Violets in Their Lapels

David A. Bell

  • The Legend of Napoleon by Sudhir Hazareesingh
    Granta, 336 pp, £20.00, August 2004, ISBN 1 86207 667 7
  • The Retreat by Patrick Rambaud, translated by William Hobson
    Picador, 320 pp, £7.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 330 48901 1
  • Napoleon: The Eternal Man of St Helena by Max Gallo, translated by William Hobson
    Macmillan, 320 pp, £10.99, April 2005, ISBN 0 333 90798 1
  • The Saint-Napoleon: Celebrations of Sovereignty in 19th-Century France by Sudhir Hazareesingh
    Harvard, 307 pp, £32.95, May 2004, ISBN 0 674 01341 7
  • Napoleon and the British by Stuart Semmel
    Yale, 354 pp, £25.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 300 09001 3

France, it has often been said, is a democracy with the manners of an absolute monarchy. Think of the ceremonial splendour with which French presidents surround themselves, the haughty, distant style they tend to adopt, or the way relationships within their entourages tend to mimic, with delicious self-consciousness, patterns of favouritism and intrigue developed long ago at the court of Versailles. No Western head of state in recent memory (British monarchs included) has had a more regal touch than François Mitterrand, alleged socialist. Nothing is more alien to mainstream French democracy than the American-style ‘populism’ practised by politicians from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush. The word populiste is a deadly insult, most recently deployed by socialists and Chiraquiens alike against anyone who dares interpret the result of the referendum on the European Constitution as a vote of no confidence in the country’s political elites. The only true populist in contemporary French politics is Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This aspect of French culture helps explain why France remains so conflicted by the memory of Napoleon Bonaparte, for he was an absolute monarch with the manners of a democrat. Of course, he tried to deny it. He founded an empire, and an imperial court, buried himself under yards of ermine, and hired poets and painters by the cartload to hail him as the new Charlemagne. He turned former drummer boys and schoolteachers into dukes, made a king of Naples out of a one-time grocer’s assistant, and married the niece of Marie-Antoinette. But all this pomp entirely failed to produce the desired effect. If Napoleon inspired loyalty and affection, even in defeat, it was not because of the would-be imperial splendour, but because the French people continued to see him as they had done from the start: as the ‘little corporal’ who shared his soldiers’ risks and discomforts; as the upstart provincial with the uncouth accent who outsmarted the crowned heads of Europe; as the lover of Josephine. He remained a man of the people despite himself.

If Sudhir Hazareesingh hits a wrong note anywhere in his splendid survey of Napoleon’s ‘legend’ in 19th-century France, it is when he compares Napoleon to de Gaulle. There are of course numerous parallels between these two generals turned ‘saviours of the nation’, who each sought to rise above the compromises and corruptions of ordinary politics. But they differ not only in their relationship to the French Republic, which de Gaulle saved and Napoleon destroyed, but also in their places in the memory of the French people. De Gaulle, founder of the regal presidency of the Fifth Republic, continues to inspire respect, and a certain affection, but nothing like the powerful emotions felt even today about Napoleon.

Clearly, Napoleon satisfies deep longings in French popular culture, not simply for a lost era of French power and grandeur, but also for a leader with whom they feel an intimate, personal bond. It is the sort of connection that is hard to imagine having with the aloof and imperious de Gaulle. In another age, a figure like de Gaulle might have inspired epic poetry, but Napoleon demands the psychological intimacy of the novel, and indeed has probably featured in more of them than any other figure in Western history, as well as in hundreds of films. On Saint Helena, he himself famously remarked: ‘What a novel my life has been.’ How many novels have been written about de Gaulle? How often, for that matter, are his name and image used to sell things? (Napoleon’s image has appeared on products from brandy to chocolate to condoms, and then there is the ad for Diovol antacid showing him with his hand in its familiar place inside his vest: ‘Some say it was merely a pose. We think it was heartburn.’) Search for ‘Napoleon’ on eBay, and you find close to 4000 objects for sale: books, films, games, dolls, plates, glasses, ceramic tiles, cat cartoons, sherry decanters, brandy bottles, coffee pots, chess sets, even vintage dog food ads (many of these, admittedly, don’t come from France). Type in ‘de Gaulle’ and you find around 100 items, mainly stamps.

This difference, as much as anything to do with the two men’s records as rulers, explains why the French elite reveres de Gaulle, but looks on Napoleon with something like embarrassed disdain. Napoleon has no grand Parisian squares named after him, only the relatively minor rue Bonaparte. In the great monument to French memory edited by Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de mémoire, the only essay on him concerns the pathos-laden return of his body to France in 1840. Which is to say that he receives roughly the same space as the abbey of Port-Royal, the Larousse dictionary or the theme of ‘visits to great writers’. Nonetheless, in the culture at large, he remains the object of enormous, even obsessive – if somewhat guilty – curiosity, and a fair share of devotion.

Two recent series of French novels illustrate these points. Patrick Rambaud’s polished trilogy, of which two volumes (The Battle, The Retreat) have so far appeared in English, treats the emperor with fascinated scorn. The three parts move from the horrific 1809 battle of Essling, in which 40,000 men died in 30 hours, to the disastrous retreat from Moscow in the autumn of 1812, to Paris in the final days of the empire in 1814. Napoleon himself appears only occasionally, through the cynical eyes of others. ‘What danger can we be in, so close to His Majesty?’ one character asks another. ‘Catching a good bout of diarrhoea, for a start,’ comes the reply. This Napoleon is a coarse, tired, flabby, flatulent monster, almost wholly indifferent to the massive suffering he causes.

Rambaud conveys the horrors and madness of each of his three set-pieces, picking details out of a mass of historical research. In The Retreat, for instance, men cut slices out of a living horse (to eat), without the horse noticing, because of the unbelievable cold. The French title of the second volume, Il neigeait, is taken from Victor Hugo’s great poem about Napoleon, ‘L’Expiation’, which has much the same place in French culture that ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ holds in British. But Rambaud, unlike Hugo, sketches a war – and a Napoleon – scoured of glory or grandeur. He gives us, in other words, a powerful version of conventional establishment wisdom, pithily expressed by de Gaulle himself: ‘Napoleon exhausted the goodwill of the French, abused their sacrifices, and covered Europe with graves, ashes and tears.’ Appropriately, The Battle won the Prix Goncourt.

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