An Adventurer Looks for the Next Fight

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Georges Lefebvre: Napoléon ISBN 978-2-84736-677-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ It is no coincidence that I devour biographies of political or religious leaders. I am trying to understand how such people’s minds work to grasp the awe-inspiring policy of people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. And it is no coincidence that I have read now a second biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, written by Georges Lefevbre back in 1936, with just as much pleasure and interest as I took in the work by Max Gallo. Napoleon Bonaparte’s political reforms had a profound impact on my home country’s destiny, and his personality – basically a cunning political adventurer seeming war for the benefit of the psycholigical kick – reminds me of some of today’s political leaders. This said, 2019 is the 250th anniversary of Bonaparte’s birth. That alone should be a reason to take a look at this extraordinary man.

When I speak about Bonaparte, I am more interested in the homo politicus than in the general. It is indisputed that he was a military innovator, a daring commander and an intellectual heavy-weight – despite strategic and tactical errors, despite the disaster in Russia and the lost battle of Waterloo. As for his political ambitions, now that is another story. As Lefebvre shows, Bonaparte’s decisions were often contradictory and at odds with his political goals, dictated by emotions, faciliated by an applauding ignorant crowd and a complying entourage. It is this facet of the man that reminds me of the appalling decisions made by Trump or Johnson. At the same time Bonaparte was a ruthless dictator, an enemy of democracy and hell-bent to break the law to increase his political power. He did not care about the public good, the interest of the nation, not even about even the legacy of the French Revolution of which he claimed to be a child. He was after power and glory, nothing else. His political career was about his ego, just as for Trump and Johnson.

While General Bonaparte seemed to be guided by reason and strict military logic, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte appears as quite a different man. In domestic affairs, the wish to consolidate the political power of the state institutions quickly gave way to Bonaparte’s desire to concentrate all the power in his person. In foreign affairs, calculated risk-taking gave way to recklessness, military caution to deliberate provocation. Just to give you an idea: In 1803, Bonaparte was far from ready to win a naval war with Great Britain. 43 French battle ships were operational, but 23 were still under construction. His government was almost broke, and the French people gladly had adjusted to a life in a pacified country on a pacified continent.

Nevertheless Bonaparte treatened the British government’s interests by insinuating that he could invade once more Egypt and thus triggered a war he actually wanted to fight much later. Great Britain launched a preventive maritime campaign to deny France the command of the seas and cripple its overseas trade, while Great Britain’s allies Austria and Russia engaged France and its allies on the continent. Bonaparte engaged in a policy that could lead either to the subjugation of all Europe or his own fall. It was all or nothing. In the end France won this round, that is the third Coalitiin War – against all odds. And this victory encouraged Napoleon to push his luck further and further.

Whenever an adventure was looming at the horizon, Bonaparte could not resist. As a general he had to hold back his horses as he had superiors and political masters that defined policy goals and red lines. Once Bonaparte had secured the supreme political authority for himself, there were no more limits to his desire to cover himself with glory in a military campaign. He became addicted to success and to the veneration by his peers and by the crowds.

We should consider this evolution of a man when we try to evaluate the actions of Trump and Johnson. And we shouldn’t bet all our money on their early failure. I have deceived myself with the idea that Trump will shoot down Trump. He didn’t. He and Johnson may be lucky and win once or twice. That will be the moment to look out for and get ready for a new edition of Waterloo. Emboldened by initial success they may plot ever more adventurous schemes and ultimately fail, but only after having influcted a huge collateral damage on our societies.

Now a last word about the book: Lefebvre goes to great length to explain the rise an fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the socio-economic conditions in post-revolutionary France, its fractured political landscape and the interests of the other European powers. He does it with much knowledge and an excellent pedagogical approach. His work, written more than 75 years ago, remains one of the landmarks in the field of research on the Napoleonic era. However, at times the author expects the reader to be himself an expert in French history. Many names, functions and technical terms go unexplained, and the editors of the modern edition would have been well-advised to add a glossary, a name index and a timeline of significant events.

In 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 saw its premiere, and the composer had given it the title “Bonaparte”. But once Bonaparte had proclaimed himself Emperor of France, Beethoven lost any sympathies for the autocrat and renamed it “Eroica”:

The Case Beethoven vs. Napoleon

Treason, Emprisonment and Two Heroes

combo montecristo_edited-2Alexandre Dumas: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (Tome 1 & 2) ISBN 978-2-253-09805-8/978-2-253-09806-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tom Reiss: Black Count. Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo ISBN 968-0-307-38247-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Holocaust has been an important subject on this blog lately, and I must confess, reading about it was exhausting and at times depressing. What I needed then in terms of reading was a radical break, and I found it in Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo”. What a beautiful work! There’s love, treason, conspiracy, suffering and vengeance. In the end, the evil ones will be punished while the just triumph and real romances starts to blossom. What more can you expect from a novel in the middle of the summer? I was amused by the plot devised by Edmond Dantès alias the Count of Monte Cristo, captivated by Dumas’ extensive descriptions of people and landscapes, and en passant I learned a couple of new-old French words I had to look up in my battered dictionary. Well done!

