There have been more than a thousand books on the French leader but a new biography is the most authoritativeby Charles Williams / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Bonaparte: 1769-1802 by Patrice Gueniffey (tr Steven Rendall), (Harvard University Press, £29.95)
There should be no doubt about the provenance. Patrice Gueniffey is one of the few historians recognised both in France and in the wider academic world for his work on the Napoleonic era. The author of several books on the period and an editor of Napoleon’s letters, he was persuaded in 2004 to abandon a more limited project to undertake a full biography of his subject. Nine years later the first volume, which ends in 1802, was published in Paris and immediately won all the available plaudits. A second volume will follow in due course. When the work is complete there is little doubt that it will be accepted as the most authoritative biography of Napoleon that we have or are likely to have in the foreseeable future.
For now, we now have only the first volume but this is enough, and sometimes a little more than enough, to see where we are headed. Gueniffey sets out his stall in the introduction, a fairly long essay which acts as apéritif to an admittedly long book. He addresses first the question of overload: there have been well over a thousand books of one sort or another devoted to his subject so, he asks, why should there be any more? His response is that far from being surprised at the number we should be surprised that there is any surprise at all. After all, in a short span of 25 years the whole known world was changed. It is right that it should be analysed over and over again. He then goes on to review previous interpretations of Napoleon’s life before setting out his own approach: “to understand… his personality; to describe the… circumstances; to gauge the consent of public opinion…; finally, we have to determine the decisive moment, the one that can, as [Jorge Luis] Borges said, sum up ‘every destiny, no matter how long and complicated it might be’; ‘the [moment] in which the man knows once and for all who he is.’”
Nevertheless, there was no single Napoleonic Damascene “moment” but a succession of events over the…