First, a book recommendation. I used to do a lot of these on the site. And then, late last year, I stopped. But here’s another: Napoleon: A Political Life by Steven Englund, a near-exquisite work of popular history. It’s a big book for a big subject, running just over five hundred pages with notes.
Two centuries later, Napoleon still generates sharp views for and against. Not a few biographies of Napoleon portray him as a megalomaniac (for which there is real evidence in the later years of the empire) and even a bumbler. But such a sour portrayal leaves it very hard to understand how this man held not only the states of Europe but also many of its greatest minds in his thrall for the better part of twenty years.
Englund, on the contrary, clearly loves (perhaps doesn’t always like him, yet loves) his subject, but not in a way that compromises critical perspective. He starts with the man’s improbable beginnings as the scion of the most threadbare near-to-non-noble nobility on the small Italian-speaking island of Corsica, his military victories in the service of the Revolution, the Consulate, the Empire, and finally his six years as an exile on a tiny island — St. Helena — almost literally on the other side of the planet.
If there’s any criticism I have of the book — and it’s a minor one — it is that it loses some of its force, crackle and verve toward the end. But that may be an accurate reflection of book’s subject rather than a criticism of the book itself.
What really captivated me about this book is what I can only call its expansiveness, its sense of literary grace and play in the telling of history.
As some long-time readers know, my only formal training in anything is as an historian. And there are a host of reasons why I decided to leave the profession — professional, intellectual, neurotic. But one of the many reasons was what increasingly struck me as the constrained nature of so much historical writing, the deeply grooved, patterned, conventionalized nature of the craft itself, as it is often practiced today. Academics talk about this endlessly. And this isn’t meant as a criticism of the profession; it just wasn’t for me. Yet I still read lots of non-academic history. In fact, that’s about all I read. And I’m always looking for works of history which are both serious but also engaging and dipped in some bit of wonder — which is not always a natural combination. And this is definitely one that fits that bill.
[ed.note: Rereading the paragraph above, I realize that what I wrote is probably open to some misinterpretation. And it’s probably a subject I should return to. But suffice it to say that many of the discontents noted above stem from the hyper-specialization which is an all-but-inescapable feature of contemporary academic history.]
The writing is fresh, the analyses incisive — all the things that are necessary for a good work of history. But Englund, in his writing, also lets you see into his engagement with the material. And that gives the book magic. There’s nothing here of the author as an anonymous, omniscient voice — a hidden presence who is both everywhere and nowhere.
He’s right there; he’s talking with you about his subject, not only telling you the facts, shaped as they must be by his interpretations, but looking at these major events and great personages with you, sifting different possible viewpoints, dipping into the magic of the moments he’s describing, waters in which he’s clearly long and happily immersed himself. This is history which not only captures the narrow facts of the matter, but the origins of the era’s mythologies, what they meant in their time, and how they’ve echoed into the present. This is history, in the very best sense, as story-telling.
And now, for something completely different, a restaurant recommendation of all things. If you live in Manhattan, or are nearby, check out El Cocotero, a new Venezualan restaurant on 18th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues (228 West 18th).
The food is delicious but reasonably priced. With seven or eight tables, the place is only a little bigger than a hole-in-the-wall, but just enough to make it very much more than that. The atmosphere is casual, but intimate and somehow it manages to pull off a fresh and uncannily convincing Caribbean atmosphere, even though the gritty urbanity of Chelsea is right outside the front door.
Anyway, I’m not much when it comes to writing restaurant reviews so let’s just say the food’s great and the atmosphere’s great. They’ve been open for about six weeks. And I recommend it highly.