The novel by Dumas naturally led me to Tom Reiss’ book about the person who inspired the character of Edmond Dantès: Alexandre Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of a nobleman and a slave from Santo Domingo, the Haiti of these days. Dumas senior was the first black general of the French army, a hero of his times. He was a contemporary of another general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Dumas contributed in a decisive way to Napoleon’s victory of Austria and took part in his ill-fated Egypt expedition. Being a black man in a high position illustrated that the decade following the French Revolution let France’s human rights record glow in a bright light.

However once Napoleon announced his political ambitions and turned into a violent autocrat, this light began to fade. Black people in France became subject to ever stricter segregation rules. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was to suffer from both this worsening climate and the jealousy of Napoleon. Dumas was famous, he was an imposing figure and the Austrians called him the “Black Devil”. Napoleon did not tolerate any perceived rivals, and certainly not black ones. His government abandoned Dumas when he was taken prisoner by the Italians and thrown into jail. Dumas even suspected that the French government gave the order to poison him.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ fate at the hands of the Italians inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas the novelist, to start his novel with the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès at the Château d’If. And when Dumas mocks the customs of the French nobility and the newly empowered bourgeoisie in his novel, he obviously refers to the climate in which his father first strived and then sunk into misery. Dantès’ quest for justice under the alias of the Count of Monte Cristo reflects the novelist’s desire to avenge his father and to have his former glory restored.

Tom Reiss book is remarkable for two reasons: The story of the black general needed to be told as he has been forgotten in France while Napoleon is still glorified by many. And the way Reiss let’s the reader embark on his own investigation about this man is a brilliant story in itself. Digging through French military archives and breaking into a safe to get hold of the general’s personal document – mon Dieu! “Black Count” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and again I would like to say: Well done!

Edmond Dantès was illegally imprisoned after a vile denunciation, and Dumas novel is about the transformation of a man in a cold and damp cell. Dantès learns of a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo, and after his escape from the Château d’If, he takes up the alias “Comte de Monte-Cristo” first to help hose who helped his father while he was locked away, and then to punish those responsible for his captivity. This transformation from protector to avenging angel is one of the turning points of the novel, and it’s setting is Rome during the carnival season. What other music could I recommend than Hector Berlioz’ overture “Le Carneval Romain”:

The Cursed Saltarello or Why We Should Be Foolish

Voltaire and the Value of His Parables

Voltaire contes

Voltaire: Romans et contes. ISBN 978-2-070-10961-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Having explored the life of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, I was a curious about the man’s works, and since I am busy reading two other French poets, I decided to start with Voltaire’s novels. After all one should not judge people by their appearance or life style, but by their works. The present collection features among many others the three major parables “Micromégas”, “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme”. Faint memories from my time at school made the title “Candide” seem familiar – so much for the value of my French literature classes.

The best I can say about Voltaire’s novels is that the intention of the author is clear: to transport a message about tolerance, freedom of speech, a fair society and rational judgment. A message against idolatry, superstition, religious dogmatism and tyranny. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s narrative style has not stood the test of the time in my opinion. As with Rabelais, that I have covered in an earlier post, the pompous language and the repetitive pattern of the novels did not speak to me. I found them tiresome and boring.

I understand that Voltaire was under several constraints: the fashion of the day, his century’s ideas of aesthetics and censure. And for the readers of the 18th century, his language and his narrative style were just perfect. His books sold well, his theatre pieces were performed a lot, at least in those places were Voltaire had not made himself too many influential enemies. But what is the value of his novels today? And has Voltaire’s narrative style not become an obstacle to the transmission of his message?

For experts on French literature, Voltaire’s novels “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme” are memorials of the French Enlightenment, of a glorious cultural past. They will revel in it and condemn in a very un-Voltairian way those who dare have another opinion. For the common reader of today, I suppose Voltaire’s parables are a less thrilling experience, with the exception perhaps of those parts that show Voltaire’s cruel sense of humour and his hate for zealots. In “Candide” – please note the reference to optimism in the full title – the hero kills two Catholic priests and a “choleric Jew” over the span of a few pages.

