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!’

Martin provides an entertaining tour of these Napoleonic obsessions, pausing on the way to take in Boswell’s An Account of Corsica, Kundera’s Immortality, Simon Leys’s La Mort de Napoléon, the invention of the semaphore telegraph and various other tangential matters. At times, his light touch carries him up into a stratosphere of pure nonsense, as when he writes that since Napoleon did not permanently expand France’s frontiers, ‘his real contribution on the ground was less than nothing. His more durable impact was at the level of imprinting a certain aesthetics of empire on the French mind.’ Some people might think his effect on the legal code or the state administration would be worth mentioning. And what about the nationalism first kindled in Germany and elsewhere under Napoleonic occupation? Commenting on Napoleon’s hasty reading notes, Martin elevates carelessness to the status of existential protest: ‘Napoleon was in revolt against the very medium he was using. He had to modify everything, irrespective of truth value.’ Yet Martin does not take himself too seriously, and such excurses are mercifully brief, as is the book itself. ‘This may be the first short book on Napoleon,’ he comments (almost – Felix Markham’s classic 1954 Napoleon and the Awakening of Europe is even shorter). The problem is not that Martin occasionally loses himself in silliness, but that, like most of the biographers who focus on the battles, he is so dazzled by his subject that he fails to see him in the context of his time. Implicit in the book is the notion that Napoleon’s literary ambitions were as extraordinary as his military successes.

Today, they would be: imagine Colin Powell taking time off from his Gulf War command for a brief seminar on the early work of Allen Ginsberg, or officers in Nato’s Balkan forces engaging in a philosophical correspondence with Slavoj Žižek. But Napoleon was not the only French officer of his day to devote himself to literature. As the historian Dena Goodman has observed, the barracks were bursting with would-be poets and philosophes. Another famous underemployed artillery officer of the period, Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos, for example, started publishing poetry while posted in Grenoble in the early 1770s. A few years later, having helped establish a military school in Valence, he turned Mme Riccoboni’s popular novel Histoire d’Ernestine into a comic opera, and had it accepted by the Comédie Française. Unfortunately, it was booed from the start to the finish of its first and only performance, and the Queen’s presence in the audience only added to the humiliation. Laclos packed up his resentments and took them off to the Atlantic coast, where he helped construct France’s naval defences, and in his spare time wrote Les Liaisons dangereuses.

Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, a long-time military officer, was one of 18th-century France’s best regarded poets. Known above all for his French version of Thomson’s The Seasons, he wrote much else as well: ‘oriental fables’, short stories about American Indians and African slaves, now-unreadable treatises on human nature, articles for Diderot’s Encyclopédie and satirical verse on the quarrels of Catholic theologians. He was the lover of Voltaire’s friend and collaborator, Mme du Châtelet, who died after giving birth to his child. And he expressed, in lines Napoleon would certainly have appreciated, the plight of the sensitive young officer forced to endure the tedium of life in camp:

J’essuyais les récits mortels

Et les airs tristement capables

De nos Lieutenants Colonels.

De mille plaisants détestables

J’essuyais les fades bons mots,

De leurs festins la lourde ivresse,

Et leurs plaisirs sans politesse.

Victime des Rois et des sots,

Je m’ennuyais pour la Patrie.

Not surprisingly, Saint-Lambert did not have a particularly successful military career, and left the Army altogether after the Seven Years’ War. He did, however, win election to the Académie Française.

Then there was Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte de Guibert, whom historians remember as one of the greatest tacticians of the age, and an important influence on Napoleon’s own style of warfare. Born in 1743, he first saw action fighting against Corsican rebels (including members of the Bonaparte family) in 1768-69, and on his return to mainland France composed an ambitious tragedy about a Renaissance traitor, The Constable de Bourbon. Like Saint-Lambert he had a scandalous affair with a much older salonnière, after which he was obliged to take an extended leave from the Army. He used it to travel through Germany and Austria, observing the military innovations which had served Prussia so well in the Seven Years’ War. After a return to active duty, he continued to publish plays, travel literature, political philosophy and history, and eventually joined Saint-Lambert in the ranks of the Académie. His military masterpiece, the Essai général de tactique, also contains encyclopedic discussions of world history and politics, which read more like Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws than an officer’s manual.

In Napoleon’s personal entourage, too, soldier-poets were anything but unusual. Guillaume-Marie-Anne Brune, born the son of a provincial lawyer in 1763, went to Paris to study law, but found work as a typesetter after his parents cut him off for having married against their will. Full of literary hopes, he published in 1788 a gushing, pre-Romantic account of his travels through western France, full of soppy Rousseauian paeans to the power of nature and sentiment (‘my heart overflows, my entire soul has plunged into an inexpressible rapture’). When the Revolution broke out, he dabbled in radical politics and tried his hand at literary journalism, but succeeded only in driving several publications into bankruptcy. In 1791, his fortunes finally took a turn for the better. Along with a large contingent of radical sansculottes he volunteered for the Army, and, possibly thanks to his connections with Danton, won election to the leadership of his battalion. He was promoted to brigadier-general as soon as France went to war against Austria in 1792. Brune’s politics might have brought him into difficulty after 9 Thermidor, but he adroitly shifted allegiances from Robespierre to the corrupt Barras, and then proved his political bona fides by taking part in the suppression of his former sansculotte allies. From there success followed success, leading Brune to the exalted rank of Marshal of France, until an expression of displeasure with Napoleon’s creeping despotism finally led to his summary dismissal. He devoted his retirement to a translation of Xenophon’s Anabasis, and lived to be murdered by a royalist mob after Waterloo.

