Napoleon Paperback – 5 Nov 1998
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"One of the year's best biographies... A compelling portrait of one of history's greatest figures" (Catherine Lockerbie Scotsman)
"McLynn writes with considerable verve: his pithy characterisations of Napoleon's subordinates, the alternating chapters of narrative and analysis, the dramatic set-pieces...all these combine to make his biography pleasurable and highly instructive to read" (Brendan Simms Evening Standard)
"McLynn offers an admirably clear narrative, neither adulatory nor debunking. He acknowledges and displays the extraordinary tale and does not hide the pettiness" (Alan Massie Daily Telegraph)
"A robust, well-paced biography which pans confidently from the seventeen-year-old child educated by Jesuits to the ruins of the imperial grandeur and death by slow arsenic poisoning on a bleak St Helena" (Colin Cardwell Scotland on Sunday)
'A brilliant biography which will surely become a classic life of Napoleon.' The TimesSee all Product description
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Any book on Napoleon seems to suffer at least one of two criticisms: either it's said to hero-worship Napoleon, or it is said to bring back the 'black legend'. Both claims are somewhat true here: McLynn is both too generous and too critical of Napoleon.
On the generosity side, McLynn spends quite a lot of time defending Napoleon from his critics. He sometimes echoes Napoleon's own propaganda. For example, Napoleon frequently complained that his failings were not his fault, but rather he was betrayed and let down by his marshals, and by his family. McLynn buys this line too quickly, and the Marshalls and his brother Joeseph in particular get an ungenerous treatment as a result. McLynn is even more disparaging of Napoleon's Russian, German, Prussian and British counterparts.
On the critical side, McLynn paints many of Napoleon's unsuccessfuly decisions as foolish. For example, rather than understanding the reasons behind the invasion of Russia, or his dealings with women, McLynn prefers to put them down to irrational 'complexes' in Napoleon's character. I would like to have seen more done to try to make sense of Napoleon's reasons. Napoleon of 1913 onwards is painted as someone who just couldn't be bothered to win.
In short, balanced - but perhaps not in the right way.
McLynn psychoanalyses Napoleon: he claims that Napoleon suffers from a variety of complexes: a brother complex, an oriental complex. At one point, he even traces Napoleon's neurosis to the (false) claim that Napoleon was short. Personally, I think that psychoanalysis is bunkum. So I found these passages tiresome, and unhelpful. Thankfully, this didn't ruin the book for me: although they form a large part of the early chapters on Napoleon's childhood, they disappear almost entirely for the rest of the book, and can be safely skipped where they do appear.
In general, McLynn writes well. He often uses very formal and old-fashioned words, and occasionally these are used inappropriately. But by-and-large, the vocabulary causes little distraction, and the book is a pleasure to read.
In summary, a good introduction to Napoleon. It stumbles by being both too critical and too generous, and reflects many of the faults of modern Napoleonic scholarship. But it is as good as, or better than, anything other introductory biography out there.
[Husband of account holder]
The rest was ok - like previous reviewers I found some of McLynn's assumptions and leaps to conclusions as far as Napoleon's psychology is concerned, odd and at times far-fetched. I started skipping such passages after a while and found the reading experience improved.
On one hand you have a well-paced, quite comprehensive biography that strikes a fair balance between Napoleon's military career, his political machinations and his personal life. On the other hand, you have a book that makes some glaring errors, and repeats long-disproven misconceptions. Chief amongst these is the thoroughly discredited notion that Napoleon was a short man.
Most current estimates place the Emperor at around 5'7; a little on the short side in this day and age (but not ridiculously so), but perfectly average for the time. His famously short stature is based on nothing more than 1) British propaganda cartoons 2) his affectionate (not literal) nickname "Le Petit General" 3) the comparatively greater stature of his Imperial Guard and 4) a misunderstanding of the French system of measurement used at the time. Nonetheless the erroneous "fact" that Napoleon was notably short is offered up shamelessly in McLynn's book. What's worse, the author uses it to examine some half-baked Jungian height complex. McLynn delves carelessly into unconvincing psychoanalysis on more than a few occasions, and increasingly I found myself skipping such sections as they appeared.
This irritation aside, the rest of the book is not bad. Some Napoleonic biographies dwell too much on endless battles and neglect his political abilities, or vice versa. Sometimes authors will obsess over his personal life at the expense of his public achievements. Thankfully his book avoids such mistakes, and devotes a fair amount of time to the various facets of his life, so it feels more complete than several other works on Napoleon which have a narrower focus.
Another positive is McLynn's disinclination to swallow the official or commonly-accepted version of each story on faith, prefering instead to root out the most likely course of events. In this regard he debunks a number of previously held but unlikely stories, many of which were the result of pro- or anti-Napoleon bias. The author presents an even handed view of a divisive figure; being neither a slanderer nor an apologist. He distills disparate tales into a manageable narrative. These good qualities are of course tempered by his own mistakes.
Napoleon A Biography is at turns flawed, interesting, unconvincing, convincing, entertaining, and ultimately fair and balanced. As such my review wavers towards the positive, while recognising the shortcomings of the work. You would be a fool to accept this as the last word on Napoleon, but as an introduction to and an overview of this magnificent subject, it's a reasonable stab. I cannot say I regret reading this book. Indeed, I rather enjoyed it (with reservations).