Friday, November 16, 2018
Q&A with Adam Zamoyski
Adam Zamoyski is the author of the new biography Napoleon: A Life. His many other books include 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow and Phantom Terror. He lives in London and Poland.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Napoleon?
A: When my publishers suggested I write a life of Napoleon, my initial response was a loud groan - for two reasons.
Although writing a biography is straightforward, as its scope is restricted by the course of a single life, I find it more exhausting than other historical forms.
Perhaps because in order to describe the life and actions of a human being, one has first to understand them, and for that it is necessary to delve deep into their background and the psychological landscape in which they grew up.
One ends up having a profound relationship with the subject, while having to keep an analyst’s emotional distance.
The other reason was that there have been so many books about the man. As a historian I like to go where others have not, to explore virgin territory.
Ploughing a field which has been furrowed this way and that many times over holds little appeal. Particularly a field which has been fought over by Napoleon’s admirers and detractors – I have yet to find anyone who is truly dispassionate when his name is mentioned.
Ironically, it was that which in the end decided me to go ahead: I felt I must try to achieve what nobody else has, namely to stand aside from the polemics, the adulation and condemnation, and tell Napoleon’s story as he might have done himself, if he had not felt the need to impress or justify.
Q: What do you see as the most common perceptions and misperceptions about him?
A: The most common perception of Napoleon is that he was some kind of utterly exceptional genius. This is ridiculous and smacks of the fairy tale. He was a man, in many ways quite an ordinary one.
He did have some remarkable qualities, such as a sharp mind which could absorb information and act on it very fast, an astonishing memory and a very strong will. He certainly did not lack courage. He was fundamentally a kind and generous person, though he had difficulty in relating to others.
He was brilliantly successful in military terms, principally because he worked at it harder than any of his adversaries and because he had a remarkable talent for galvanising his troops.
He was also highly successful in the exercise of power and in rebuilding France from a post-revolutionary failed state into the most efficient political structure of its time.
Yet both his military career and his exercise of power ended in ignominious failure. His military defeats were largely self-inflicted as was his fall from being the most powerful man in Europe to being a humiliated prisoner of the British. No genius in evidence there.
Another widespread perception is that he was a warmonger. This too is absurd. What are usually referred to as the Napoleonic Wars were in fact an episode in a century-old struggle for supremacy in Europe by the dominant powers on the Continent.
This particular episode began in 1792, when Napoleon was a humble second-lieutenant, and almost every round of hostilities between then and 1815 was started by Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia and a collection of lesser states attacking France.
He received his baptism of fire while expelling foreign troops from the French city of Toulon. One of the first things he did on assuming power was to propose peace negotiations to France’s enemies.
He did let himself be drawn too far into the conflict, but only because he believed he was acting in the interests of France, and indeed those of Europe.
He was just as keen on peaceful activities such as rebuilding infrastructure and embellishing areas under his domination, setting up a modern educational system and putting in place a legal system open to all.
By the time he reached the age of 40, he was feeling his age and showed considerable reluctance to go to war.
Most people also assume that he was driven by a lust for power. This too is a serious misconception. As a young officer, he was placed in a position in which he displayed outstanding talent, which gained him promotion.
The post-revolutionary chaos in France turned the army into a player on the political scene, and he was called upon to save the Republic against rebellion in 1795.
The Republic remained unstable and it soon became evident to all those interested in preserving and reforming it that a strong arm was needed.
He himself would say that if it had not been him it would have been another, but in the event he took on the task and seized power in 1799. Not for its own sake, but to restore order and prosperity to France.
He did make that power absolute, mainly because he felt he could achieve his ends more efficiently by cutting out what he believed to be unnecessary debate. The driving force was not lust for power but a determination to reorganise France, and much of Europe, along rational and practical principles for the common good.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: Before starting on my research, I took a decision not to read any other biographies of Napoleon. I had of course done so in the past, and I knew quite a bit about him, as I had written a book on his invasion of Russia in 1812 and another on his subsequent downfall, both of which had required extensive research.
But for this book, whose aim was to try and understand the man and what he thought he was doing, I felt I must discard other people’s opinions – and that included many of the so-called memoirs and diaries by contemporaries written after the events.
Many of these contain specific quotes by Napoleon, which most historians treat as first-hand evidence and reproduce verbatim.
I resolved to ignore such dubious sources and relied principally on his own writings and those of contemporaries written down at the time – a surprising number did record their conversations with him on the very day.
Nor did I use those of his sayings written down by his four “evangelists” who accompanied him to captivity on the island of Saint Helena and later published their accounts. He was using them to rewrite history and represent him as he wished to be remembered.
The fact is, there is more than enough real cast-iron evidence and no need to clutter one’s mind or one’s book with questionable anecdotes, however apt or picturesque they might seem.
One has to begin by placing him in context. This requires a knowledge of the ideological and cultural outlook of his generation, which was formed by the literature of the day, both political and sentimental.
We know which books he had read and what he thought of them, as he took notes. We know which of them he re-read, some of them several times. We know which plays he went to again and again.
His observations on them are enlightening, and his letters are peppered with references to characters and situations taken from them, often revealing how he saw himself.
His own writings, be they his 33,000 odd surviving letters or his youthful essays and attempts at literature, reveal a huge amount about the man. So do the records left by his closest collaborators: he could be remarkably open and voluble in conversations he had with them.
The image which emerges from all this evidence is that of a man who is convinced of the superiority of his own understanding and judgment, yet somehow uncertain of his own standing, a man both commanding and socially insecure. I was surprised by how vulnerable he seems to have been as a human being.
Q: What do you see as Napoleon's legacy today?
A: Napoleon’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly the state structures he put in place and the institutions he founded or reformed. They have remained in force in France and in many other parts of Europe, and have become the blueprint for many modern states.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have decided to award myself a sabbatical and do not intend to commit to another major book for a while. I feel I need to step back and consider what to do next.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Adam Zamoyski.