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BOOK REVIEW: "Napoleon: A Concise Biography" by David A. Bell

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BOOK REVIEW: Napoleon: A Concise Biography by David A. Bell (Oxford University Press) 2015

While in France recently, leading up to their presidential election, I heard comparisons made between French leader and historical figure Napoleon Bonaparte and centrist upstart Emmanuel Macron (who went on to win a few days later), primarily because both men were young when they came to power.

Macron was only 39. Napoleon was 35 when he was crowned emperor of France in 1804. (And while we’re on the issue of Macron, note this article at The New Yorker and how it notes how much more the French are embracing true democracy, compared to their American brethren…)

It’s hard not to think about Napoleon’s lasting influence and legacy when you visit France. But it was interesting that very few statues of the European conqueror were on display during my stay in the southern part of Napoleon’s homeland.

And that is likely due to the mixed feelings many French people have about Napoleon Bonaparte.

And wanting to learn more about this man, one of the greatest military strategists in world history, I settled on Napoleon: A Concise Biography by Princeton University History Professor David A. Bell. It is a book (among countless tomes out there) that lives up to its title: it is about Napoleon’s life and it is very concise and to the point.

Which for someone like me is important in certain regards, considering I am reading books pretty much all the time. And when I wanted a book on Napoleon which focused on the highlights, from his early years on the island of Corsica to his rapid rise in the French Revolutionary Army, Bell’s book, coming in at just a little over 100 pages, was the perfect choice for me.

There is no question that Napoleon (who shares a birthday with actor Ben Affleck – August 15th) was a compelling figure, rising to power in the wake of the bloody and chaotic French Revolution of 1789. 

And while many, Bell writes, see Napoleon simply as “pure force” and a “freak – of nature,” he notes that Napoleon understood how rapidly Europe had changed during his formative years in the late 18th century, and knowing that was able to be shrewd enough to “seize the new opportunities that had arisen” in a “radically” altered Europe in regards to the social and cultural developments that were manifesting in a world where the “older hierarchies of noble and commoner” were being seriously challenged.

Napoleon saw all this and took full advantage of this changing political climate. His many battles, his outrageous and cunning strategies in said battles, his many failures, as in Egypt and Russia, and his seeming disregard for human life, for all those who fought for Napoleon's causes.

"A man like me does not ive a shit about the lives of a million men," Napoleon was reported to have stated in 1813.

But as the book’s title implies, “concise” means taking the reader on a linear path through Napoleon’s life. Each chapter focuses on a specific space of time in Napoleon’s life – “The Corsican, 1769-1796” followed by “The General, 1796-1799” and so forth.

And Bell takes us beyond those final years (“The Downfall, 1812-1815”) writing about Napoleon's complicated legacy in France and how certain French leaders opt not to acknowledge Napoleon or his stamp on French culture, while still featuring a republican government that features Napoleonic laws and institutions to this very day. And tourists still stop to see Napoleon's sarcophagus in Paris. Bell mentions the famous - and chilling - photo of Adolf Hitler starting at the sarcophagus "pensively" in June 1940. 

I also enjoyed Bell addressing Napoleon's years exiled on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he was imprisoned by the British and whose exploits and personal story were told to the emporer's companion-in-exile Emmanuel de Las Cases, who wrote it all down in the hard-to-find book Memorial of Saint Helena, first published in 1822.

As Napoleon tells de Las Cases in the book: "What a novel my life has been." 

Indeed it was, sir. Indeed it was.

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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