Patrice Gueniffey’s Bonaparte—the newly-published first half of a two-volume biography of Napoleon—follows him from birth until 1802, when he became First Consul for Life. While most recent biographies of Napoleon have emphasized this or that aspect of his life and career, Gueniffey’s intention has been to write a truly comprehensive life, weaving together both parts of the phrase “historical biography.” Gueniffey offers below a précis of this first half of that unparalleled life.
In 1816 in St. Helena, Napoleon was talking to the Count de Las Cases, one of his exile’s fellows, about Britain’s policies and his marriage with Marie-Louise. Suddenly, without seeming to remember that Las Cases was still there, he fell silent, “his head resting on one of his hands.” After a moment he rose and said “My life, what a novel!” These words are famous, often cited, and true. But Napoleon’s life, no matter how novelistic it may seem, lends itself even better to music. When Anthony Burgess decided to devote one of his novels to Napoleon, he called it Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements, making the different parts of the book correspond to the movements of the symphony that Beethoven had entitled Buonaparte before later renaming it, not without hesitation, Sinfonia eroica per festeggiare il sovvenire di un gran Uomo, the Eroica. The direction placed at the beginning of the first movement indicates the tempo of the extraordinary destiny that Beethoven set to music: Allegro con brio.
Napoleon led an unparalleled life, in unparalleled times.
At what other time has such a profusion of unprecedented events and monumental collapses been packed into such a short period of time? Only a quarter of a century separated the beginning of the French Revolution—which made Napoleon possible, if not necessary—from the end of the Empire. History did not simply move but raced forward. Napoleon traversed it like a meteor: from his entrance on stage in 1793 to the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, six years elapsed; then three between the conquest of power and the proclamation of the Consulate for life, and only two between the latter and the advent of the Empire in 1804. Less than ten years later, the Bourbon monarchy would be back.
“Time took him by the shoulder and pushed him forward,” observes historian and journalist Jacques Bainville. “His days are numbered. They will fly by with the rapidity of a dream so prodigiously full, interrupted by so few pauses and respites, in a sort of impatience to arrive as quickly as possible at the catastrophe; loaded, finally, with so many grandiose events that this reign, in truth so short, seems to have lasted a century.”
During this very brief time, Napoleon played all roles: Corsican patriot, Jacobin and robespierrist, Thermidorian, conqueror, hero, diplomat, legislator, republican dictator, emperor, constitutional monarch for a Hundred Days in 1815, and finally prisoner of the English in St. Helena. But his story does not end there, because the memory of Napoleon reigned over imaginations for about a century, long after his death in 1821. Not only because of his astonishing victories and martial glory, but because his life appears as the ultimate incarnation of the distinctively modern dream to will our own destiny: “I am convinced,” he said, “that my destiny will never resist to my will.” This is the true definition of modern happiness that inspired literature and politics, from Stendhal and Balzac to Garibaldi and Bismarck.
Bonaparte is the story of how the young Corsican officer became Napoleon. It follows him from his obscure boyhood in Corsica to the battlefields of Italy, and from the Egyptian campaign to the palace of the Tuileries where the First Consul prepared his coronation as Emperor of the French.
It explains how the young republican general became, in Italy, a Hero of a new kind; how he learned to act, in Egypt, as a sovereign; how the most improbable heir of the French Revolution won the jackpot thanks to the 18 Brumaire coup d’état, and finally how the First Consul, in only three years, ended the civil war, built up a new State, recomposed the French society, codified the principles of the French Revolution and created new institutions. The mandate entrusted to Bonaparte had been fulfilled. The Revolution was over...at least in the institutions. In 1802, the proclamation of the Consulate for life crowned an incredible ascent and at the same time the marriage of the young Bonaparte to France.
It was also the turning point in his story.
In 1803, France was again at war with England. The Emperor multiplied his exploits, astonished and even stupefied his contemporaries—and posterity—by his campaigns and his victories, but never again would he make such a judicious use of his genius and his strength. The Emperor’s greatest triumphs, from Austerlitz to Tilsit and from Jena to Wagram, would be darkened, as it were, by policies that no longer had the clarity or the self-evident nature of the First Consul’s. Just as the successes at Marengo and Hohenlinden were connected with the consular “program,” whose success they were to make possible, the brilliant victories of the Grand Army had no long-term political effects. From this point of view, Jena is less important than Marengo.
Painters who depicted Napoleon did not fail to grasp the difference between the two periods. The young general rushing onto the bridge at Arcole in Gros’s painting, the First Consul David painted after Marengo, with his willful look and long hair, and then in 1802 by Ingres, this time with his hair cut short, were succeeded five years later by Ingres’s painting Napoléon en costume de sacre (“Napoleon in Coronation Dress”). There is something frightening and at the same time ridiculous about this strange picture. The Emperor’s outfit looks like something straight out of a theatrical costume shop, so much do the scepter, the main de justice, the ermine mantle, and the crown already seem to belong to the past. It is especially the Emperor’s face that makes us uneasy. It appears to be stuck on this borrowed background. The face is round, fat, the complexion pale, the features frozen, the gaze steady and expressionless. The whole effect is not very flattering. This canvas is to Ingres’s very engaging Portrait de Napoléon Bonaparte en premier consul what Gros’s Napoléon sur le champ de bataille d’Eylau (1808) is to his Bonaparte au pont d’Arcole (1796). It is clear that from one painting to the other, the man and history had changed.