Reviews: Biographical Books



Napoleon: The Immortal Emperor

Gengembre, Gerard. Napoleon: The Immortal Emperor. In collaboration with Pierre-Jean Chalencon and David Chanteranne. (New York: Vendome, 2003) 255 pp. ISBN# 0865652333. Hardcover. $49.50.

This over-sized book, featuring illustrations, photographs, or graphics on every page, is the most visually pleasing work on Napoleon since Proctor Jones published his massive volume in 1992 (Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy). The stunning color and design alone justify the high price, but the text is excellent too, providing a unique perspective not found elsewhere. This volume is a translation of the 2002 French edition.

With an introduction titled "The Mark of the Eagle," and a conclusion titled "At the Dawn of the Third Millennium," Professor Gengembre of the University of Caen provides out-of-the-box thinking similar to R. S. Alexander's Napoleon in the Oxford University Press' "Reputation" series (2001). As the title suggests, Professor Gengembre's book deals with Napoleon's image from his own time to the present.

His chapter "The Great Man of the 19th Century" begins with the comment that Napoleon "haunted the whole of the 19th century, as views of him oscillated between naive fervor on the part of those who remembered him as the people's god and a considered sense that he was the Great Man living out the mysterious ways of Providence." [p. 109] The next chapter is devoted to "Napoleon: A Myth of the 20th Century," and begins with the observation that, "From the 19th century until today, the narrative has continued along the same course. That is, everybody invents his own Napoleon, consistent with preferred ideologies and aesthetics." [p. 181]

One of the most fascinating sections is a six-page chronology covering Napoleon from birth to the year 2000; there is also a filmography. A chapter devoted to Napoleonic museography ("The Territories of the Sacred") includes photos and information about memorabilia found at the Musee de l'Armee, and the chateaux at Malmaison, Fontainbleau, Versailles, and in private collections.

The color illustrations are not limited to reproductions of paintings, but include photographs of documents, artifacts, uniforms, busts, money, Napoleonic collectibles, scenes of historic sites, and still photos from films and movie posters. This is first time in print for some of these images.

The cover of the book is a detail from the painting "Bonaparte as Consul" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1802), which is also the painting that Proctor Jones used to illustrate his book. The front and backboards focus on even greater detail from that painting. Since the presentation of the book itself is so dramatic, it seems prudent to mention that Marc Walter was the designer and Emmanuel Valentin served as the photographer. Professor Gengembre's collaborators performed varying functions: Pierre Jean Chalencon advised on collections and David Chanteranne was illustrations editor.

Professor Gengembre writes in his introduction that Napoleon "continues to be a living presence." He says that, "Translated into immediately recognizable images and signs, Napoleon remains, in market terms, one of the most high-profile -- even notorious -- of all 'products.' He adds: "Transcending the limited status of historical phenomenon, Napoleon lodges, deeply embedded, within the ongoing matrix of cultural memory, thanks to his legendary and mythic dimensions, eternally adapted, remodeled, and recuperated." [p. 9] According to the professor, Napoleon "made History faster than anyone ever known." [p. 226]

The book contains a bibliography (and an index), but the author singles out a few historians for making "available to us all that is important in present-day scholarship," namely, Jean Tulard, Natalie Petiteau and Annie Jourdan (along with an earlier historian, Charles Chasse). [p. 244]

Professor Gengembre, a professor of French literature who has published on writers of the French Revolution, French theatre in the nineteenth century, and who has edited French nineteenth century novels, has given us a remarkable addition to Napoleonic historiography. Meanwhile, the Vendome Press is to be commended for producing what will be a showpiece in any Napoleonic library.

Reviewed by: Tom Vance
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2004

 

 

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