May 16, 2005 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Has any one read any biographies of Napoleon that they would recommend?

The recommendation is for my mother, who is an avid reader of history/biographies, but knows little about the time period.
posted by grapefruitmoon to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Short pick- Paul Johnson's Napoleon - A Penguin Life. Eminently readable and highly critical.

Long pick - Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte : A Life.

Old standards are by Andre Castelot and Vincent Cronin.

Napoleon does tends to bring the extremists out. For the period, your mother might try The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon's Josephine by Andrea Stuart. Very interesting life, that one had, in many ways more than NB himself.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:14 PM on May 16, 2005

Also, if your Mom is into movies, the re-release/restoration of the movie Napoleon from 1927 has a lot of scenes from his early life and military career. It's pretty painfully boring if youre not a Napoleon fan, but pretty fascinating if you are.
posted by jessamyn at 5:30 PM on May 16, 2005

Response by poster: jessamyn (and potential others) : Thanks for the recommendation, but this is a strictly book-only thing. My mother is hugely anti-technology for reasons I can hardly fathom. You might as well ask her to go to the moon as go to a video store. I've spent years fighting this and have given up, save for when I'm in the same city and can forcibly drag her to watch something.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:25 PM on May 16, 2005

Though unread by me, Emil Ludwig's 1926 book is considered by many to be the Napoleon biography.
    Emil Ludwig's biography of Napoleon, now 74 years old, continues its remarkable presence as a classic of Napoleonic literature and has yet to be surpassed for its unique presentation. Writing in the present tense, Ludwig brings to life his subject's character better than any other biography of Napoleon.
There's also Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte by Bourrienne, a schoolmate of Bonaparte's who later become his private secretary. It's readable online.
posted by gentle at 7:16 PM on May 16, 2005

Best answer: Max Gallo's four volume Napoleon is well thought of, time consuming but worth it.
posted by gsb at 2:45 AM on May 17, 2005

Umm, better link.
posted by gsb at 2:48 AM on May 17, 2005

(An afterthought. This is a little after the period she's interested in, but it deserves a wider audience. The author divorced his beloved wife and travelled in search of a rich substitute to bail out the family finances. He failed, returned home after three years, published the letters, (an English admirer translated another lucrative version, which makes a good story in its own right), he became a sensation, resettled with his wife and they lived happily ever after. I exaggerate only slightly.

Most recent edition available on Amazon

Puckler's progress: The adventures of Prince PĆ¼ckler-Muskau in England, Wales, and Ireland as told in letters to his former wife, 1826-9)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:53 AM on May 17, 2005

Response by poster: gentle : Emil Ludwig's book is also out of print... which makes it a bit hard to get.

Thanks though! :)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:32 AM on May 17, 2005

Although out of print, most used bookstores seem to have a copy of the Emil Ludwig book. It is worth keeping in mind whenever you visit one. All the Napoleon freaks I know swear by it.
posted by sciatica at 7:40 AM on May 17, 2005

I'm fond of the Ludwig biography, which I found elegantly written and psychologically perceptive. He also gave a vivid picture of the times. Here's a few notes I took when I read it back in 1993:
A breathless Great Man bio, by a writer who was a favorite of Henry Miller, according to "The Books in My Life." No hesitation at all about peering into thoughts. One needs a thorough familiarity with Napoleon's life in order to follow this book.

p. 335. Dramatic portrait of how Napoleon traveled in his specially-designed coach. "On the box seat, the Mameluke is enthroned in solitary grandeur. Two postillions whip up the six horses. The carriage is surrounded by a crowd of equerries, pages, and light cavalrymen; when the procession sets forward, the road is all too narrow to accommodate it, edits of dust and heat envelope it, night and fog encompass it. The peasants stand aside to let the tornado pass; they are agape with wonderment and firmly believe that the devil is hiding inside the great Napoleon. He leaves behind him a trail like that of a paper-chase; for he throws out of the windows of the carriage, not only all the envelopes and other useless paper, but all the reports he does not wish to file (torn into tiny fragments); all the newspapers he has read; and, finally, books, which he glances at when he has a moment to spare, and then consigns to their fate in the mud of the highway."

p. 503-4, hilarious account of journalistic ethics after Napoleon escapes from Elba and moves on Paris. "During the twenty days between the Emperor's landing in the sound and his arrival at the capital, the thermometer of the press registers the following degrees: `The monster has escaped from his place of exile.'--`The Corsican werewolf has landed at Cannes.'--`The tiger appeared at Gap, troops were sent against him, the wretched adventurer ended his career in the mountains.'--`The fiend has actually, thanks to treachery, been able to get as far as Grenoble.'--`The tyrant has reached Lyons, where horror paralyzed all attempts at resistance.'--`The usurper has dared to advance within a hundred and fifty miles of the capital.'--`Bonaparte moves northward with rapid strides, but he will never reach Paris.'--`Tomorrow Napoleon will be at our gates.'--`His Majesty is at Fontainebleau.'"

p. 550. N driven by three fundamental powers: Self-confidence, energy, imagination.

N said, "I have no sense of the ridiculous. Power is never ridiculous."

N: "The love for glory is like the bridge which Satan tried to build across chaos in order to make his way into paradise. Glory is the connecting link between past and future, from which an abyss separates him. I leave to my son nothing but my name."

p. 569. N: "...`I am always at work; I think a great deal. If I appeared to be ever ready and equal to any occasion, it is because I have thought over matters for long before I undertake to do the slightest thing; I have foreseen all eventualities. There exists no guardian angel who suddenly and mysteriously whispers in my ear what I have to do or say. Everything is turned over in my mind, again and again, always, whether I am at table or at the theater. At night, I wake up in order to work.'

"This constant deliberation builds up something within him which he names `the spirit of things': the precision, which penetrates all he touches; the thinking in numbers, to which he ascribes part of his success and for which he has to thank his mathematical training..."

p. 572 "His technique is to arrange things in his head `as in a wardrobe.' He says: `When I wish o put any matter out of my mind, I close its drawer and open the drawer belonging to another. The contents of the drawers never get mixed, and they never worry or weary me. Do I want to sleep? I close all the drawers, and then I am asleep."

p. 574, always willing to modify his scheme, iron will plus supple intelligence.

p. 580, "What a man needs in war is precision, firmness, simplicity."

p. 590, "When Queen Louise patheticly implores justice, he begs her to sit down. `Nothing interrupts a tragical scene more effectually than this. When people sit down, tragedy becomes comedy.'"

p. 593 N: "Religion associates with heaven an idea of equality, which prevents the poor from massacring the rich. REligion has the same sort of value as vaccination. It gratifies our taste for the miraculous, and protects us from quacks; for the priests are worth more than the Cagliostros, the Kants, and all the German dreamers....Society cannot exist without inequality of property; but this latter cannot exist without religion. ONe who is dying of hunger when the man next to him is feasting on dainties, can only be sustained by a belief in a higher power, and by the conviction that in another world there will be a different distribution of goods."

p. 594, imagination is the real driving force of his self-confidence and energy

Plus, the account of his meeting with Goethe. Voila un homme.

Name of governor of St. Helena, in the south Atlantic due west of Angola: Sir Hudson Lowe.

fascinating account of N's reading while on St.
posted by britho at 11:41 AM on May 17, 2005

Best answer: I'd also like to add Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage. Excellent for someone with little familiarity with the time period, focuses mainly on their relationship.
posted by Cecilia at 1:33 PM on May 17, 2005

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