oversaw, edited, and contributes to, on Napoleon's Marshals, quotes an author called Van Loon, who writing in 1921, said 'I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person', before proceeding to admit that he 'was the greatest of actors and the whole European continent was his stage'. For me, the whole of the single paragraph from which these snippets are extracted sums up exceedingly well the fascination that leads even those who disapprove as strongly as Johnson clearly does, to 'follow him [Napoleon]' - as Johnson does in a literary sense, and as Van Loon's grandfather did in the most literal sense - 'wherever he cared to lead ... Even today he is as much a force in the life of France as he was a hundred years ago.'

Placing Johnson's book in a broad context, and taking it on with an awareness of the author's prejudices, I enjoyed this book a lot, and it's making me think and rethink regarding my views on the continuously fascinating figure of Napoleon. But I do worry that some readers might swallow this portrayal from a purveyor of religious and conservative propaganda wholesale, and there are some other reviews here that are evidence such a fear might be well grounded. So, nothing if not polemic, but certainly entertaining and fun to read, as well as thought-provoking.
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Review Details



Sebastian Palmer

Location: Cambridge, England

Top Reviewer Ranking: 519