Book review: “Une haine de Corse” – a historical hatred

Histoire véridique de Napoléon Bonaparte et de Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo” is the book’s subtitle. This is not Marie Ferranti’s first book. Nor is it her first to receive a prize. It actually got two in 2012. But as readers know: not being awarded a prize does not mean a book is bad; while being awarded a prize does not mean a book is good.

The book starts with a note to the reader, in which the author claims – une-haine-de-corsewith false modesty – her book is written by an amateur. A friend started her quest by talking about the hatred Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo nurtured for another Corsican. Not just any Corsican: the object of this hatred was Napoléon Bonaparte.

Ferranti’s title is derived from a remark in Talleyrand’s Memoirs. Talleyrand describes Pozzo di Borgo’s obsessive hatred as Pozzo di Borgo’s sole passion. Something Pozzo di Borgo affirmed in a letter to Hudson Lowe. What caused this hatred?

The first of the book’s twenty chapters starts with Talleyrand and Pozzo di Borgo chatting after dinner on a hot Parisian day. Another guest walks up to them and quietly tells them Napoléon has died. The men barely react.

A paragraph and twenty years later, Pozzo di Borgo has retired to a house along the Rue de l’Université. Ferranti speculates what Pozzo di Borgo may or may not have done, while Napoléon’s body was reinterred at les Invalides. Victor Hugo and others are cited. She does mention Pozzo di Borgo wrote an incomplete memoir of his life, about two years before this reinterment.

A few paragraphs on and the reader finds himself on Corsica, decades before Bonaparte’s death. Bonaparte’s mother has fled unhealthy Ajaccio and spends time at a small property she inherited. Ferranti desribes two boys sauntering through its garden, discussing politics.

Politics and the various invasions of Corsica cause the two young men to end up having different opinions and dreams, choose different sides, travel to different countries.  But the upheavals on Corsica and the young men’s different choices are not the only causes for a rift. Napoleon is involved in the death of Charles-Auguste’s brother. All this causes and feeds Pozzo di Borgo’s hatred which will only increase over the years.

Both men leave Corsica. Bonaparte chooses France. Pozzo di Borgo is exiled and migrates to and through various countries. He does have a knack of making friends. He works for and with various enemies of Napoléon.

In one of her analyses, Ferranti may rightly conclude jealousy also fed the hatred. After all, Napoléon becomes a successful general, marries, crowns himself Emperor, rules an empire. At times, Pozzo di Borgo barely survives, cannot afford to marry and support a family, while his military title is a courtesy.

Ferranti may also be right presuming Pozzo di Borgo may have been a slick talker and good at selling himself. He may have milked his former intimacy with Napoléon to secure jobs at various courts. However, as a pennyless exile and migrant, he needed to survive.

But on reaching this chapter, the book is already beyond redemption. The topic is interesting enough, but too much is presumed. Worse, Ferranti’s personal life intrudes the story this book purports to tell. The book  also contains digressions. All this especially occurs when source material or eye-witness accounts are scarce or non-existent.

No reader is interested in the author’s mother speculating about what Napoléon might have felt and thought or not, at a certain time at a certain place – not once, but several times in this book. If mum or personal friends,or the author herself do not crop up, there are plenty French writers. Chunks from letters, novels, memoirs can be lifted from such contemporaries as Talleyrand, Stendhal, Chateaubriand – to name just three – without comment and not necessarily to underpin events or give a different interpretation to facts. All this seems to serve to fleshen out this book.

An amateur or first-time writer might have been forgiven. This is Marie Ferranti’s ninth book. Her works include La Princess de Mantoue, a history book which won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2002. One presumes such Grand Prix are not granted to just any book.

After reading “Une haine de Corse” one wonders: why was this awarded not one, but two prizes? It definitely is not well-written and gives no incling how well-researched it was. It is not fiction, but neither a history, nor a historical account. It left me wondering, who the editor and proof reader were who botched up an already bad job.  I even wondered if in France authors get away with writing awful books, once they have collected enough prizes.

Readers genuinely interested in the story of Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo and Napoléon Bonaparte, should not waste time on this book. As mentioned by Marie Ferranti herself, other books on this subject exist. Try any of these and steer clear of this one.

“Une haine de Corse”, Marie Ferranti, Éditions Gallimard, paperback edition 359 pp, published 2012.

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