Magazine article The Spectator

Sizing Up the Little Corporal

Magazine article The Spectator

Sizing Up the Little Corporal

Article excerpt

NAPOLEON

by Frank McLynn Cape, 25, pp. 668

As when reviewing BBC television's politically correct tele-tract 1914-1918 I have to declare an interest, for my own 1978 book Bonaparte, a critical study of the man as political careerist and general with a fallacious system of war, is about to be reissued in a new edition. As it happens, Frank McLynn, the author of Napoleon, chooses several times to quote the same extracts from Bonaparte's writings as I did, and, oddly enough, his quotes are almost the same as mine. Did we therefore use the same English translations of original French sources? Regrettably McLynn's book does not give specific references. So I cannot say what he did. What I can say is that the end-noted citations in my book, which is not mentioned in McLynn's bibliography, were based on original French sources, such as Bonaparte's Correspondance. So it is curious that McLynn and I should have arrived at such similar translations.

There is one particularly striking echo of my book in one of McLynn's descriptions when he refers to `the huge baroque watermill' on the battlefield of Eckmuhl. I wrote this phrase after visiting the scene; did, I wonder, McLynn also visit the scene before hitting on exactly the same words of description?

Nor is his book free of outright howlers, such as referring to the hero of the young Bonaparte's romantic novel as 'Clissold' (a la H. G. Wells's novel The World of William Clissold) instead of 'Clisson', and joining the two French 18th-century military theorists, de Bourcet and de Guibert, into a previously unknown `Guibert de Bourcet'.

There can only be two good reasons for adding to the vast literature on Bonaparte: firstly, if an author has turned up some new primary sources, and secondly, if he has a novel interpretation to offer. Neither is the case with McLynn's Napoleon, unless you count some amateur psychoanalysis derived very much second-hand from those old mystics (respectfully cited by McLynn) Freud, Jung, Adler und so weiter.

What we have instead is a huge stodgy pudding of a book which fulfils that definition of a bore as someone who can leave nothing out. Severe editing would not only have tautened the narrative but also made room for much needed endnotes. The author's plodding literary style is varied only by use of such hideous neologisms as 'formulaic' and by utterances as clumsy as they are obscure. For instance, he writes apropos Bonaparte's fascination with the East:

The `Oriental complex' was only one of many centrifugal fragments indicating a core personality under great strain, suggesting perhaps that things were falling apart and the Napoleonic centre could not hold. …

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