Napoleon, for the eight millionth time — every so often I get a fit to revisit a subject I already know about and enjoy, partially to see what alternate perspectives or different foci could provide, and while I’m not a Napoleon fanatic I am a history buff, so the return of two separate texts recently at the library — Nigel Nicolson’s Napoleon 1812, published in 1985, and Alistair Horne’s Napoleon: Master of Europe 1805-1807, from 1979 — were unexpected pleasures. Quick reads and not necessarily surprising in and of themselves, they still provide enjoyable enough takes on the subject, even when Horne readily admits in his foreword (an amusing piece of self-justification that says more about Britain in the 1970s than Europe in the 1800s) that he’s creating another book to join ‘the three hundred thousand already existing.’

Nicolson’s is the more focused, a study of the 1812 Russian campaign that has since been a byword for disaster. Intriguingly, to my mind at least, in a brief space Nicolson does his best to view both sides of the campaign as essentially unsure of what to do — Napoleon focused on a goal but nowhere near as apt as he once was to know how to achieve it, the Russians under Kutuzov led by someone who was both inspired and cautious, and often bitterly criticized by his staff. It’s a portrayal of a war of attrition and desperation, where the winter wreaked just as much havoc among the Russians as the French, but at least one group knew how to function in it. The book also sheds light on obscurer figures, perhaps the most truly heroic being a French engineer whose desparate work with his corps enabled the remnants of Napoleon’s forces to escape Russian territory via improvised bridges over the Beresina river.

Horne has a broader scale and a chattier range, as it were, less focused on a military campaign as it is a general overview of European society — it’s a proudly Anglophilic history, self-consciously so, where in the opening chapters it’s less about Napoleon than it is the English resistance to him, detailing plans and actions done to prepare for the invasion that never actually occurred. The character of Pitt the Younger is studies in detail, there’s talk of the political cartooonists of the time, Horne takes the time to quote Churchill talking about the time so he can then talk, at least briefly, about Churchill. The focus does at least return eventually to Napoleon and his campaigns of triumph — the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz, then of Jena and so forth — leading up to the meeting at the Tilsit between he and Alexander of Russia, arguably his highest point of success. The discursiveness and addiction to anecdotes, while seemingly deadly for a book so small, actually helps keep it from being too bald, and it’s one of the more picture happy of such texts I’ve seen — including a slew of images I’d never seen before, so that was a nice change.

All that said, though, I’d recommend Alan Schom’s extremely critical biography for a detailed if lengthy read. While criticized in turn for lacking balance, the book does an excellent job at stripping away cant to focus on a core fact, namely that in the service of Napoleon’s desire for power and control, hundreds of thousands died, yet even more raped, wounded and maimed for life, and that it’s easier to be fascinated by power and war from a safe distance. The Code Napoleon was paid for in blood.