the French people back from the abyss of chaos and misrule, Napoleon Bonaparte
is on the brink of declaring himself emperor. “An empire is a Republic that has
been enthroned,” he says. And so history is made.
As Napoleon stands at the precipice of his new
empire, Jean d’Ormesson’s novel The Conversation: The Night Napoleon
Changed the World captures a
fictional conversation in which the thirty-year-old, struggling between
revolutionary ideals and his overwhelming thirst for power, declares his secret
intention to ascend the throne. Second Consul Jean-Jacques Cambacérès, a
brilliant law scholar and close ally, bears witness to the birth of this
self-created legend: a man who left his mark upon time not through birth, but
with ambition, and whose hubris is still invoked as a cautionary tale. Their
imagined conversation brilliantly captures the tenuous moment when one man’s
dream becomes reality. History, of course, records Napoleon’s dizzying triumphs
and subsequent fall.
I read this Napoleon novel as part of France Book Tours (they always offer me the most original treasures!). I loved it from the get-go and at a little over 100 pages, it was a breeze to read. And- As the saying goes with wonderful things coming in small packages- this one truly is a jewel!
If you are a Napoleon lover, you will find that this glimpse into a slice of Bonaparte's life through a conversation with Cambaceres, the Second Consul (and the man who helped Napoleon write the Napoleonic Code), truly fantastic! This conversation, although relatively brief, is chock-full with the recounting of Bonaparte's life in a nutshell. His conquests are relived, re-thought and contemplated upon. But it's not all about battles and conquests...the man actually shares feelings and thoughts regarding family, Josephine and more.
Napoleon and Cambaceres, who besides their common goals regarding work (the ruling of France!), discussing, reminiscing and encouraging each other ( praising, chastising and recommending as well!) speak candidly as two ordinary men would. THE CONVERSATION, brings a sense of humanity to Bonaparte through an exchange that could absolutely have taken place. It brings us to a deeper level within the man, where other books have rather concentrated on his mind.
It's not all filled with serious stuff and in particular, because it is a conversation, so much more is brought to the reader- and that is what is most entertaining. At one point Napoleon talks about 'the Shawl' episode in his life (pertaining to his sister and Josephine)- a gossipy banality- but a reality in Napoleon's life that actually caused family drama. Napoleon shares how distressed such family conflicts affect him. I enjoyed reading these tid-bits that helped bring this larger- than- life persona to a credible and feeling 'regular guy' (if that's even possible with Napoleon!).
Transported right into the room, beside these two men, I felt almost privileged in taking part of this great conversation. History buffs, you need this one on your shelf!
the Author Jean d’Ormesson is the author of more than fifteen
books, has a PhD in philosophy, graduated from the École Normale, and is a
distinguished member of the Académie Française. He lives in Paris. About the Translator
has translated a number of books from French, including Brassaï’s Henry Miller: The Paris Years, Emmanuel
Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead:
A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick,
and Stéphane Audeguy’s novel, The Theory
of Clouds. A former editor at Arcade Publishing, St. Martin’s Press, and
Harcourt, he is currently Executive Editor, Trade, at Oxford University Press
in New York, where he focuses upon history, biography, and current events.