Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Reading Assignment: Sexytimes with Napoleon

I don't have a real assignment today.  I've been reading Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, but it's not good enough, in my opinion, to recommend to others.  Published in 1952 (in German--Selinko was Austrian), Desiree seems to be something of a cult favorite.  At least, there are a lot of online reviews by readers who claim it to be one of the best historical novels.

Awesome pulp fiction cover

The novel starts strong.  It's 1794, France is in the grip of Robespierre's Reign of Terror, and Eugenie Desiree Clary is the fourteen year old daughter of a silk merchant in Marseilles.  Through various events, she meets Joseph Buonaparte and his younger brother Napoleon, to whom she becomes engaged.  (Joseph Bonaparte marries her older sister Julie.)  This part of the novel is pretty good and Napoleon is obviously super sexy.  But then he takes off for Paris and dumps Desiree for the soggy Josephine.  The novel goes downhill from there and Desiree's character is reduced to little more than a paper doll who happens to witness some of the more dramatic moments in history.  Every time Napoleon is about to do something important, he summons Desiree, who seems to be able exploit her status of first love to say things that would get others banished or imprisoned.

Young Napoleon

Eugenie Desiree Clary

One of my literary peeves is when a writer of historic fiction uses a character as a prop from which to display a series of historical events.  It is just so dull, although to be fair, the real Desiree did spend a lot of time alone in Paris, while her husband, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, was a major player on the world's stage.  He was eventually chosen by the royal family of Sweden to be their crown prince and later, he and Desiree became king and queen of Sweden.

I didn't love this book, but it enhanced my understanding of War and Peace, which I've been slowly reading since long before Christmas. Desiree covers the same time period from a different perspective and provides background for the events in War and Peace.  Obviously, I learned about all of this in history but that was a long time ago.  Our European history teacher, Sister Marcyanne, had a marvelous knack for teaching history.  I still remember her vivid stories about Marat being murdered in the bathtub, and stealthy Russians on skis utterly humiliating the French, but I've forgotten much else.


  1. That cover is something else.
    I had a history professor in college who made all of world history sound like a giant soap opera. Not that anything particularly stands out now. I am currently reading Richard Hell's memoir of the days of early punk (and CBGB) here in NY. There is some interesting notes a previous reader scribbled along some of the passages.

  2. See, ordinarily that cover might tempt me, but thank goodness your review has saved me some valuable time.

    I have always been afraid to crack open War and Peace. It seems like such a commitment. I still haven't read Anna Karenina either.