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Coursework for a French Obsession

Last week I wrote about the revolutionary foundation for my current Franco-fanaticism. This week I’m going to trace the literary path that I meandered down on my way here. Looking at the books, it becomes clear that the whole French Thing is a result of some very disparate interests converging onto one unexpected path.

Back in 2012 I was reading a lot about The American Revolution. Partly this was out of a general interest in filling out my scanty knowledge about the period, and partly it was to do research for some game ideas I had (and someday hope to get back to). Looking through my 2011 and 2012 reading lists, there’s a lot of American history. The first few massive volumes of the Oxford History of the United States, a lot of books about pre-Revolution activity in Boston, biographies of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson (the more I read, the less a fan of Jefferson I am). There were obvious ties to the French Revolution, especially the fates of people like Thomas Paine and Lafayette. My interest in French history was piqued, but only a little.

Then in September, 2012 I heard about a new book called The Black Count by Tom Reiss. I think, but am not sure, that I heard an interview with him on NPR. I certainly came across it somehow right as it was coming out. It’s about Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of The Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas, a black man who was a general in the French Revolution and under Napoleon in his early years. I read it because I’ve always been a fan of the novelist. It was the first history I’d ever read dealing with the Napoleonic Era, and Reiss’ book was a thrilling introduction, and I wanted to know a lot more.

At around the same time I was listening to the audiobook of Jon Ronson’s Lost At Sea: the Jon Ronson Mysteries, a collection of pieces by the quirk-interested British journalist. One of the chapters describes his visits to Stanley Kubrick’s archives, which included a huge amount of material for Kubrick’s planned Napoleon biography picture. At the time, there were rumors that Steven Spielberg might try and shoot a film based on Kubrick’s script and research. Doing a little research of my own, I found that Taschen has published the Kubrick script along with much of the archival material in one giant book.

I bought the Taschen Napoleon book more out of interest in Kubrick and this unfilmed could’ve been masterpiece. It seemed like a fascinating cultural artifact (and it is). I have long thought that biographies are an under-appreciated academic format, although in fairness that is because a lot of them aren’t very good. Films in particular have to squeeze so much into so little time that they end up cutting too many corners for my taste. But this Kubrick script was supposed to be a masterpiece of the genre, about a man who’d lived an insanely exciting and novelistic life.

But at that point most of what I knew about Napoleon came from reading The Black Count, which is not really a book about Napoleon. I needed a better base of knowledge if I was going to be able to assess how well Kubrick’s condensed biography worked. So I bought two biographies of Napoleon. One, Napoleon was by Felix Markham, who had advised Kubrick on his project. The other was Napoleon: A Biography by Frank McLynn, which is much longer than the Markham book, and a bit more salacious (he seems to default on the side of every sexual rumor about his subjects being true).

Only after reading those two books did I get into the Kubrick script. It turns out that Kubrick can’t do the impossible, and while it’s a good script and could be a good movie, it elides and condenses as much as any biopic would have to. The life of Napoleon Bonaparte just encompasses too much everything to fit into any single sitting event.

The script didn’t interest me much now, but Napoleon and the French Revolution sure did. I kept on reading books, but now I started adding in games too. I went on a spree, buying Napoleonic era wargames at a fairly ridiculous pace given the small number of people I know who would actually play them with me. Just a couple months later I had already bought Command and Colors: Napoleonics, Napoleon’s Triumph, Age of Napoleon, Field Commander: Napoleon, and The Napoleonic Wars. I still haven’t played Age of Napoleon yet, but I have played and do like all the others for various different things they do well.

By mid-2013 I was deep into it, reading whole books about specific battles, numerous surveys of the French Revolution, and biographies of various key figures. As with any good obsession, my acquisition rate outstripped my absorption rate. Books went unread (for now) straight onto the shelf. One unexpected side-effect of my new reading habit was the shift in favor of print books over ebooks. I had pretty much only been reading ebooks for four or more years. I read The Black Count, and the McLynn Napoleon bio as ebooks. But a lot of the works weren’t available in an electronic format. Plus, even though I make liberal use of highlighting on ebooks, I still find it easier to page through a print copy when I want to reference an underlined passage or read a margin note.

The joy and the danger of picking up a Napoleonics habit is that it’s a subject that has inspired passionate interest for over two hundred years. You are never going to run out of new things to read or watch or play. 2014 saw a steady stream of acquisitions, both books and games and even some little pre-painted miniatures. Very high-quality of course. I even made one of my periodic attempts to paint miniatures myself. As always, I realized that I can’t paint miniatures well enough or fast enough to make it worthwhile. There were even a few dark moments when I looked into costumes and replica uniforms, but that only lasted one or two weeks and no dollars were spent.

I also branched out in my literary choices, moving forward through the 19th Century with novels by Flaubert and Zola (I really like Zola) and histories of Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian War, and the building of the Eiffel Tower. And of course Zola led to reading about the Dreyfus Affair. An entirely other tangent of interest sent me into the Surrealist movement for a while, reading works by and a biography of Andre Breton. That’s a story for a different post. Likewise the cooking habit, which also became very French for a while there.

All this time, my Francomania was compartmentalized in the hobby section of my life. Although I’d try to sneak some Napoleonic or French Revolution stuff into my work life, it never quite came together. Now that can change. As my game development job ended its course back in January, I’m now free to throw my full time and effort into making this obsession into a profession. I have multiple projects in the works - a game, a book, some essays, a different game, another kind of book. All shall be revealed (or discarded) when the time comes. Right now, I’m reading more books on the age of revolution and empire than ever. Pretty soon I’ll be writing my own.