The Magazine

Emperor of Europe

The little Corsican with some big ideas.

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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In an age captivated by Rousseau’s primitivism, Macpherson’s Ossian epics, and the novels of Walter Scott, a lot of Europeans were looking for something sternly heroic and mythic out of antiquity or the Middle Ages. Napoleon, influenced by the same writers, was made to order. It was the Romantic cult of heroic sublimity that drew many writers and intellectuals to him. His image turns up in all the arts. His blundering pursuit of retreating Russian generals into the steppes plays a major role in the greatest of novels, War and Peace, and becomes the occasion for Tolstoy’s philosophical tangents on history. There are plays, paintings, sculptures—and then all the films, including Abel Gance’s 1927 silent classic Napoleon; 1937’s Conquest, with Charles Boyer and Greta Garbo reenacting Napoleon’s affair with the married Polish beauty Maria Walewska; and Monsieur N. (2003), an escapist version of his exile.

Forrest mentions Tolstoy and the first two of these movies, but the “legacy” and “image” promises made in this book’s subtitle are only sketchily realized in what remains a lucid, balanced rendering of the life. Herold’s Age of Napoleon is the book to read for his cultural and philosophical resonance, and Johnson’s brief, damning 2002 biography is more incisive about the ominous precedents he set.  

Unlike the dictators who wrecked the 20th century, Napoleon wasn’t doctrinaire or fanatical, but he suffered from a very bad case of hubris. He may have been, as Germaine de Staël put it at the time, “a chess-master whose opponents happen to be the rest of humanity.” But the last word goes to Marshal Foch, the French commander in World War I: “He forgot that a man cannot be God.” 

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.