Tag Archives: Napoleon

Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.




Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Adieu by Balzac

I’ve read conflicting information on Balzac’s attitude to Napoleon and the monarchy. André Maurois states that as a “child of Austerlitz,” Balzac “never lost that early ardour.” There seems little point in arguing on the subject of whether Balzac was a monarchist or a Republican as Balzac is a complicated man, and I expect his opinions and views to be equally complex and difficult to pigeon-hole. But as I read La Comédie Humaine, I occasionally hone in on criticism of Napoleon–at least that’s how I take it. The story Adieu is one of the stories in which Napoleon’s military choices comes under scrutiny. Not direct scrutiny and not direct analysis, but it’s impossible to read the story and the disaster that takes place at the Berezina River in Belarus without coming to the conclusion that Napoleon rode France to disaster.

In La Comédie Humaine, Balzac’s aim was to recreate a panoramic view of France and French society, and perhaps he selected events that seemed to him emblematic of the age. The Battle of Berezina in 1812 cost around 45,000 lives (about half military and half civilian, yes there were that many along for the ride). Come to think of it, Napoleon and Hitler had the same game plan–conquer Russia, and both of those plans were gutted at a heavy cost. I found it impossible to read Adieu without coming to the conclusion that ego maniacs rule with a heavy price, and even though Napoleon doesn’t appear in these pages, the criticism is apparent nonetheless. 

In September 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Armée made it to Moscow only to find the city abandoned and in flames, and all this just in time for the Russian winter. Russian weather, as always, betrayed its would-be conquerors. Then began the Great Retreat. By November, the army was on the banks of the Berezina River. Napoleon, who’d planned to flee Russia into Poland across the frozen Berezina River, found that it had thawed. His hide was saved only by General Jean Baptiste Elbé and a host of engineers who built a bridge across the Berezina.

Adieu is a love story but the history of that love story is grounded in the Battle of Berezina. The battle, however, is in the not-so-distant past. It’s 1819, and the story begins with two men in the forest of Ile-Adam. The two men are friends: Colonel Philippe de Sucy,  and d’Albon. Philippe is thirty and d’Albon is 42, but the face of the younger man shows signs of hardship:

One was tall, gallant, high-strung, and the lines of his pallid face showed terrible passions or frightful griefs. The other had a face that was brilliant with health, and jovially worth of an epicurean. Both were deeply sun-burned, and their high gaiters of tanned leather showed signs of the bogs and the thickets they had just come through.

Hungry and far from home, they stumble onto a dwelling in the woods–a desolate and neglected structure which appears to once have been a priory:

The house stood on the slope of the mountain, at the summit of which is the village of Nerville. The great centennial oaks of the forest which encircled the dwelling made the place an absolute solitude. The main building, formerly occupied by the monks, faced south. The park seemed to have about forty acres. Near the house lay a succession of green meadows, charmingly crossed by several clear rivulets, with here and there a piece of water naturally placed without the least apparent artifice. Trees of elegant shape and varied foliage were distributed about. Grottos, cleverly managed, and massive terraces with dilapidated steps and rusty railings, gave a peculiar character to this lone retreat. Art had harmonized her constructions with the picturesque effects of nature. Human passions seemed to die at the feet of those great trees, which guarded this asylum from the tumult of the world as they shaded it from the fires of the sun.

“How desolate!” thought Monsieur d’Albon, observing the sombre expression which the ancient building gave to the landscape, gloomy as though a curse were on it. It seemed a fatal spot deserted by man. Ivy had stretched its tortuous muscles, covered by its rich green mantle, everywhere. Brown or green, red or yellow mosses and lichen spread their romantic tints on trees and seats and roofs and stones. The crumbling window-casings were hollowed by rain, defaced by time; the balconies were broken, the terraces demolished. Some of the outside shutters hung from a single hinge. The rotten doors seemed quite unable to resist an assailant. Covered with shining tufts of mistletoe, the branches of the neglected fruit-trees gave no sign of fruit. Grass grew in the paths. Such ruin and desolation cast a weird poesy on the scene, filling the souls of the spectators with dreamy thoughts.

The Marquis likens this neglected dwelling to “the palace of the Sleeping Beauty,” and if you want to discover the secret of the house, then you’ll have to read this story yourself. It’s free on project Gutenberg and it’s free on Amazon for the kindle. I will hint that fate has brought the tragic past back to the Marquis once again.

While Adieu is part love story, it’s also part French history, and for this reader, by far the most passionate scenes of the book occur along the Berezina River. It’s November 28, 1812. Napoleon has crossed the river on one of the two bridges constructed, but what of his vast army?

The stragglers who flocked in masses to the banks of the Beresina found there, unhappily, an immense number of carriages, caissons, and articles of all kinds which the army had been forced to abandon when effecting its passage of the river on the 27th and the 28th of November. Heirs to such unlooked-for riches, the unfortunate men, stupid with cold, took up their abode in the deserted bivouacs, broke up the material which they found there to build themselves cabins, made fuel of everything that came to hand, cut up the frozen carcasses of the horses for food, tore the cloth and the curtains from the carriages for coverlets, and went to sleep, instead of continuing their way and crossing quietly during the night that cruel Beresina, which an incredible fatality had already made so destructive to the army.

