Blackman on Zamoyski, 'Napoleon: A Life'

Adam Zamoyski
Robert Blackman

Adam Zamoyski. Napoleon: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2018. Maps. 784 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-05593-7.

Reviewed by Robert Blackman (Hampden-Sydney College) Published on H-War (January, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Adam Zamoyski provides an interesting and lively book on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, relying heavily on primary sources. The book is well organized and eminently readable. The book may not, however, be of great interest to H-War readers, as Zamoyski shows little interest in military matters beyond brief descriptions of major battles. Trafalgar gets one sentence, Ulm gets a page, Eylau, Jena-Auerstedt, and Rivoli, among others, only a paragraph each, though the maps provided are excellent and his discussion of the Russian campaign is well done. Instead, Zamoyski focuses on Napoleon's personality and his interactions with the people around him, attempting to understand how a young man from an obscure part of France fashioned himself into "Napoleon" (p. xvi). He takes for granted that Napoleon's actions had great impact and seeks to understand what about Napoleon's character drove him to seek power, to attain it, and in the end to lose it. He proposes a "ruthless jettisoning of received opinion and nationalist prejudice" about Napoleon and wishes to strip away the "mythology" that has grown up around him in order to see him as a product of his times and, perhaps, as the "embodiment of his epoch" (p. xv). Moreover, Zamoyski seeks to portray Napoleon neither as "an evil monster" nor as "superhuman," and he refuses to credit "genius to someone who, for all his triumphs, presided over the worst (and entirely self-inflicted) disaster in military history" (p. xiii). Reconciling these two approaches, one denying Napoleon any special traits or genius while at the same time showing that he embodies an era, proves to be a very difficult task, one that Zamoyski does not entirely master. Though Zamoyski claims his intent "is not to justify or condemn" Napoleon, one cannot but have the impression that Napoleon is indeed condemned for his vulgarity and for the flaws Zamoyski finds in his character (p. xvi).

Overall, Zamoyski gives us a picture of Napoleon as a somewhat ridiculous figure: small, funny-looking, rude, insecure, and occasionally bizarre. Zamoyski describes Napoleon as having a key character flaw: an unwillingness or inability to see the world as others saw it or to take into account the desires of others when making his decisions. Much attention is paid to Napoleon's romantic life as evidence of and a source of his personal insecurity. Chapter 8 has a detailed account of his infatuation with the teenager Désirée Clary, we read much of his desire for Josephine Beauharnais, and we hear much of his lust for Maria Walewska. We learn that Napoleon only found happiness with her, for example, because she was sexually naive, unable to criticize Napoleon's performance in bed. As with many attempts to use the psychological quirks of individuals to explain historical events, the reader is left wondering why this particular sexually insecure man rose to the rank of general and emperor when so many others did not. One wishes that Zamoyski had given us an explicit model of motivation and impact to support his many attempts to use psychological explanations for Napoleon's behavior and that of other historical actors.

In the end, one is left thinking that it is truly remarkable Napoleon could conquer Europe given his many personal failings. Then again, given the low quality of his opponents and the unflattering portrayals of the leaders of Spain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria, one suspects that Napoleon did not need to be a great man. Zamoyski gives many details about Napoleon's personality, vignettes of his personal life, and a clear sense of the difficulties he had managing his extended family. We do not get a clear sense of what made Napoleon different from the other generals and leaders of his era, of what led this unusual man from Corsica to set Europe ablaze. Nevertheless, this is a good and useful book for understanding Napoleon's personal life. Zamoyski's treatment of the period after 1812 is particularly sure-footed, and perhaps his greatest contribution is his remarkable chapter 44 concerning Napoleon's life on St. Helena, in which he shows Napoleon fashioning the way he would be understood by posterity.

Citation: Robert Blackman. Review of Zamoyski, Adam, Napoleon: A Life. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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