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Possessions for All Time

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

With Napoleon in Russia. The Memoirs of General de Caulaincourt, Dttbt of Vicensa. Edited by George Libairc. New York; William Morrow and Company. $4.00.

Few memoirs published in recent years have achieved such conspicuous and such deserved success with our generation as “With Napoleon in Russia,” by Armand de Caulaincourt. Why? Is it merely because they are delightfully written and deal with a human being about whom people apparently never tire of reading? There are at least three questions concerning them which are involved in any full appraisal of their value. One would want justifiably to know just how important they are historically. One would want to know what editorial achievement this American version represents. One would want to know, even if the memoirs were very important indeed to the historical specialist, and even if the American edition were a good job, what the ordinary man or woman could find in such a book.

The memoirs first appeared in a three-volume French edition in 1933, with an admirable introduction and notes by the historian Jean Hanoteau. During the hundred years of their existence in manuscript, only two historians had had access to them—Albert Vandal and Frederic Masson. Moreover, what was thought to be the original copy of them had disappeared during the World War when the Germans destroyed the Caulaincourt chateau. M. Hanoteau worked from a copy in Paris. After he had issued two volumes, an architect who was working on the reconstruction of the chateau discovered in the ruins a metal box containing in relatively undamaged state the original manuscript. Since this original manuscript contained some later revisions by the author that the Paris copy did not, Volume Three of the French edition carries an appendix giving revised passages. It is with this additional information that the American editor was privileged to work.

Except for confirming, I think quite definitely, the account (currently rejected) of Napoleon’s attempt at suicide at the time of his first abdication, in 1814, the memoirs have done nothing to revolutionize our knowledge either of Napoleon or of his period. They make it hard to accept statements like that made in such a standard work as Fournier that in 1812 “the equipment was complete down to the smallest detail.” But in general, the main outlines of the Moscow campaign remain what they were. The historic value of the memoirs lies in the rich content they give to previously accepted judgments.

Mr. George Libaire, the American editor, has done a splendid job. The translation is excellent. Enough notes have been added to enhance the pleasure of the reader who is not a specialist; a useful map has been supplied; and above all, some biographical notes in alphabetical order successfully “place” the leading actors in the drama. But Mr. Li-baire’s chief problem was to get unity out of a story that contained within itself two successive dramas: the Russian campaign of 1812 and the First Abdication. The original French begins with Tilsit in 1807, covers Caulaincourt’s ambassadorship at St. Petersburg, his return to Paris, the preparations for the campaign, the campaign itself, the campaigns of Leipzig and of France, and Caulaincourt’s negotiations in connection with the abdication. Mr. Libaire has wisely skipped the St. Petersburg embassy and allows the curtain to rise on Caulaincourt’s return to Paris in June, 1811. He drops the curtain again when Napoleon and Cau-laincourt, after their mad chase from Smorgoni across Poland and the Germanies, arrive in Paris in December, 1812, only a day behind the famous Twenty-ninth Bulletin. It is rumored that Mr. Libaire will shortly present us with a second volume, dealing with the fall of an emperor.

But neither the dramatic discovery of a manuscript historians have long hoped to read nor the intelligent editing of Mr. Libaire can account for the enormous success of “With Napoleon in Russia.” That success belongs to Caulaincourt himself. And although I have watched for comments on this book ever since the original French edition appeared, I am not aware that any reviewer has stated adequately what a superb piece of historical literature these memoirs constitute in their own right. Briefly, this is history in the Thucydidean tradition. Like Thucydides, Caulaincourt was a participant in the events he described. Like Thucydides, he was convinced of the vast importance of the matter he proposed to deal with. Like Thucydides, he was technically and professionally qualified to explain this matter: he was a soldier describing a war, not a research worker in military history whose only battles have been fought with recalcitrant library staffs. Like Thucydides, he had dwelt with the enemy as well as at home, and could therefore envisage the drama from above the melee. Like Thucydides, he was instinctively aware that all great history falls into the pattern of tragedy. The Athenian democracy triumphed over the King of Kings, it waxed great, built an empire, declared itself the school of Hellas, was guilty of hybris, sailed against even distant Syracuse, met catastrophe, was humbled and made wise. Revolutionary France fought off the intervention of kings, waxed great, built the Napoleonic Empire, dominated Europe, was guilty of hybris, marched against even distant Russia, met catastrophe, was humbled and made wise.

