When the barracks were bursting with poets

David A. Bell

  • Napoleon the Novelist by Andy Martin
    Polity, 191 pp, £45.00, December 2000, ISBN 0 7456 2536 3

Andy Martin is unlikely to convince many readers that Napoleon conquered Europe only as compensation for his inability to write a sentimental novel. His attention to the Emperor’s literary ambitions is, however, not unreasonable. Napoleon dreamed of literary as well as military glory, wrote copiously at various moments in his life, and had real talent for it (Sainte-Beuve called him ‘a great critic in his spare time’, while Thiers elevated him to ‘greatest writer of the century’). The trouble with Martin’s choice of subject is his failure to acknowledge just how ordinary it was, two hundred years ago, for military and literary ambitions to intertwine. It is an intertwining that says a great deal about 18th-century culture, and its distance from our own.

On receiving his commission as a second lieutenant in the French Army in 1785, the young Napoleon Bonaparte embarked not on the conquest of Europe, but on seven years of mostly undemanding peacetime soldiering, interrupted by long and frequent leaves of absence. Friendless and penurious, he did not devote his ample leisure time to the stereotypical debauches of the idle Army officer. Instead, as he later recalled, ‘I lived like a bear, always alone in my little room, with my books, which were my only friends.’ He devoured Voltaire, Rousseau, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Raynal, and filled volume after heavy volume with reading notes. He sketched out a sentimental novel, Clisson et Eugénie, started a history of his native Corsica, and worked feverishly on a Discourse on Happiness which he submitted to an essay competition sponsored by the Academy of Lyon (Rousseau’s career, as he knew, had taken off after victory in a similar contest four decades earlier). He also found time to get mixed up, disastrously, in Corsican politics, and, while on yet another extended leave, ended up having to flee the island with his family in June 1793.

Following his return to the mainland, Napoleon quickly made a name for himself at the Siege of Toulon, and from there embarked on the unbelievably accelerated career which would make him master of France in six years, and all Europe seven years later. Yet even in the midst of rebuilding French institutions and society, marching his armies across most of the continent and earning a widespread reputation as the devil incarnate, he still cultivated his love of letters. When embarking on his Egyptian expedition of 1798, he took along a thousand-book library, as well as a group of 167 scientists, artists, poets, architects ‘and one ex-baritone from the Paris Opera’ to study Egyptian antiquities and prepare a monumental Description de l’Egypte. Their work became the basis of modern Egyptology. Even after crowning himself Emperor, Napoleon followed closely the careers of Europe’s leading authors (Martin has interesting things to say about his relationships with Goethe and Chateaubriand), and worked hard on his speeches and dispatches, often with memorable results. ‘Soldats, du haut de ces pyramides, quarante siècles vous contemplent.’

And when the Allies had banished him to St Helena (‘Napoleon’s life can be measured in islands,’ Martin writes), he returned to his literary concerns. He waited with impatience for new shipments of books from Europe – at times he cracked open the crates himself – and staged readings of classic plays for his small entourage. Some followers grew so tired of Voltaire’s Zaïre that they even considered stealing the Emperor’s copy to spare themselves further performances. He dictated his reminiscences to Las Cases, who put them together in a book which would sizzle its way into the minds of many aspiring 19th-century Romantic heroes, epitomised by Julien Sorel: ‘He looked sadly into the stream where his book had fallen. It was the one he was most fond of, the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène.’ As Napoleon himself remarked, ‘but what a novel my life has made!’

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[*] Author Unknown was reviewed in the last issue of the LRB by John Lanchester