Thursday 3 September 2015

Book Review: Clisson & Eugenie - Napoleon Bonaparte

An interesting little historical curio. Gallic Books have done all of us Napoleonic buffs a great service in making this foray into the literary milieu, by a very young Napoleon Bonaparte, easily available. It's also very attractively presented, and supplemented by critical and historical commentary.

Reading this product of the young Napoleon's imagination is both fascinating and informative, in all manner of ways. But, as others have already noted elsewhere (in the newspaper reviews, and reader reviews at Amazon, etc.), the Clisson and Eugénie story itself is a rather slight affair, of about only 18 or so pages, and was never even actually finished by Napoleon. 

This slim paperback edition attempts to 'complete' the story, using several fragments of Bonaparte's writings and, as already mentioned, is bulked out by critical commentary and other notes.

The younger Désirée Clary (or Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary, to give her name in full), who Napoleon fell in love with, and was even engaged to, and who gives her name to the female lover in Napoleon's story.

Clisson and Eugénie's main themes are love and war, themes that would remain central in Napoleon's real historical life. But, rather sadly perhaps, Bonaparte's treatment of these ever-fascinating themes in a literary context does not achieve, or even come close to in my estimation, great literature. Still, the story does give an intriguing view into the mind of this amazing man.

It's clearly draws on aspects of his real life: the central character, Clisson (a name taken from a childhood colleague) is a military man, and yet also a yearning romantic, and clearly stands for Napoleon. The story, such as it is, concerns his struggle between choosing to love Eugenie, and his mission to be a warrior. 

It's intriguing that in his real life he would, by marrying Marie-Louise for example, do as his character in this story does, and prioritise the 'destiny' of his career over personal love. Is this life imitating art? Certainly Napoleon viewed himself like a classical hero, a fact borne out in both this book and his actual career.

Whilst the feel of the story is quite pseudo-classical at times, in the sense of aspiring to certain heroic ideals, much of it is also, both stylistically and thematically, quite mundane. One of the prosaic facets is the way in which Napoleon takes names such as Eugénie and Clisson from his real life experience.

In his story Napoleon grants himself a period of pastoral idyll with his beloved. This rather expands upon the barer and more mundane truth of the frustrated or compromised romance he actually had with one Desirée Eugénie Clary. 

She was his sister-in-law, via the marriage of her sister, Marie Julie Clary, to Napoleon's elder brother, Joseph. Napoleon was actually engaged to her for a while, only breaking off the engagement to marry Joséphine de Beauharnais. Fortune certainly appeared to favour the Clary sisters at this time! Ultimately fickle fate favoured Desirée most of all, as she wound up Queen of Sweden, starting a dynasty that survives to the present.

Queen Desideria, or the lady formerly known as Désirée Clary, who did rather well for herself by marrying Charles XIV John of Sweden, or the man formerly known as Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. 

As Andrew Roberts continually points out in his recent book Napoleon the Great, Bonaparte certainly was a man of letters, at least in one respect; his correspondence was volcanically prodigious. But despite several stabs at literary genres, including this effort and an even earlier entry for an essay competition, he never really became what's classically meant by the term 'man of letters'.

If I were scoring this purely for historical interest, or even quality of presentation, I might well give it five bicornes. On the other hand, if I were scoring it for literary interest, merit, or enjoyment, then I would only give it two. So, by way of compromise and balance, I'll settle for three: it's okay! 

The way the text has been editorially 'completed' is quite intriguing; using a process akin to Christopher Tolkien's, as when he syncretised a superb completion of his father's tale about Hurin (and as he has done for numerous other unfinished works by his illustrious forbear, including The Silmarillion). But the core text is less interesting in and of itself, any value or fascination lying with the fact of who the author was, and what it therefore reflects about his mind and ideas, etc.

Napoleon dictating to Las Cases on St. Helena: he was always a keen dictater! And was always better at (never happier, perhaps?) dictating to others.

Some have said that Napoleon's greatest work of fiction (or works of fiction, as there are several post-Waterloo writings attributed to him, transmitted to posterity via the hands of other writers [2]) are his St. Helena memoirs. Certainly they make better and more substantial reading than this slight effort.

Anyway, whenever I would come across references to Clisson & Eugenie in other books, as one occasionally does, I always thought to myself, 'I must read that!' So I'm glad Gallic Books have made it easy to get hold of. But as to the text itself, compared with Napoleon's other achievements, or at least the history that he helped write via his actions, it's pretty disappointing. I'd say this is one for the most desicated of Napoleonic buffs only!


[1] Bernadotte's life is amazing: he travelled a long and winding road, from private in the French royal army, via Marshal of France under Napoleon, to King of Sweden. Indeed, the House of Bernadotte still reigns in Sweden!

[2] These works include memoirs by several close to Napoleon in his last years on St. Helena, including both Bourienne and Las Cases. The former's rendering of his master's memoirs can be read for free online, at Project Gutenberg:

There's also a useful and (I think) quite attractive paperback - country cousin to a de-luxe fine book edition - in which 'editor Somerset De Chair organized Napoleon's random dictated memoirs into an historically useful sequence' (that quote comes from an AbeBooks listing). I have that on my 'to read ASAP' shelf, and will doubtless post a review here when I do finally get round to reading it!

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