The Wind from America, 1778-1781, by Claude Manceron (New York: Simon & Schuster; 584 pp.) In this second volume of the Age of the French Revolution series, first published in 1978, Manceron explores the influence on Europe of both American democratic thought and politics during the American Revolution and early nationalist periods. Manceron, a popular French novelist, eventually abandoned fiction to devote himself to historical works. His writing is cinematic, rapidly shifting focus from one character and situation to another. An example of his narrative and stylistic manner appears in the first paragraph of the first chapter:
April 18, 1778. The night over Whitehaven ends endlessly. The little Westport coast is deep in slumber, and all England with it. America? As far away as the moon. Who between Blackpool and Glasgow could care about the rebels? Who has ever heard of Philadelphia or Saratoga or what’s going on there? All that is the king’s business, and the Lords’. Cumberland peasants and fisherman don’t read gazettes. They don’t know how to read. Their one enemy, from time immemorial, is the Irisher over the way, a hundred miles across the Irish Sea. But for the time being those damned papists are quiet.
When suddenly… ‘Here we go, boys!’ cries out John Paul Jones, ‘commodore’ of the young American Navy.
Thirty men swarm out of two longboats that have just grated ashore at the foot of the little fort.
Manceron’s technique was to lace “intersecting biographies” throughout the Age of the French Revolution. His plan was for readers to “make or renew our acquaintance with the characters who will become the leading actors of 1789-1797.” Despite its length, The Wind from America is gripping reading, hugely compelling, and immensely plausible. (Chilton Williamson)
The Eighth Arrow: Odysseus in the Underworld, by J. Augustine Wetta (San Francisco: Ignatius; 330 pp., $18). Hell’s purpose is justice, according to Dante, who had the word inscribed on its gate in his 14th century masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Few in Dante’s time would have disagreed with the principle, but many wondered whether it was just to consign to hell all those who had born and lived before Christ. Dante’s solution was limbo, the pleasant abode of the virtuous men and women of antiquity. “Hector, Aeneas, and many a Trojan peer” were there—but not Odysseus. Dante consigned him to the eighth circle of hell, a place for the fraudulent and malicious. Did Odysseus deserve this punishment? Wetta thinks not, and so he has the classical hero attempting to fight his way out of the realm of eternal torment with the aid of the goddess Athena and a quiver of eight magical arrows. Wetta’s Odysseus is a knight of faith, his shield emblazoned with a crimson cross, evoking the knight from Spencer’s Fairie Queene. Wetta is following a rich tradition of writers concerned about Odysseus’ fate. Dante himself sent a restless Odysseus on a second voyage past the Pillars of Hercules into the ocean in search of “the uninhabited world beyond the sun.” Dorothy Sayers considered it “perhaps the most beautiful thing in the whole Inferno.” Tennyson reimagined the hero’s journey and retold it in his Ulysses (1842), whose closing line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” captures the spirit of our classical hero. Wetta, echoing James 2:13, writes that, “Mercy must triumph over justice.” But both have their equal place. Whether God’s grace has spared some from before remains a mystery—which in due time will be revealed. (H. A. Scott Trask)
Napoleon: A Life, by Adam Zamoyski (New York: Basic Books; 784 pp., $40). Zamoyski’s new biography of Napoleon is elegant, highly readable, compelling, humanly perceptive, and balanced. Zamoyski places special focus on Napoleon’s formative years and his first Italian campaign “because it demonstrates the ways in which Napoleon was superior to his enemies and colleagues, and because it turned him into an exceptional being, in both his own eyes and those of others.”
Zamoyski especially demonstrates his brilliant instincts as a biographer in his sympathetic account of the former emperor’s exile and last days at St. Helena, where he lived under constant guard by British officers. Napoleon lived very simply in modest quarters on a high plateau subject to the island’s most unpleasant weather. He had a small library, took exercise on horseback and walked in the garden, played cards in the evenings, dined with the agent of the East India company, and enjoyed games with his children and their neighborhood friends. Napoleon played blind man’s bluff with his child and a young friend, Mademoiselle Betsee, gamely playing the role expected of him, “acting like a grimacing, howling monster.” Betsee overcame her fear of the monster, whom she considered “the most majestic person [she] had ever seen.” This wonderful portrait, indeed, caused me to question the accuracy of Zamoyski’s reference on the first page of the book to Napoleon’s “miserable end.” As he describes it in greater detail, it was, rather, a movingly human one.