As Napoleon stands at the precipice of his new empire, Jean d’Ormesson’s novel The Conversation: The Night Napoleon Changed the World captures a fictional conversation in which the thirty-year-old, struggling between revolutionary ideals and his overwhelming thirst for power, declares his secret intention to ascend the throne.
Second Consul Jean-Jacques Cambacérès, a brilliant law scholar and close ally, bears witness to the birth of this self-created legend: a man who left his mark upon time not through birth, but with ambition, and whose hubris is still invoked as a cautionary tale. Their imagined conversation brilliantly captures the tenuous moment when one man’s dream becomes reality. History, of course, records Napoleon’s dizzying triumphs and subsequent fall.
I’m a history nut. Not only did I study history in college, I then went on to get a MA in history. Since leaving school I still read tons of history books, including historical fiction. So when Emma asked if I wanted to read this novel I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Even though European history was my specialty, I have to admit I didn’t know a lot about Napoleon. The concept of this book, a conversation between Napoleon and Second Consul Jean-Jacques Cambacérès intrigued me. I’m not sure I’ve read a book before that was just a conversation.
What impressed me the most about this book is the author’s ability to keep the conversation as a conversation and yet he’s able to drop useful nuggets of information for readers like me who don’t know the full story. I worried that I would be sitting on the outside looking in since I’m not an expert about this time period. That wasn’t the case at all. Jean d’Ormesson slips in information effortlessly and it doesn’t distract from the flow of the dialogue but adds to it. If you weren’t looking for the information, like I was, you may not notice it at all. And he doesn’t go overboard on providing historical details. At times he includes casual conversation that normal people would have. For instance, Napoleon talks about a shawl that Josephine acquired and how it caused a row in his family.
The book is quite short and I read it in one sitting. Of course, this conversation never actually happened, but the ideas included in it are taken from historical record. If you are a history buff, this would be a great addition to your collection. While reading, I felt like I was sitting off to the side, listening to these men discuss the fate of France and I felt honored to be part of it.
Jean d’Ormesson is the author of more than fifteen books, has a PhD in philosophy, graduated from the École Normale, and is a distinguished member of the Académie Française. He lives in Paris.
Release date: November 6, 2013
Page number: 128
Also available as Ebook
View at: Goodreads
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