Napoleon, the Man of Destiny
by Boni and Liveright. 1926. 8vo. xii+680 pp. Illustrated. $3.00.. Translated by . New York:
THIS promises to be an outstanding book in Napoleonic literature, but it is fortunate that it did not appear until the factual content of that literature was well established. Not that it departs from accepted lines of historical veracity, but it is a product of that school of creative biography — a more exalted version of the commonplace ‘Mr. X as I knew him’ — which Thomas Carlyle founded, as a hero worshiper, and Emil Ludwig — not unworthy to be compared with the testy but sentimental Scotchman — has brought down to date in the less reverential spirit of our age. The author paints a portrait, not a caricature; but it is a Sargent portrait wherein secrets, or conjectured secrets, that ordinarily lie hidden in the heart are written on the countenance for all the world to read. Yet such secrets are more or less debatable, however thoroughly we may document them. They are vastly more interesting, and within limits more vital and potent, than the impersonal facts that make the carapace of history, but if we dwell too much upon them we are tempted to subordinate epochal and universal developments to the volition of the individual, and to chart the progress of mankind upon the diagrams of the psychoanalyst.
Were this a less fascinating and compelling book it would hardly be necessary to introduce it to the reader with such a caveat. Its author professes to deal only with Napoleon the man, and not with the history of his times except as the background of his personal drama. Not a plan of a battle field adorns the volume, and dates are relegated to a prefatory table following the list of illustrations. The latter, twenty-one in number, are exclusively pictures of Napoleon himself. The author’s theme is ‘the tragedy man,’ not the Europe of the French Revolution. He fitly faces the title-page with Goethe’s searching remark: ‘Napoleon went forth to seek virtue, but, since she was not to be found, he got power.’ Only a German — certainly no Frenchman — could so completely efface France herself from his record of that Odyssey to power.
It is a man with very human frailties, and not a classic hero, whom the biographer depicts, and the latter’s Teutonic ethos makes him pass an alien’s judgment upon this histrionic-souled Italian. He emphasizes the Corsican heritage of the Buonapartes, whose blood strain runs like a red clue through his narrative. Is it also because he is a German that he draws so harrowing a picture of the Saint Helena exile — possibly with unconscious shadowings of another political exile hovering in the background of his mind? We recognize with more assurance the promptings of the Zeitgeist, when the author discovers in Napoleon a Pan-Europa pioneer with — to adopt the current patter — a suppressed pacifist complex. He quotes striking passages from the Emperor’s sayings to support this thesis: ‘We need a European legal code, a European court of appeal, a unified coinage, a common system of weights and measures. The same law must run throughout Europe.’ And again: ‘Sooner or later this union will be brought about by the force of events. ... It seems to me that the only way in which an equilibrium can be achieved in Europe is through a league of nations.’ To be sure this would have been a pax Napoleonica, not a democratic federation of the Continent, and one that Britain could not tolerate; but as the Saint Helena exile exclaimed almost on his deathbed, ‘There would have been but one people throughout Europe.’
In a work of this character, where the author wields the pen of an artist and not of a mere draftsman, the task of the translator calls for a high order of ability. On the whole we imagine, without having had an opportunity to compare the English version with the original, that in the present instance this task has been well performed. Yet minor slips occasionally confuse the reader. Some of these may be no more than typographical inaccuracies, but such a sentence as ‘The brio of the young man’s life was in keeping with his own tempo’ would be more intelligible on the Rio Grande than in Boston. Now and then, also, a lack of sequence in Napoleon’s recorded utterances, verging once or twice on incoherence, tempts one to seek the original French authority for verification.
Such a book does not supplant in the field of biography as history, or even compete with, a work like Professor Sloane’s; but it occupies a place of its own as an absorbing character study, with all the fascination of a drama, and it may prove to be an abiding contribution to the world’s creative literature.
VICTOR S. CLARK