Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Art of Fiction CXLII

Patrick O'Brian interviewed by Stephen Becker


Do you agree with Maturin that Napoleon was a tyrant, an unmitigated disaster? Buonaparte did, after all, reform French law, politics, taxes—doesn't much of his code civil endure today? He also restored French national identity after the Revolution and the Terror. Wellington and Metternich, not to mention Louis XVIII and Charles X, were unreconstructed reactionaries. Yet Maturin sees Napoleon as a kind of early Stalin.


Yes, I do agree with Maturin. I think Buonaparte did France—a country that he hated as a youth—very great harm indeed, not only because he brought about the death of vast numbers of Frenchmen, far more than even Louis XIV, but because he left the country with a curiously vulgar notion of glory, which Louis did not. I do not think he restored French national identity at all, but superimposed upon it a trashy chauvinism that is still sadly active, particularly in the army. One cannot blame him entirely for the miserable decline in music, painting, architecture and furniture-making that coincided with his altogether regrettable existence, for zeitgeist had a great deal to answer for; but there is no doubt that he was devoid of taste (he admired Ossian) and his manners were as indifferent as his French. His utterly unscrupulous rapacity in Italy, Switzerland, Malta and Spain, to say nothing of his treatment of the Pope, may not quite qualify him as a rival to Stalin, but it seems to me quite enough to justify Maturin's opinion.

As for the Code Napoleon, I am not scholar enough to know how much Buonaparte had to do with it, but from what I have seen of the system, or of what remains of it, I do not think it reflects much credit on the authors. It is shockingly authoritarian and misogynistic; and since according to its provisions all the children have equal rights in their parents' property it has a disruptive influence on both family life and the cohesion of an estate. I have often seen the miserable results of this among our friends in the remote provincial corner of France where we live and where many people still depend entirely on the land. The children soon learn—it is a matter of common knowledge—that apart from the small proportion that can be left according to the wishes of the leaver the whole of the rest is theirs as a certain, wholly dependable legacy, however badly they may behave. I will not say that the prospect of being cut off with a shilling in the traditional English way necessarily turns all born under that law into models of filial piety, but I believe it has some effect. And in passing I may observe that parricide is back-page news in this neck of the woods.

As for the rest of the code that is associated with Buonaparte's name, it is so slow, and often so harsh to the accused, that one might almost prefer the English jungle, which does at least preserve some ancient customary law: though indeed Isaiah dismisses all human systems in a line that the Vulgate renders et quasi pannum menstruate universae justitiae nostrae and the Douay Version all our justices as the rag of a menstruous woman.

(Excerpt from Paris Review, Issue 135, Summer, 1995 )

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