Paul Johnson has always been a writer of prodigious knowledge and scanty insight. Still, if you can gnaw through the 800-plus pages of a typical Johnson book, you may find yourself forced to think clearly and carefully in order to refute his surly ultra-conservatism. The current biography of Napoleon, a mere 186 pages, is part of the "Penguin Lives" series, intended for mass readership. No one who has read Johnson before would expect a temperate approach to anyone associated with revolution, but I bought the volume hoping for an intelligent assessment. Instead, the book is little more than a tirade. Johnson seems to think that calling Napoleon a "relentless opportunist" suffices to explain his career, his policies, and his legacies. If Napoleon, as Johnson sneers, is The Man on Horseback, then France and all of Europe are the horse, a mere beast of burden for one man's ambition. Indeed, the highest praise Johnson can pay his subject is to call him "the grandest possible refutation of those determinists who hold that events are governed by forces, classes, economics, and geography rather than by the powerful wills of men and women." So much for Tolstoy! So much for the work of every thoughtful historian of the past 30 years! The text is replete with stereotypes of the French as frivolous, unsteady, unreliable, and amoral. On the other hand, the indomitable British constitution and the sturdy tars of Nelson's navy (forces? classes?) were more than enough to shake the upsart Corsican "like a rat." Johnson's heart-of-oak British chauvinism had already led him, in a previous book, to suggest that India might have done better if colonial administration had persisted another century or two. A far better book, of about the same scope, is "Napoleone" by Vittorio Criscuolo, available in Italian and Spanish but sadly not in English.
Short biography of Napoleon is a good introduction to the man who nearly united and nearly wrecked Europe in stage-setting fashion 100 years before German geopolitical descendants came even closer. Johnson treats Napoleon with respect and at the same time faint distaste for his most extreme actions and amorality. In the end, while drawing pictures that show Napoleon's smallness of character and stature, Johnson never belittles or pities his charge.
This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.While preparing to comment on various volumes in this series, I have struggled … more
Paul Johnson is the author of so many sweeping, multi-generational histories that it must have come as a pleasant change for him to write a brief life of one individual human being. But while Johnson's focus has shifted, he nevertheless retains his eye for the big picture. And although the portrait he paints apparently outrages centralizers, collectivists, "reformers," nationalists, and other acolytes of state power, there's no question Johnson has got the image just right.Many reviewers have been … more
The career of a different kind of celebrity hound is examined in historian Paul Johnson's Napoleon. Johnson (A History of the American People) contends that Bonaparte sowed the seeds of the devastating warfare and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Stressing that the Corsican general was motivated by opportunism alone, Johnson traces his rise to power and expansionist bids, arguing that the most important legacies of his rule were the eclipse of France as the leading European power and the introduction of such enduring institutions as the secret police and government propaganda operations. ( on sale May 13) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.