Napoleon The Novelist


Published by Polity in 2001

I might as well admit it: I have long identified with Napoleon. Not so much because I want to take over the world (enticing option though that is) but because he had an imperfect command of French, and yet still achieved great things. Like Stendhal, I feel there are two phases, first there is the young Bonaparte, an existential outsider, adrift in Paris and the world, and then there is the emperor Napoleon. The first is immeasurably more attractive, and certainly more heroic. But if there is one thing that connects them it is Napoleon’s literary and intellectual obsessions. This book stands apart from just about all other books on Napoleon by virtue of being fairly short. Cultural history.

What is says on the flap:
‘This brilliantly original study uncovers a side to Napoleon Bonaparte which has hitherto been ignored by biographers – that of the aspiring novelist and man of letters. In this illuminating, witty and elegantly written book, Andy Martin reveals how this neglected aspect of Napoleon’s remarkable life actually provides the key to understanding it. The French Revolution, Austerlitz and Waterloo all came second in Napoleon’s life to a Discourse on Happiness,a Dialogue on Love and repeated attempts at a novel. Napoleon began as a would-be Rousseau and ended up on Saint Helena dictating his own confessions. The colossal rise and catastrophic fall of his empire are, Martin argues, anticipated in the obsessive and tragicomic pages of his voluminous writings. Napoleon emerges as an idealist, romantic, visionary critic, a thinker with an epic imagination and an underdeveloped sense of reality, pushing his ‘portable library’ across Europe, Asia and the Orient, and always wrestling with the intricacies of language and literature. And, although Napoleon was denounced as a failure in an essay competition, Martin shows that he did indeed succeed in imposing himself as the archetype and inspiration of modern European culture. This provocative book will appeal to a wide general readership. It will also be of interest to students of literature, modern languages and European history.’

There is also this comment by Malcolm Bowie (All Souls, Oxford) on the back cover:
‘Andy Martin’s wicked comic intelligence plays on two keyboards at once. With one hand, he trills his way through Napoleon’s long forgotten literary career, while with the other he improvises on the assorted myths and fantasies that the Emperor bequeathed to Europe. What is astonishing about the whole performance, however, is that all this surface animation sharpens the impact of Martin’s underlying theme: that battlefields are fictive scenarios in which only the corpses are real.’