Napoleon: A Life by Adam Zamoyski

Napoleon: A Life
by Adam Zamoyski
Basic Books, 2018


At this point in our long travail, there can be no possible justification for another doorstop biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. Every minuscule detail of the man's life has been endlessly dissected by historians, poets, librettists, psychoanalysts, spiritualists, military strategists, business moguls, culinary experts, horticulturalists, legal scholars, and a phalanx of novelists. The occasional furtive condemnations have tended to get lost in the poppy fields of praise, but after a point (reached in 1840), praise and blame blend into a sense-deadening torrent in which both lose their meaning and become each other. Nothing – not conquests nor scientific breakthroughs nor population demographics nor being the only-begotten Son of God, nothing, literally nothing – achievable by any one person can hope to warrant the floor-to-ceiling contents of a thousand libraries.

And yet, the books keep coming. Some bit of archived trivia, some string-tied collection of squalid billets-doux will be unearthed in some godforsaken Montparnasse basement, and whole forests will be razed for a whole new wave of books 'reinterpreting' the redundant in light of the irrelevant. There are anniversaries; there are commemorations; there's a lucrative market for gamesome reinterpretations; and there's a high premium on name recognition – so new doorstop biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte continue to appear, 40 in this new century alone, 475,000 since Bonaparte breathed his last in 1821.

The latest at the moment is by eloquent and accomplished historian Adam Zamoyski, but he could be as eloquent and accomplished as Tacitus and it wouldn't make a difference in this case. Talented and accomplished would be a godsend in a new 750-page biography of Comte de Grasse or Montesquieu or Alexandre Dumas … but in the service of writing yet another big book about Bonaparte? Take a number. Get in line. Hope you're called before the meat counter closes. Zamoyski's central contention is that Bonaparte, for all the outlandish things written about him positive and negative, was after all only human. This information might have been emailed.

The point, what ought to be the point in engorged exercises like this, isn't that Bonaparte was after all only human. It's that he was an exceptionally bad human. He was vain, pompous, arrogant, cowardly, scornful, and corrosively manipulative. He used, wasted, and discarded virtually every living thing of any species he ever encountered in the entire course of his life. He hardly ever entered a situation without making it worse for everybody involved and then blaming them for the change. The number of soldiers whose loyalty he accepted and whose lives he knowingly squandered is beyond accurate count.  Considering the extent to which hagiography sells hardcovers, one doesn't expect to encounter this kind of assessment in a brick called Napoleon: A Life, so maybe readers should be grateful for any kind of critical assessment of this little monster.

There are precious few such assessments in these pages. Instead, in every chapter, at every key dramatized moment, there are subtle and not-so-subtle shadings designed to exonerate this after-all-just-a-man Bonaparte. Take this passage about the crafting of the legislation that would come to be known as the Code Napoléon, with Bonaparte constantly pushing his lawyers to ape his own misogyny:

His personal experience is detectable in the clauses governing marital relations and the rights of women. According to the Code, the husband had a duty to provide for and protect the wife, but she must obey him in everything and could not perform any legal action without his authorisation. The husband could divorce an adulterous wife, but the opposite was only possible if he moved his mistress into the family home. A woman convicted of adultery was obliged to spend between three months and two years in a house of correction. The minutes of the meetings reveal Bonaparte's input, which is marked by his disenchantment with women caused by Josephine's infidelities and profligacy. 'Women need to be contained,' he declared, explaining that they were naturally more flighty than men when it came to sex and liable to spend their husband's money like water.

Got that? If Josephine hadn't been unfaithful, an entire legal code treating women like untrained Pomeranians wouldn't have been necessary. No reflection on Bonaparte – it was just a bad reaction to a betrayal of his trust, you see. It's a version of events that Bonaparte would have liked, and it's not alone. Much later, for instance, when we find the little dictator warring on his neighbors again, we get this:

Although he still moved fast, travelling at all hours of the day and night, Napoleon had introduced a modicum of comfort into his campaigning, as his age no longer permitted subjecting himself to the rigours of sleeping out in all weathers and going without food. His travelling carriage was equipped with every comfort, and he kept adding resources. He loved nécessaires of one sort or another, cases containing every conceivable utensil required for their purpose, be it washing or writing. He was followed or preceded by fourteen wagons and a train of mules bearing a set of five tents of blue-and-white-striped ticking – two of them, his bedroom and study, private; the other three also used by his staff.

Yes, just nécessaires, while his men slept ten under a leaky tarp and lived on poached rats and rainwater. And there's the silently slipped-in implication that this situation is a change, that the much-younger Bonaparte campaigned rough and hard instead of always, whenever possible, parading around like all the pamper'd jades of Asia. The Bonaparte myth, crafted and promulgated (on penalty of punishment) by the subject himself, lives in these pages less flamboyantly but no less assiduously than in the previous 1000 lives of this just-a-man despot. Readers looking for that Bonaparte myth – and sales figures suggest they are legion – will find no better rendition of it this season than Zamoyski's book. That's a kind of distinction, but just as when Bonaparte would smile his piglet little half-smile at some general and say “You're a man after my own heart,” it's a dubious distinction.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is