Upon entering Russia many of the soldiers had thrown away their winter uniforms in order to be able to carry a heavier load of provisions.
- p. 128
Ah, Napoleon. Napoleon looms so large over the 19th century, and over the 19th century novel, that it's often hard for me to remember that, before this book, everything I'd learned about him came from fiction. He's just such a fascinating figure: I can never decide if I'm rooting for or against the guy. Sometimes he's the champion of the people who scared the rest of the world with his willingness to upset the status quo, and sometimes he's the self-styled emperor who co-opted what was supposed to be a people's revolution for his own gain.
Hell, in the books of Dumas alone he can be both. While Tolstoy... well, Tolstoy didn't like him so much. Tolstoy also used Philippe-Paul de Ségur's Defeat
as a source for much of War and Peace's
second "war" section
(large swaths of which are also just Tolstoy ranting about why he hates Napoleon). Point is, the (not actually) little guy who almost conquered Europe is rather divisive. In the abstract, even while there are things I like about Napoleon, I always found his defeat in Russia satisfying and kinda darkly funny. It was one of those times that Russia dealt with invasion by a lot of avoidance, letting the weather itself take foreign invaders unprepared. Reading about it, though, makes it less immediately satisfying -- due to a slow burn and the reality of human beings freezing to death -- but more fascinating.Defeat
(which I've discussed
a few times
) chronicles the first time that Napoleon's great momentum broke against something -- namely Russia. It was written by the above-mentioned Ségur, an aide-de-camp of his, years after the fact, and so is an invaluable look at the truth of Napoleon's first major failure. Except that it's "truth" is questionable, as this New York Review of Books edition's intro points out. The specifics in this version of the events don't always pan out, and Ségur seems very caught up in myth-making, as befits an older man looking back on the moment when his halcyon days flared up one last time, and then ebbed. Considerably.
But even that old man's embellished recollection has so much value.[More of my thoughts, and some hefty block quotes, at my blog.]