A moving description continues of the ad-hoc shelters built from the abandoned wealth of those who had been able to flee. Balzac describes the metal state of these exhausted, freezing and starving soldiers who stopped, fought for a place near the fire, struggled for a bit of roasted horse flesh and then collapsed to sleep. The prospect of a moment’s respite outweighed the fear of the approaching Russian army.

At one point a live horse is slaughtered in front of its owner–even though he pleads with the men to take the dead, frozen horses instead. But the frozen carcasses will take more energy to carve up, and the live horse is killed.

Immumerable fires, which, amid that trackless waste of snow, burned pale and scarcely sent out any gleams, illumined here and there by sudden flashes forms and faces that were barely human. Thirty thousand poor wretches, belonging to all nations, from whom Napoleon had recruited his Russian army, were trifling away their lives with brutish indifference.

The Crossing of the Berezina by Peter von Hess:

Reading the passages of the Battle of Berezina, brought back memories of Zola’s Debacle.  Horses in battle seem to end up as meat  for the starving troops. And here, finally is an excerpt from Napoleon’s memoirs regarding his return to France. The memoirs written by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourriene are in some dispute:

I must go back to Paris; my presence there is indispensable to reanimate public opinion. I must have men and money. Great successes and great victories will repair all. I must set off.”

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and produced by John Bickers and Dagny


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

Vendetta by Balzac

“The tradition of the Vendetta will long prevent the reign of law in Corsica.”

Vendetta, a short story from Balzac, came free via Amazon for the kindle, and my copy is translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. While I am a die-hard fan of Balzac (I’m currently working my way, slowly through La Comédie Humaine), Vendetta is not going to make my favourite list. This is not something that I can pin on Balzac; the story is well-written, and while I enjoyed the first 2/3s of it, I disliked the final 1/3. This is a matter of personal taste. Stories in which characters passively accept their plight drive me around the bend, and unfortunately, Vendetta falls into the category.

The story begins in the year 1800 with the arrival in Paris of a man, his wife and a small girl. The man is Bartolomeo di Piombo–a Corsican who’s fled Corsica under some strange, disturbing circumstances. Piombo and his wife and child arrive at the Tuileries, and once here, Piombo demands to talk to Napoleon. At first this is denied, but eventually Piombo is taken to see Napoleon. The two men know each other, and Napoleon asks Piombo what brings him to Paris:

“To ask asylum and protection from you, if you are a true Corsican,” replied Bartolemeo, roughly.

“What ill fortune drove you from the island? You were the richest, the most—“

“I have killed all the Portas,” replied the Corsican, in a deep voice, frowning heavily.

Then Piombo relates what happened:

“We had made friends,” replied the man; “the Barbantis had reconciled us. The day after we had drunk together to drown our quarrels, I left home because I had business at Bastia. The Portas remained in my house, and set fire to my vineyard at Longone. They killed my son Gregorio. My daughter Ginevra and my wife, having taken the sacrament that morning, escaped; the virgin protected them. When I returned I found no house; my feet were in its ashes as I searched for it. Suddenly they struck against the body of Gregorio; I recognised him in the moonlight. ‘The Portas have dealt me this blow, I said; and forthwith, I went to the woods, and there I called together all the men whom I had ever served,–do you hear me, Bonaparte?–and we marched to the vineyards of the Portas. We got there at five in the morning; at seven they were all before god.”

There was, apparently, one survivor, a child, but Piombo tied the child to a bed before setting the house on fire. Then Piombo, his wife and child set sail for France. Napoleon, who owes Piombo  agrees to give sanctuary to his old acquaintance as long as he forgets the idea of vendetta and obeys the laws of France. Fast forward fifteen years. It’s now 1815–a significant year for French history.

At this point Vendetta delves into the politics of the time and then becomes a love story. The lovers are the young, passionate and single-minded Ginevra Piombo and Luigi, a young man who fought with Napoleon’s defeated army and who is now hiding in the attic belonging to art teacher Servin.  The story sets up the dynamics of the art class, the rivalries between the female students, and the division between the supporters of Napoleon and those who wish to see the return of the Bourbons:

The second return of the Bourbons had shaken many friendships which had held firm under the first Restoration. At this moment families, almost all divided in opinion, were renewing many of the deplorable scenes which stain the history of all countries in times of civil or religious wars.

The war that has divided France now continues in the art class. Ginevra “loved Napoleon to idolatry,” whereas other girls in the class “belonged to the most devoted royalist families in Paris.” Politics taints the friendships between the girls, and opinion is sharply divided between the two camps. Since Napoleon’s power is at an end, Ginevra’s popularity is in question.

These scenes in the classroom are brilliantly constructed, throughly enjoyable and peppered with Balzac’s sagacious observations of human nature.  However, as the love story takes over and morphs into the morbidly sad conclusion, I can’t say that I enjoyed this part of the tale nearly as much. I loathe to be goaded into sentiment, and for me, this story did just that.


Filed under Balzac, Fiction