Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Napoleon - Alan Forrest

The most stimulating and entertaining biographies are often of those figures who polarize opinion, or whose reputation or legacy is riddled with paradoxes and contradictions.

Napoleon Bonaparte has the capacity to inspire these emotions in many people, and I am no exception. Respect for many of the ideals which he expounded and (in the beginning at least) upheld , co-existing with distaste for his occasional cynicism, folly and vanity.

Alan Forrest's "Napoleon" has a breezy, enthusiastic style, which steers well clear of the pomposity which can mar works about the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.  It is hard not to become caught up in, and enthused by the exuberance and excitement of those times, and how much of a breath of fresh air Napoleon and those like him must have personified.

There is some focus on the problem of his being torn between his Corsican roots and what was "destiny" on the mainland. Indeed, the attention given to Corsica is welcome, in building up a picture of Napoleon's political development. I would have liked a little additional detail on his education and so forth, but I don't think that this sets out to be a definitively detailed, "chronological" biography in that sense.

One aspect of the Napoleon story which is intriguing, and which habitually attracts controversy, is his attitude to the successive phases of the revolution, and to whom, if anyone, he pledged his allegiance along the way. The reformist zeal was tempered with anxiety about the disorder and violence which continued to flare up periodically. Cynics would contend that this also helped to protect his own ambitions. A balancing act which kept own career options open. This encompassed remaining on good terms with people who could help to save his skin when the going became rough.

Unsurprisingly, Napoleon's role in subduing the Toulon uprising of 1794 is highlighted. It was an example of Napoleon "producing the goods" when it mattered, with a flair for the dramatic and the symbolic. He rode his luck from time to time, but some might say that his audacity and courage entitled him to the odd piece of good fortune, and he was thereby well placed when the political breeze blew in his direction.

The pace accelerates with Napoleon's posting to a command in the Italian campaign, and here the author outlines some of the personal qualities, and "people skills" which would soon propel the young commander to undreamed of heights. Equally, we gather hints of the patterns and tendencies which would sow the seeds of later failings.  At this point, too, there is an interesting look at Napoleon's efforts in the fields of propaganda and public relations, as his political horizons began to expand.

The Italian sojourn, and the Egyptian adventure which followed, are given relatively short but quite insightful coverage. Was the Egyptian sojourn the point where some of his credentials began to look a little spurious and questionable; megalomania and naked ambition dressed up in grand ideals?  The evidence was ambiguous, and perception was all that really mattered back in France at that time.

Bonaparte was consciously cultivating the aura of an all-round ruler, inspiration and spreader of civilization - preparing the ground for political struggles to come. Popular adulation and acquiescence soon served to make Napoleon more headstrong and heedless of dissent.

It is interesting to note how low down the pecking order he was when the 1799 plotters were casting around for military support. The inauguration of the Consulate, and the measures introduced thereafter, make sobering reading, as an example of how people often prefer order, comfort and "unity" to freedom and democracy. A reminder of how authoritarian a place France still was, and would continue to be, even making allowances for the standards of the time.  The Duc d'Enghien episode seemed to put the seal on this - it seems that this was the point at which many admirers, including one Ludwig van Beethoven, became disaffected.

Essentially, this is a "political" biography, which means that there is not exhaustive relating of the minutiae of military strategy and tactics. This is a blessing, as other books on this subject concentrate excessively on the battles and campaigns, thereby obscuring and ignoring some of the broader geopolitical arguments, and the more unpalatable truths about Napoleon's rule/reign, particularly in the later days.

I have often found that the more one reads about, or researches, supposedly "heroic" figures, the less edifying and admirable they become. This book furthers the trend with regard to Bonaparte, by condensing the less agreeable tendencies which he and his regime(s) began to exhibit from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards.

The author exudes a real enthusiasm for his subject, and for the enlightened ideals of the time, but this does not preclude a sober appraisal of Napoleon's real motives and achievements. I detected that his praise becomes less generous as the story moves forward.

Forrest's interpretations also reinforced something which has been forming in my mind for a while about the French Revolution in particular;that is, how tenuous and patchy its impact might have been, and how much liberal ideas had really trickled down to the wider population from the politically-aware elites and social groups. Whether this is totally unfair I don't know, but from reading about later French history it seems that things did not truly change for many more decades. Was this something to do with the demographic make-up of the French populace, the balance between rural and urban dwellers? Was the popularity of Napoleon due to base sentiments amongst French people, rather than attachment to lofty or progressive ideals?

Some of the less endearing consequences of Napoleon's dominance are illustrated. His centralizing tendencies, the emphasis on obedience, loyalty and obligations over rights. The censorship and control over free expression and the press. Things are best summed up by the author's observation that Napoleon was an authoritarian, but no reactionary. The expediency was often justified as safeguarding many of the most cherished achievements of the revolutionaries and the Republic.

The descriptions of imperial splendour and excess leave a bad taste in the mouth, though. Many might see him, post 1804, as little different from the "enlightened monarchs" of the previous century. Some revealing material here too on Napoleon's manipulation of the arts and culture to present and spread the "glory" of his rule/reign.

As alluded to above, exhaustive tales of military derring-do are largely absent here, and Forrest prefers instead to elaborate on the diplomatic and domestic implications of Napoleon's crusade to expand his Empire.The further I trekked into this book, the more I realized that it was not a biography in the truest sense, but more a book about Napoleon's political career.  It has less of the strict chronological rigidity of many biographies, and embarks on several enlightening diversions into areas of interest.  It says more in 300+  pages than some tomes of three times its length.

In the end, the contradictions and ambiguities are a large part of the Napoleon enigma and the Napoleon allure, and he remains an emotive figure today. This would be a good place to start learning about him, but it would also serve as a good refresher for anyone.

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