I am an avid reader of Paul Johnson. Having read Modern Times early in my college career, I went on to read The Birth of the Modern, A History of the American People, and Intellectuals. Recently I even picked up his short work on the Renaissance. I enjoy reading Johnson because he brings a unique perspective to his subjects, he is not afraid to make judgments, and he is righting has a certain liveliness to it – a zip if you will. You can tell he enjoys history and enjoys explaining it to you. His books touch on history, art, the military, politics, and religion; whatever is necessary to paint the picture of the people, places, and ideas he is describing. You come away with a deeper appreciation of the subject not just a technical knowledge of the subject. I think this explains his popularity – the joy of reading interesting history. One can certainly find more scholarly and more technically adept historians but it is hard to find one easier to read.
With that in mind, when I saw that Johnson had written the Penguin Lives Series work on Napoleon I scooped it up and put it towards the top of my reading list. Napoleon is a fascinating subject (I had covered it in some detail in a class I TA’d in grad school) and a short book on the subject would be perfect.
Johnson did not disappoint. The book is lively and the writing is crisp. You get a quick romp through Napoleon’s remarkable rise and fall from power without getting bogged down into the minutia. You get a sense of the pattern of the events and their timing without a overly detailed analysis of each and every battle or political change.
Mark Mazower, writing in the NYT, feels that “Hitler stalks the pages of Johnson’s ‘Napoleon.’ Although he does note that it was written with “the author’s characteristic panache” and that the book “lays its cards on the table.” Mazower is correct to note the theme of the drive for power and its implications for history. Johnson sets out from the beginning that the use of power will be a central theme of this short work:
“The totalitarian state of the twentieth century was the ultimate progeny of the Napoleonic reality and myth. It is right therefore that we should study Bonaparte’s spectacular career unromantically, skeptically, searchingly.”
Mazower asserts, “Johnson’s is not the voice of moderation.” But what Mazower fails to explain is why we must demand moderation of Johnson. Mazower feels that Johnson’s hard headed view fails to account for the mystery surrounding Napoleon. I disagree. Johnson reveals that Napoleon’s thirst for power and his practically unlimited willingness to grab and use it explains much of the attraction and fascination surrounding Napoleon. Napoleon’s energy, power, and charisma, not to mention military prowess and glory drew people to him seeking a way out from under the burden of the corrupt and stagnating “Ancien Regime” yet away for the terror of the revolution that had supplanted it.
But as Johnson shows, Napoleon had neither the instincts nor the skills of a statesman. He new only conquest and battle and in the end it fell to Talleyrand, the master diplomat, to pick up the pieces of Europe that Napoleon had left behind – to return France to her seat with the great nations. Johnson insightfully points out that Napoleon’s drive to rule Europe awakened and strengthened the demons of nationalism that would haunt Europe during the twentieth century. The Congress of Vienna postponed the reckoning during what was for the most part a peaceful nineteenth century but the bill came calling in the twentieth.
It is Johnson’s ability to sketch the ebb and flow of Napoleon’s life, to describe both the events and the impact of his actions that give this short work its pace. Mazower may be right that Johnson leaves out the gray and shady issues surrounding Bonaparte but if he hadn’t the work would lose much of its charm. If you are interested in a quick read on the life of a fascinating historical figure as well as a meditation on power and its uses, pick of this little gem. It is well worth the investment.