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Monday, February 17, 2014

“Napoleon”, by Felix Markham


304 pages, Signet, ISBN-13: 978-0451627988

If you’re looking for a complete account of post-revolutionary Europe or of Napoleon’s life, this is not the right book; however, for an introduction to or a refresher course on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, readers would do well to invest in Felix Markham mini-biography Napoleon, first published in 1963. Succinct to say the least (which means that military campaigns requiring a great deal of detail tend to be a little dry) the true value of the book, aside from its synopsis of a dazzling history, is Markham’s incisive study of Napoleon’s personality and the enormous effect he had on his generation as well as those to come. Junot is quoted as saying, “He is the sort of man of whom nature is sparing and who only appears on earth at intervals of centuries”.

Napoleon’s wisdom as an administrator is set against his (oft) brutality, as when he had 3,000 prisoners shot to death at Jaffa, or somewhat arbitrarily ordered the execution of the Duc d’Enghien. Markham debunks some Napoleonic myths, including my favorite that Napoleon subsisted on only four hours of sleep per day (plus power naps). And for those of us who think of Napoleon’s rise to power as an unobstructed arc of triumph, Markham reminds us that in the early part of his career Napoleon came more than once under the shadow of the guillotine.

There are 38 illustrations and, like the text, they provide a sort of précis of this extraordinary life. The portraits of Napoleon from the 1790’s depict him in dramatic poses, his hair blowing in the wind, very much like a 1940’s movie star. These contrast sadly with the St Helena pictures, the ex-Emperor leaning on a spade in his garden, looking tamed and resigned.

As can be expected, if you have read about Napoleon before, you will be left with a sense of emptiness, as some critical and crucial events are covered in a single paragraph. But the real strength of the book is that it’s really an enjoyable to read, very clear and concise. While the biography may be criticized as being pro-Napoleon, I didn’t feel he was unduly so; in fact, Markham’s description of Napoleon as an enigma seems quite accurate and is probably one of the reasons that Napoleon continues to be controversial and of interest. From triumphant Emperor to tired exile, Felix Markham presents a Napoleon that is short but strong.

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