From a philosophical point of view, Voltaire’s subjects of fate, the opposition of free will and necessity is interesting. The German philosopher Leibniz had put forward the idea that God being a perfect being could only have created a perfect world. Leibniz also thought that every effect has a necessary cause, ruling out randomness or the idea that life as such could be absurd, meaning that Man would need to give his life a meaning.

Voltaire violently attacked the idea of the best possible world as he saw a world full of misery, intrigue and fighting. How could such a world be perfect? Where does it leave Man’s freedom? In “Zadig”, Voltaire shows how human disasters can reveal a positive effect, hidden to the common mortal, but visible to those who believe. The way Voltaire narrates the adventures of his (anti-)hero Zadig makes it however clear that he mocks any such argument.

Candide, the hero who lend the novel his name, is an eager debater and thinker. He survives countless adventures that demonstrate how cruel life on earth is, showing that there is plenty of meaningless suffering (i.e. slavery), episodes that make him openly question Leibniz’ postulates. His way out: “Allons cultiver notre jardin!” Let’s go gardening! Candide’s concluding words can be interpreted in two ways. In a literal way, Candide actually wants to work in his newly acquired garden and achieve personal happiness through manual labour – working heard without reasoning or debating. In a more figurative way Voltaire extolls us to deal with present-day problems, making this planet a better place on the basis of rationality.

Whatever one may think about the form of Voltaire’s novels, he puts forward a key question that may occupy our minds today just as it occupied Voltaire’s mind: To what degree is Man truly free? He may no longer suffer under the tyrannical policy of a king or the oppression of religion, but is he free? The many down-sides of a globalized economy, the manipulative power of social media, the fast degrading of our environment put Man’s freedom to control his destiny to a severe test. No, we are not living in a perfect world, and we should not ignore the many challenges humanity faces or try to explain them away. And Voltaire’s answer is still valid: to fight for a better world on the basis of sound and fair judgment.

François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV, was a contemporary of Voltaire. And you may judge yourself whether Couperin’s piece “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” has stood the test of the time better than Voltaire’s language:

Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles

From the Cradle of Bolshevism to the Ghetto of Lvov

albert londres

Pierre Assouline: Albert Londres. Vie et mort d’un grand reporter 1884-1932 ISBN 978-2-07-038236-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Superbe en français, outstanding English. Having worked as a journalist myself I make a point of avoiding books about a journalist. I have already read too many bad memoirs. This book is an exception. The biography of the French special envoy Albert Londres deserves the highest praise.

A thrilling story, the story of a thrilling life. A tour de force through the history of World War I, the birth of Bolshevism, the upheavals in the Balkans after the retreat of the Ottoman Empire. A discovery tour to the dark side of the French colonial empire with its prison camps and construction sites where French colonial officers supervise African foremen exploiting African slaves. A descent into the hell of French lunatic asylums, Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe and Brazilian brothels were French prostitutes, bought and sold by unscrupulous businessman, satisfy their customers.

Londres didn’t spare his readers in Paris in the 1920s and his growing audience – by 1929 he was a journalistic celebrity unable to cope with fan mail – witnessed how his job transformed his view on the world. He started as an observer and recorder of facts to report and inform, but by experiencing the personal misery of man and chosing the individual experience – the men and women who either made or suffered from the making of history – as the focal point of his stories, he became a fighter against social and racial injustice making enemies left, right and center in France and its colonies.

Pierre Assouline, a successful editor and a gifted writer, does a brilliant job in retracing the path that Londres took and the personal development that the journalist underwent. What captivated me most was Assouline’s style in the tradition of the great French romanciers, mimicking Londres’s sense of irony, descriptive precision and expressive excellence. Reading a French book has not often given me so much joy only for its style.

While Albert Londres fought against corruption, abuse of power and social injustice, the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg persued his own way to democracy and equality – in the realm of chamber music – inspired by the generally progressive ideas that were in the air all over Europe. His String Quartet No. 3 picked up the mood of the time:

A democratic revolution – all notes are equal

Birth and death of an illusion


Valérie Igounet, Vincent Jarousseau: L’illusion nationale
ISBN 978-2-35204-597-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️  A timely and interesting project: Two French journalists have interviewed over two years voters of the extremist party Front National (FN) and their opponents in three towns where the FN has won local elections. Supporters of Brexit, of Donald Trump and of the FN share many things: a feeling of insecurity, the fear to be a forgotten generation and to be despised by the ruling politicians, a vulnerability to populism. Marine Le Pen, the FN candidate, may have lost the presidential elections, but the issues uncovered in the book are real and need a solution, which the FN, selling merely a dream, cannot deliver and never will.

The Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich   gained throught his career a lot of experience in coping with changing personal and social circumstances. Some of his wisdom can be found in his Symphony No. 11:

Managing change – a matter of life and death