Friday, December 05, 2008

Why Should I Read...?

1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
Adam Zamoyski, 2004

Looking down the "Why Should I Read...?" list I am surprised at the almost complete absence of historical fact, as opposed to historical fiction. The omission is a strange one, as I read a lot of history, both out of curiosity and as a prompt for the kind of fantasy fiction I write.

1812 is unique among my list in joining even before I finish it (I've got about 100 pages to go). Some things are too good to keep. Zamoyski's book does exactly what one would expect from the title: take us through, from the French and Russian sides, Napoleon's magnificently flawed 1812 campaign, when his invincibility unravelled and his decline began. Zamoyski's work excels in quoting a huge array of primary sources, in his clear-sighted analysis of the bigger picture, his humanisation of the protagonists, and his lucid prose, which occasionally gives us a hint of Gibbon. Of Count Rostopchin, he observes: "In his privy he had installed a fine bronze bust of Napoleon, suitably adapted to serve the lowest function." Napoleon's army falls back on Smolensk, where there is little food to be had, and Zamoyski tells us: "When [the civilians] ran out of money or things to sell they were reduced to begging. In this, the women had an unenviable advantage". I admit to being fussy: I want my historians to understand history, but to command my attention I also demand that they can write.

Zamoyski adds enough new information and interpretation to the well-known story that it will repay the attention of scholar and novice alike, and never loses sight of the fact that he must tell us a story as well as impressing fellow historians. The Napoleon we see here, at the point of being humbled by his hubris, is compellingly different to the conqueror of Austerlitz or even the doomed bravo of Waterloo; and the bickering Russian commanders, invariably francophile in sympathy, are wonderfully differentiated.

This is a treat: just about the perfect history book.

How has it influenced me?

A book which I have yet to finish inevitably has to wait to exercise its influence. But I have long been aware of a novel I have yet to write in my Mondia cycle (The Last Free City already strongly hints at it) which has many similarities to Napoleon's Moscow campaign. Zamoyski gives us a brilliant commander whose faith in his own invincibility brings about his downfall; a long campaign in enemy territory; a disorganised opposition which triumphs despite its own internal divisions. All of these things were already envisaged for The City of Green Glass (working title), but 1812 has given me plenty of new ideas and refinements. My inspirations for Mondia are primarily medieval, but there is a timelessness about the Greek tragedy of this campaign which it's hard to ignore. (As an aside, I wonder whether Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy has a similar influence--Napoleon's retreat in appalling conditions, and the endless machinations of the Russian staff officers both seem strongly reflected).

Even the names are perfect: the Russians Barclay de Tolly, Bagration, Baggovut, Wittgenstein, Wintzingerode, Radozhitsky; the Frenchmen St Cyr, Sanguszko, Rapp. 1812 is a book which should fire the imagination of all writers of fantasy and historical fiction

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Truth may indeed by stranger than fiction, and it can also be as dramatic
  • The desire to create a shaped and satisfying narrative is as important in history as in fiction
  • Writers can--and perhaps should--be influenced by history at least as much as by other novelists
  • There is something irresistible about a great man brought low by strengths which contain the seeds of his destruction
  • If you are writing about military campaigns (and indeed if you are planning them yourself) don't ignore supply lines and logistics...


no said...

Goodie! More 'Why Should I Read's! I love these.

The verification word today is pandimpa, by the way.

Tim Stretton said...

I try to put only the really good stuff on the list - so sometimes there's quite a gap between them. Perhaps I'm too fussy... And the one author, one entry rule doesn't help...

Pandimpa is good!

David Isaak said...

This sounds great. But long.

I've just read Michael Palin's "Diaries" and Adrian Goldsworthy's "Caesar." Can I please have a slim volume?

Verification code: unestori. A tale with dramatic unity. In Italian.

Tim Stretton said...

It's certainly an immersive read, David. One reason it's sat on my shelves for six months is the daunting bulk.

As we've discussed before, if you want something short, it's hard to do better than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie...

David Isaak said...

Ah, but I've gone and read that one...

Verification code: "plosh"