How often, for that matter, are his name and image used to sell things?
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We think it was heartburn. Napoleon has no grand Parisian squares named after him, only the relatively minor rue Bonaparte.
Nonetheless, in the culture at large, he remains the object of enormous, even obsessive — if somewhat guilty — curiosity, and a fair share of devotion. Two recent series of French novels illustrate these points. The three parts move from the horrific battle of Essling, in which 40, men died in 30 hours, to the disastrous retreat from Moscow in the autumn of , to Paris in the final days of the empire in Napoleon himself appears only occasionally, through the cynical eyes of others.
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This Napoleon is a coarse, tired, flabby, flatulent monster, almost wholly indifferent to the massive suffering he causes. Rambaud conveys the horrors and madness of each of his three set-pieces, picking details out of a mass of historical research. In The Retreat , for instance, men cut slices out of a living horse to eat , without the horse noticing, because of the unbelievable cold.
But Rambaud, unlike Hugo, sketches a war — and a Napoleon — scoured of glory or grandeur. He gives us, in other words, a powerful version of conventional establishment wisdom, pithily expressed by de Gaulle himself: The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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In various regions, people used the national day to celebrate their own communities and to honor their hometown veterans; but elsewhere, the revival of republican sentiment clashed sharply with imperial attitudes. Sophisticated and gracefully written, this book offers rich insights into modern French history and culture.
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