For four months I would follow his foot¬steps, seeking to unravel the enigma of his personality, to measure the effect he had in the shaping of modern Europe and France, to see what remains of his legend. I would travel to a dozen nations, from the Soviet Union in the east to Spain in the west, and to Egypt and the tiny island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.
In time I would begin to feel his presence: When I arrived someplace, it often seemed as if he had only just departed; the map cases, the portable field bed, the cheap snuff he favored all having been shoved hurriedly into an army wagon moments before it clat¬tered off.
And I would come to feel I knew the peo¬ple who had touched his life: his large and quarrelsome family, the many lovers, the implacable enemies, and the men who served him; above all, Josephine, who, al¬though divorced and dead, would reappear in a. vision as he lay dying. The themes of those early letters, when the world and all about him seemed young, would reappear. “She would not embrace me,” the dying emperor whispered, “she disappeared at the moment when I was about to take her in my arms. . . .”
THE MOUNTAINS rush down to the sea around Ajaccio, Corsica. Ferryboats slip in and out of the bay, laden with sun-seeking tour¬ists. In the old part of the city, shutters pop open with the morning sun, laundry flutters over narrow lanes, and you may chance upon a procession of sailors, bearing on their shoulders an image of their patron, implor¬ing safety at sea.
Napoleon would recognize his street, his house. He was born on the first floor August 15, 1769. His mother, Letizia, began labor while at Mass and rushed home; there was no time to reach her quarters on the second floor. The baby was puny, but filled out af¬ter a wet nurse was hired, a sailor’s wife.
Letizia was 19, pretty, strong; the father, Carlo, 23, charming, flighty, a lawyer. They were the handsomest couple among Ajac¬cio’s gentry.
Both came from families that had come from Italy two centuries before. They spoke Italian, bought their clothes in Italy; Carlo held his degree from Pisa. And FRAKOIS GERARD. MUSEE NATIONAL DE MALMAISON
“She instilled into me pride and . . . good sense,” Napoleon recalled of his mother, Letizia. Widowed matriarch of a Corsican clan of Italian descent, she played no fa¬vorites among her brood of eight and once rapped the emperor’s knuckles when he ex¬pected her to kiss his hand.
so, although the island had recently come into French hands, the boy was christened Italian style, Napoleone Buonaparte.