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.