How Napoleon went to 'take an idea for a walk' and conquered Europe

Napoleon the Novelist
November 23, 2001

Napoleon the Novelist is a delightful, dashing after-dinner speech for the cognoscenti, and long overdue, given the number of "turkeys" Napoleon still manages to attract as hagiographers, biographers and "anoraks". This is a refreshing book for the sheer entertainment it provides and for its many real insights. To an academic who spends more than his fair share of time in airports, this made welcome reading - and that is a compliment in full.

Andy Martin gives us a Napoleon who has all but disappeared since Georges Lefebvre made him the harbinger of bourgeois philistinism: Napoleon less as novelist than as intellectual. The title is a slight misnomer as we get relatively little about Napoleon's fictional works. Instead, Martin provides something far more valuable, a real insight into how Napoleon responded to, and sought to interpret, the intellectual and cultural world around him.

Martin remembers, as many others prefer to forget, that Napoleon was admired and respected - as well as detested - by the finest intellects of the era. Chateaubriand, Sta l and Goethe may have learned to detest him, but they enjoyed sharpening their quills against a worthy opponent. No one ever called him a cretin. After his fall, Chateaubriand was generous in his praise, Stendhal became his mourner-in-chief. For Martin "Napoleon did not belong to politicians: he was too big and they were too smallI It was up to writers and intellectuals - to Hugo above all - to save Napoleon from soldiers and senators". He is all too correct. Napoleon has been vilified by modern secular intellectuals because he is seen as the man who put a stop to the bloodlust they so adore: the French revolution. Chateaubriand was probably closer to the mark in seeing Napoleon's real crime as muzzling the press. Indeed, there is a deep - usually undetected - irony with which Napoleonic detractors find it in them to condone the Terror and bewail the failure of the revolution to denude the nobility of its property, while lambasting Napoleon for killing the duc d'Enghien. Martin gives a good account of the Enghien affair and of Napoleon's sheepish musings on it in enforced retirement.

Encouragingly, he takes the "civilising mission" at the heart of the Napoleonic construct as a given. It is high time someone asserted that "taking an idea for a walk" could serve as a summary for the Napoleonic empire. Napoleon marshalled more than a century of French intellectual arrogance, injected the missionary zeal of the revolutionary into it, and then failed to understand why those less cultivated than himself sneered at the culture that produced Goethe, whom he so deeply admired.

Martin's approach inevitably produces an unfamiliar series of "island peaks" in the vast ocean of Napoleon's life - to borrow metaphors dear to subject and author alike - and they shed light on obscure but lyrical corners of the Napoleonic epic. School, the 1790s - when Napoleon emerges as a "shirker" with a dislike of counter-insurgency details - and Egypt take pride of place. More might have been made of his penchant for holding essay competitions in Milan, during 1796-97, as a counterpoint to his craze for entering them, a decade earlier. Martin has much of interest to say on Napoleon's links to Abbe Raynal, but the irony of this association - between the great anti-colonialist (who surely merits a revival in the age of Edward Said?) and the great instigator of the "civilising mission" - still needs to be drawn.

Where Martin really comes into his own is with the relationship between Goethe and Napoleon. There is no more sensitive, astute account anywhere, not least because Goethe - rather than the prejudices of those who presume to speak for him - is allowed to give his own telling assessment of Napoleon, as a good listener and well-read man, as well as an opportunistic, very public man. Martin also provides one of the very few genuinely useful accounts of St Helena; his interpretation of it as a "writers' colony" gives the last years a coherence and significance they deserve but have often lacked.

Martin is more a prisoner of his times than his subject. His adherence to post-structuralist fashion allows the inclusion of a padded "diversionary" chapter about the Chappes's telegraph on the grounds of Napoleon's textual obsessions; there is the deconstructed penis popping up here and there. However, when he breaks free of these strictures - and of some rather studied slang - Martin returns us to a saner age. His book resembles Emile Ludwig's interwar life of Napoleon, written for a readership capable of accepting contradiction and nuance in history and its protagonists. Would that Napoleon the Novelist heralds a renaissance of an intellectual world that does not need the cheap thrills of comparing Napoleon to Hitler or Stalin, still less the propaganda of Gilray.

Michael Broers is reader in modern European history, King's College, University of Aberdeen.

Napoleon the Novelist

Author - Andy Martin
ISBN - 0 7456 2535 5 and 2536 3
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 191

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