What accounts for this seemingly unlikely profusion of soldier-poets in Enlightenment France? It wasn’t a quirk of the French national character. After all, Frederick the Great of Prussia composed philosophical and literary works, strove to make Berlin a cultural centre and received the sobriquet of ‘philosopher prince’ from none other than Voltaire (who soon came to regret his praise). A more likely explanation might start with the tedium of military life evoked by Saint-Lambert. If modern soldiers spend their time preparing to fight the next war, 18th-century soldiers often spent their time doing very little of anything. As the Année littéraire put it in 1777, ‘the peace we have enjoyed for several years has allowed our warriors to cultivate other arts than those learned at the school of Mars.’ But soldiers did not write simply because they had the leisure to do so.

In the 18th century the military constituted not a separate profession, but a duty and a calling for the highest elites. In France, not only did the Army represent the traditional career for the aristocracy; the law barred them from any profession that bore the taint of trade or manual labour, leaving only the military, the Church or the law. Things were not that different in England: think of Jane Austen’s heroes. On the eve of the battle that cost him his life, General Wolfe told his officers that he would rather have written Gray’s Elegy than conquer the city of Quebec.

Nearly every educated person in the 18th century seems not only to have read poetry, but to have fancied themselves a poet at one time or another. Look into the private papers and correspondence of members of the nobility or the professions, in Britain or France, and time and again you will come across snatches of satirical verse, love poems, children’s verse and so on. And while few of these authors had any thought of turning a hobby into a full-time calling, the periodical press of the day, particularly local newspapers, offered a means for them to put their best efforts into print. In this way, a New York judge named Henry Livingston published his children’s verses beginning ‘’Twas the Night before Christmas’ in a local paper in the 1820s, only to have a more established poet steal the credit after his death and become world famous as a result (according to Don Foster’s Author Unknown).[*]

War itself was not in any way considered an unpoetic activity. Voltaire, who in other circumstances lambasted France as a ‘land of monkeys and tigers’, and who lived much of his life in resentful exile across the Swiss border, nonetheless composed a cloyingly sycophantic paean to Louis XV and the glory of French arms after the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy. The verse called the French a ‘people of Heroes’ and carefully singled out each French general for a line or two of praise. Nearly every French poet of the century, established and amateur, had similar verse to his or her credit. After the 1756 seizure of Minorca from the British, one of the rare French triumphs of the otherwise disastrous Seven Years’ War, a French publisher brought out a collection of over 150 poems, songs and ‘celebrations’ devoted to the victory. The list of authors reads like a cross-section of French society, including courtiers, magistrates, lawyers, doctors, noblewomen and a heavy sprinkling of military officers. A member of the King’s bodyguard contributed a lengthy ode to his master, in alexandrines.

There is no great mystery as to when or why this bond between war and art was broken, or at least twisted into an entirely new form. The mechanised slaughter of the trenches scoured older notions of glory and individual heroism out of the culture. Since Kipling, nearly all Western war poetry has been anti-war poetry, and the trend has been true of the arts in general, from Remarque and Owen through Ernst and Grosz and Picasso’s Guernica to Catch-22 and Apocalypse Now. War, and its glorifications, have become obscenities.

Meanwhile, the figure of the soldier-poet has fallen victim to hyper-specialisation. Soldiers’ endless training and retraining, practising and strategising, and simply managing their vast organisations, demands strenuous, full-time attention. If they are ‘bored for their fatherlands’, it is not thanks to lack of employment. And of course they are segregated from the rest of society, in bases, camps and barracks, often thousands of miles from their homes. In such settings, gentlemanly figures like Saint-Lambert have no place, and Napoleon would probably have been pushed towards early retirement after a series of unsatisfactory psychological profiles and fitness tests (‘easily distracted from the job at hand, little enthusiasm for routine tasks, poor team player’).

What made Napoleon unusual was less his dream of literary glory than the single-minded zeal with which he pursued it. Nothing could have been more natural for him, once peacetime ennui had given way to the fury of the Revolutionary Wars, than to transfer this zeal to the profession for which he had been trained since childhood. Napoleon did not embrace war because he had failed at literature. War embraced him, and gave him a new opportunity to succeed. There is an irony to the story, however. For by the time his ambitions had collapsed at Waterloo, Napoleon had made war a more ‘professional’, strenuous occupation than it had been before. Napoleon the Emperor, in other words, made it likely that there would never again be another Napoleon the novelist.

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