Posts Tagged ‘Paul Johnson’

When I was wondering which book to read next, Paul Johnson’s biography of Napoleon leapt at me. I have had this book for years, and so I thought maybe it was time to read it.

There is good news and bad news. The good news first.

Paul Johnson’s book narrates the story of Napoleon from the time he was born to his last days when he was imprisoned by the British in the island of St.Helena. It describes how he was lucky at times (for example, the island he was born, Corsica, used to be a part of Genoa, but in the year before he was born, Genoa gave away the island to France, and so by chronological fortune, Napoleon was born a French citizen, which helped him to accomplish great things later), but how at other times he accomplished great things because of his talent, ability, hardwork and because he was a man of action and took initiative, without waiting for things to happen. The book charts his meteoric rise from being a lieutenant in the French army, to becoming a captain, and later heading the army itself. By the time he was thirty five years old, he had been coronated the Emperor of France. It is so amazing to read and so hard to believe. There is a description of many of the battles that Napoleon fought and the book touches on how brilliant a general he was in the battlefield. There is a description of his Egyptian campaign and how the history of Ancient Egypt was rediscovered by the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. There is also a chapter towards the end, on the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost. There are quotes shared in the book by different people – his companions during his journey, writers, his rivals and other contemporaries. Paul Johnson’s prose is spare and breezy, and the pages fly at a rollicking pace. Paul Johnson is also honest and doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions. I also love the book’s cover – it is beautiful, isn’t it?

That is the good news. Now for the bad news.

The book has all the above nice things. But…

I can see you smiling now ☺️ Because you are probably remembering what Jon Snow says to his sister Sansa in ‘Game of Thrones’ – “What did father use to say? Everything before the word “but” is horse shit.” And that is true ☺️

One of the biggest problems I had with Paul Johnson’s book is that it is critical of everything about Napoleon from the first page. There is venom dripping from every page. For example, at the beginning, he says that Napoleon’s birthplace Corsica was “poor, wild, neglected, exploited, politically and economically insignificant.” On its own, this sentence looks like it is stating the facts, but when we read the surrounding sentences, we feel that Johnson implies that Napoleon didn’t have class and pedigree because he was born here and he just got lucky. The book continues in the same vein throughout. When Johnson describes how Napoleon and his army won battles, he either says that it was because Napoleon believed in action as he was impatient or because he had unlimited resources at his disposal. But when Napoleon lost a battle, Johnson goes on the praise the opponent. When Napoleon escapes from the clutches of his enemies, he got lucky, but when he got caught, it was because his enemies were brilliant. When Napoleon didn’t believe in privilege, but believed in merit, and he promoted people accordingly, Johnson says that this was not Napoleon’s original idea, or he shouldn’t be given credit for it. When describing how Napoleon’s team discovered the Rosetta Stone and deciphered it, Johnson adds a corollary that the Rosetta Stone was later captured by the British, making it seem as if that was the more important fact, and by doing so, trying to devalue one of most of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time. When someone criticizes Napoleon, Johnson looks at them favourably, but when someone says nice things about Napoleon, Johnson mocks him. Most of the battles which Napoleon won are given cursory treatment, but the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost, gets a whole chapter. Johnson even goes to the extent of saying that if Napoleon had lived in the 20th century he would have been prosecuted for his crimes against humanity by an international war tribunal and given the death penalty. He mocks the fact that Napoleon has become a French national hero now and he blames the French government for building a memorial for him. The whole book would have been comic, if it wasn’t tragic, as a biography and as a work of history.

While reading the book, I had to read ‘against the grain’, while reading every sentence, every passage, every page. For example, when Johnson mocks Corsica, I had to tell myself that someone who came from such a humble background accomplished great things and that is inspiring. When Johnson says that Napoleon didn’t have any principles but was an opportunist because he was an atheist but he also wasn’t against religion (Johnson uses this opportunist argument again and again in different contexts), I read against the grain and took it as evidence of Napoleon’s liberal attitude, that he didn’t believe in religion but he also respected people who did. It was hard for me to read the book, because I couldn’t let my guard down and trust the author – I had to separate the facts he stated from the analysis he described and I had to use the facts and come to my own conclusion. Reading against the grain was a lot of hardwork and it made me mentally tired.

The blurb at the back of the book describes it as an unsentimental, unromantic biography of Napoleon. I laughed when I read that. Because this book is neither of that. It is a biased biography dripping with pure venom on every page – it reads like British propaganda against the French. Paul Johnson has written many books which have become bestsellers, including a history of Christianity and a history of the Jewish people and a history of the twentieth century. I don’t know whether they are similarly biased. I have read a few British historians during my time, including John Keay, J.M.Roberts, Arnold Toynbee, Bamber Gascoigne, Simon Winchester, H.G.Wells, E.H.Carr, Norman Davies and have loved them all. British historians have a long reputation of sticking to the facts and trying to give objective analysis of historical events, though they might lean towards the British point of view. Paul Johnson’s book is an insult to all these wonderful historians and their work.

As a palate cleanser, I have to now read a biography of Napoleon by a French historian, maybe by Georges Lefebvre. Hopefully, that is better.

Many of my friends, fellow book readers, tell me that I always say nice things about every book I read, and I never have a bad thing to say about a book. Well, as they say, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven“. I think the time has finally arrived for me to say not-so-nice things about a book, to write a negative review. This is that one ☺️

Have you read Paul Johnson’s biography of Napoleon? What do you think about it?

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