I do not wish to imply that either Thucydides or Caulaincourt can be reduced to a schema and thereby explained away. Even less would I imply that anybody, by following such a schema, can write a history which will “thereby preserve from decay the remembrance of what men have done.” But I would imply that the moment a great chain of events is viewed as tragedy, then the myriad details a careful historian must deal with become luminous and indeed cease to become “details.”

I would insist on one further parallel between the task of Caulaincourt and the task of Thucydides: each proposed to recount what were fundamentally familiar events. Consequently, each could dispense with such literary vulgarities as novelty and the element of suspense;—as the latter term is understood, for there is plenty of suspense, unbearable suspense, in awaiting a foredoomed destiny like death or like recorded defeat and catastrophe. It is, therefore, an immense advantage to Caulaincourt that his audience knows in advance that a starved and frozen army of stragglers once fought its way westward through a Russian waste of ice and snow. It was, indeed, an immense advantage to Mr. Walt Disney that his audience had known since youth the devastating story of the three little pigs and therefore knew that the first two little pigs, granted their inveterate and notorious folly, never had a chance. Neither had Athens, the school of Hellas.

No literary trick is being discussed here. It is merely that Caulaincourt knew a tragedy when he saw one, even one in which he had been personally involved. In addition, he was a conscientious recorder of events as he saw them happen, or as he was able to verify their occurrence. But his fundamental advantage will tell him to record that, before the army crossed the Niemen, a hare started out between the legs of Napoleon’s horse—whose name was Friedland!—and that Napoleon’s staff thought it a bad sign. (At Athens, the herms were found mutilated.) Caulaincourt calls it a foolish accident, but he tells about it just the same, for, as he says, “men are superstitious despite themselves, in such serious moments and on the eve of such great events.”

The reader may object that by 1812 the true analogy to the Athenian democracy is not revolutionary France but Napoleon. And he can bolster his argument from these very memoirs, which demonstrate eloquently that Napoleon’s attack on Russia was almost universally disapproved and that indeed it was precisely the half-hearted co-operation which he secured from his polyglot army that blunted all his plans and forced his purposes to waste in air. Such a reader will perhaps dislike the brilliant conversations between Napoleon and Caulaincourt which occupied the thirteen days during which they traveled alone, by sledge and carriage, from Smorgoni to Paris, conversations in which Napoleon attempted to justify his Russian adventure. Such a reader will perhaps dislike the whole book for the same reasons. He may applaud a recent reviewer’s slur, that the book will appeal only to “Bonapartisans.”

But even so clever an epithet as Bonapartisan cannot dispose of Napoleon as a tragic hero, cannot prevent his being for all times a universal symbol, cannot even disprove his claim to be the son of the Revolution. It is not only the personal admirers of (Edipus who are emotionally purged by his downfall. It is not only admirers of Periclean Athens who suffer again the catastrophe at Syracuse. As for Napoleon’s not being France, that argument has been going on since Talleyrand first publicized the distinction between them, and is not likely to be settled here. Call the hero of this particular tragedy “the Napoleonic system”: that will avoid polemic and will focus the attention again where it belongs—on the power of the tragedy.

One other thing needs to be said, this time about Mr. Li-baire. I have insisted that, aside from his editing, Caulain-court’s memoirs are such great history that their work could not have been obscured by a less competent editor. But it is a fact that, in cutting the first two volumes of the French edition to the proportions of one large volume in English, Mr. Libaire has actually improved their literary quality. He has made the story move more directly and more surely.

“With Napoleon in Russia” has been excellently edited and adapted from a document of considerable scholarly importance. In addition it happens to be the expert and conscientious record of great events told simply, swiftly, urgently. It is an example of great historical literature, and Caulaincourt has the right to say with Thucydides: “In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”


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