Category: Fiction – Paperback: 77 pages – Publisher: Gallic Books – Source: Kindly sent by the publisher
Translated By: Peter Hicks
First Published: 2009
Their eyes met… and they soon knew that their hearts were made for each other. Triumphant on the field of battle, Clisson turns his back on worldly success. He falls in love and marries and Eugénie, but how long will their love survive? Written in an eloquently Romantic style true to its period, the story offers the reader a fascinating insight into how the young Napoleon viewed love, women and military life.
Napoleon Bonaparte wrote a love story??? That was my first reaction when I was browsing Gallic Book’s catalogue for Paris in July inspiration and saw this listed in there. I mean, Napoleon? A love story? Overwhelmed with curiosity I knew I had to read it.
It turns out that the reason I had never heard of this story is that it was published for the first time in 2007. Scholars pieced the story together from fragments scattered through manuscripts held in various collections around the world. I loved reading the section in the book explaining how the story had been pieced together, it sounded like great literary detection to hunt out all the pieces!
What the fragments revealed is a seventeen page short story that tells the story of Clisson, a 26 year old soldier, bored of glory and seeking happiness which he finds with a gentle, quiet woman called Eugénie. He takes a break from army life, they settle down in the country, have kids and then he is called back to lead troops into battle. Eugénie, left alone with the children, writes every day but after Clisson is injured and he sends his deputy to tell her the news, the deputy doesn’t return and the letters dwindle away. Clisson’s response to the end of his marriage is to throw himself into a stupidly dangerous position in battle ensuring he will die in a remarkably melodramatic way tinged with revenge.
It’s not great literature but it’s fascinating because it reveals a lot about Napoleon’s personality. I found the introduction slightly odd in tone and largely unnecessary but the afterword and interpretation provided were very useful in confirming that Napoleon began writing this when he was the same age as Clisson is in the story (26), that he had a romance, largely by letters, with a woman named Eugénie that year and she ended it by ignoring or being slow to reply to his letters. Writing the melodramatic ending and suggesting that the fictional Eugénie was unfaithful appears to have been his way of coping with the end of the affair.
As I said, it’s not great literature, but it makes lots of allusions to it. There are references to famous books and it mimics particular styles or authors throughout. Napoleon clearly read but it doesn’t appear that his reading sparked anything other than imitation. He copies and mimics but doesn’t develop. It’s not surprising therefore to learn that Napoleon wrote a handful of short stories and essays in his early life, they were nearly all unfinished and most were only a couple of pages long. He obviously lacked the imagination or desire to flesh these skeletons out into complete stories. He can craft a fantastic sentence (going by the polish visible even in translation) but he doesn’t know or care to flesh the characters out into people, or really do dialogue or proper scene setting. It’s almost like a very good synopsis of a full length novel, something a young, inexperienced writer might create before they learned to put flesh on the literary bones.
For someone with an interest in history it’s rather fascinating. At its heart this is a tale written by an emo teenager trying to make an uncaring ex see just how much they’ve lost by discarding them. That it was written by a 26 year old and that Napoleon appears to have kept editing and writing bits of the story for years is actually a little sad. It is only seventeen pages of literary doodling, but it gives an interesting angle on a man whose life and actions have inspired over 50,000 books by others.
I’m very grateful to Gallic Books for kindly sending me this book, it’s given me a lot to think about over the last couple of days. Far more than I was expecting it to if I am honest! I do love a book that feeds my curiosity and gets me thinking.
Rating: 7/10 (Book Review Scale)
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