Sunday, April 6, 2008

Napoleon: The Path to Power by Philip Dwyer

This book is an interesting look into the early life and various sides of Napoleon; including the soldier, the politician, the lover, etc. Specifically, I'm appreciative of the fact that the author doesn't look at Napoleon in a vacuum but rather the reader is presented with some of the history of Corsica, of the revolution, Napoleon's other family members, etc. All the things that in the end affected Napoleon and made him what he was to become. Undoubtedly this is one of the more entertaining and enlightening biographies that I've read. On the whole the book is a much easier read than I expected for such a complex character and time period. The author should be commended for presenting both sides of a variety of stories and 'tales' and showing myths for what they are. I've always thought it a must for an author to give the reader all sides of the story and either let the reader decide or have the author state his/her reasons for why one side should be believed over the other. Also important to note that context is provided for a variety of events in the book, such as presenting the "band of marauders" that Napoleon entered Italy with yet commenting that they were "no worse than any other army of the day."

The book goes over Napoleon's childhood on Corsica and then in France, his coming back to Corsica and his failed political movements within that Island's history. How he came back to France and through his connections was able to secure spots within the armed forces which went on to get wide attention thanks to the plethora of myths that were built up around his actions and, to a degree, his own descriptions of what went on. The two campaigns of Napoleon covered in this book are of him in Italy and Egypt. For me, being relatively new to this field, there wasn't much in terms of strategy or tactics but the author did get his points across in why Napoleon was successful. While he definitely had plenty of talent, intelligence, and other qualities that went a long way, there were, as always, mitigating factors that helped in his success and the defeat of his enemies. For example, during his retreat from Syria his army could have easily been assailed and beaten by the forces arrayed against him, which highly outnumbered him at that point, but for one reason or another they did not press their advantage and Napoleon was able to make it back to Egypt with at least the majority of his troops in tact (although plenty were suffering from disease, were wounded, etc). Napoleon's actions throughout this period resemble the majority of infamous 'tyrants' or 'rulers' of the past few centuries. His actions were not dictated by a growing awareness of what he was meant to do, although some would like to think so, but rather he took the opportunities that were presented to him on a day to day basis. I'd say the chapter on his attempt to usurp authority over France speaks volumes of how much 'planning' and 'fate' have little to do with the reality of the moment. Overall, this book is an excellent look into the early life and career of Napoleon. You will easily find the author being highly critical of some of Napoleon's actions but at the same time an explanation will be given for why he might have chosen one path over another, including a list of the options open to him, etc. Highly readable, filled with interesting facts, anecdotes, eye witness accounts, and the author's insights are, for the most part, objective.

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