Book Review: The Conversation: The Night Napoleon Changed the World, by Jean d’Ormesson (+ giveaway + excerpt!)

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the-conversationAbout the book

After pulling the French people back from the abyss of chaos and misrule, Napoleon Bonaparte is on the brink of declaring himself emperor. “An empire is a Republic that has been enthroned,” he says. And so history is made.

As Napoleon stands at the precipice of his new empire, Jean d’Ormesson’s novel The Conversation: The Night Napoleon Changed the World captures a fictional conversation in which the thirty-year-old, struggling between revolutionary ideals and his overwhelming thirst for power, declares his secret intention to ascend the throne.

Second Consul Jean-Jacques Cambacérès, a brilliant law scholar and close ally, bears witness to the birth of this self-created legend: a man who left his mark upon time not through birth, but with ambition, and whose hubris is still invoked as a cautionary tale. Their imagined conversation brilliantly captures the tenuous moment when one man’s dream becomes reality. History, of course, records Napoleon’s dizzying triumphs and subsequent fall.


This is a conversation in the very literal sense of the word. As you’ll see from the excerpt below, the book in its entirety is a conversation between Bonaparte and Cambacérès. It took me a few pages to get used to the format, but once I did, I wished that I could have read this book as an audiobook, and had two actors performing the parts. However, the conversation was compelling enough on its own that it didn’t take me too long to read.

“A society without religion is like a ship without a compass. … I am Catholic here because most people are Catholics.”

These lines (and the entire paragraph) caught my attention. I don’t know as much about French history as I would like (one of these days I shall take time to study it beyond the French Revolution we learned in school), but I do remember reading about Napoleon re-opening the churches (shuttered by those who took over during the Revolution). I just hadn’t realized that his own beliefs were not religious.

Yet Napoleon does not just focus on political plotting. There is an amusing (to me at least) digression into family relations, and the rivalry of his Empress Josephine with his sister Caroline over an expensive shawl, which breaks up some of the more historically-heavy sections.

The majority of the conversation details Napoleon’s determination to be called Emperor of the French; his reasoning and plans are detailed, and you can imagine yourself a fly on the wall as he plots his ascension.

Read the excerpt, below

It was anarchy. Twenty-thousand criminals immersed Paris in fire and blood. And forty- thousand Royalist Chouans were in control of the country in the West and intercepting communications between Paris and the sea.

Admiral Bruix told me at the time that it took him a month to reach Brest to take up his command.

In thirty of the country’s departments, the Chouannerie was little more than a pretext for thievery. The right bank of the Garonne, Provence, the Languedoc, and the entire Rhone Valley was in the hands of highwaymen. Coaches were attacked, couriers robbed, homes looted. Pillagers were putting peasants’ feet on red-hot grills to make them tell them where their money was stashed.

I know several merchants, even two representatives on official business, who bought passports from these bands just to ensure safe passage from Paris to Marseille or to Aix-en- Provence. No one went anywhere without an armed escort.

The roads were impassable, public buildings were in shambles. It took Marseilles a full year to do the business it used to do in six months, and its old port was a wreck. In Lyon, there were fifteen-hundred boats instead of the normal eight thousand. In Paris, workshops hired a fraction as many workers as in 1789. It is indisputable that because of me, the present is better than the past. The future is what preoccupies me now.

You have secured the future because you have done away with the past.

Do not deceive yourself. I am at one with all of France’s past, from Clovis to this National Convention—of which you were also a part, my dear Cambacérès—and several times have I saved it from foreign threat. I have fought against, and beaten, violence, hatred, excesses, divisions, factions. No more factions. I want them gone.

You have planted the colors, starting the day after Eighteen Brumaire and right up to your arrival here in the Tuileries. You have put your wife in Marie-Antoinette’s bedroom, and you have taken as your bedroom that of Louis the Sixteenth. Yet I understand that you find this a somewhat sad place.

Grandeur is always sad.

You found its walls covered in revolutionary graffiti and festooned in decorations dominated by the red cap. You called it “filth” and ordered that it be removed.


Release date: November 6, 2013

Page number: 128

Publisher link:

ISBN: 978-1-61145-905-0

Also available as Ebook

Where to buy



About the Author and Translator

Jean d'OrmessonJean d’Ormesson is the author of more than fifteen books, has a PhD in philosophy, graduated from the École Normale, and is a distinguished member of the Académie Française. He lives in Paris.

Timothy Bent has translated a number of books from French, including Brassaï’s Henry Miller: The Paris Years, Emmanuel Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are DeadA Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, and Stéphane Audeguy’s novel, The Theory of Clouds. A former editor at Arcade Publishing, St. Martin’s Press, and Harcourt, he is currently Executive Editor, Trade, at Oxford University Press in New York, where he focuses upon history, biography, and current events.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Conversation: The Night Napoleon Changed the World, by Jean d’Ormesson (+ giveaway + excerpt!)

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