Friday, 27 November 2015

Book Review: Désirée by Annemarie Selinko Life sometimes takes such amazing turns that, if they came into the mind of a writer, even the most daring among them might refrain from using them in a book because they seem just too far-fetched to make a realistic story. To a historical novel based on well-researched facts, however, they can give the magic touch of a fairy-tale come true as is the case with the book that I’m reviewing today. In the 1940s, an Austrian author of popular novels chose to base what was to be her last and most famous work on a true story from revolutionary France that ends on the Swedish throne. Désirée by Annemarie Selinko is the fictionalised account of the stunning fate of Désirée Clary that reminds of the story of Cinderella, but the silk merchant’s daughter from Marseille who was the first love of Napoleone Buonaparte and who eventually became Queen Desideria I of Sweden and Norway really existed.

Annemarie Selinko was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary (today: Austria), in September 1914. Already at the age of thirteen she made her literary debut with a short story published in a local magazine. Immediately after graduation from high school, in summer 1931, she obtained work as a journalist and, following the wish of her father, began studies of History at university. In 1934, however, Annemarie Selinko brought out her first novel titled Ich war ein häßliches Mädchen (I Was an Ugly Girl). It appeared in installments in a Viennese newspaper and turned out to be an immediate success. About a year after her marriage to a Danish diplomat, at the dawn of World War II, she and her husband left Germany for Denmark from where they had to flee to Sweden in 1943. In the 1950s Annemarie Selinko retired to family life giving up her career as a writer. Although her novels – Tomorrow is Another Day (Morgen ist alles besser: 1938), Heute heiratet mein Mann (1940; My Husband Is Getting Married Today) and Désirée (1951) – were best-sellers which were early adapted for the screen, all except the last are quite forgotten now. Annemarie Selinko died in Copenhagen, Denmark, in July 1986.

In spring 1794 the wealthy family of fourteen-year-old Bernadine Eugénie Désirée Clary is threatened by the terror of the French Revolution, when her older brother Etienne, who runs their silk merchant’s business in Marseille since their father’s death a few months earlier, is arrested. While waiting at the Maison Commune with her sister-in-law to ask about Etienne, Désirée falls asleep and a young officer called Joseph Buonaparte wakes her hours later. He offers to walk her home and she gratefully accepts thinking of him as a suitable husband for her older sister Julie. Désirée invites him to meet her family and to bring his younger brother who is a general in the French army. Etienne, who has been released from prison, welcomes the brothers reluctantly because they are poor Corsican refugees, before long he is intrigued, though, by ambitious Napoleone and he allows Joseph to court Julie. By the time of Julie’s and Joseph’s wedding six months later Désirée is the fiancée of Napoleone who soon leaves for Paris. There he meets the intelligent as well as influential widow Joséphine de Beauharnais and changes his name to Napoleon Bonaparte. Désirée secretly travels to Paris to talk about their wedding and finds Napoleon celebrating his engagement to beautiful Joséphine. It’s there too that Désirée meets General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte for the first time. Almost three years later, in April 1798, their paths cross again in the house of Joseph and Julie in Paris. Jean-Baptiste and Désirée get married, have a son called Oscar and lead a happy marriage although they are often separated because of Napoleon’s many wars and Jean-Baptiste’s career in the army. Relations between republican-minded Jean-Baptiste and now Emperor Napoleon I are getting increasingly tense. Then, in 1810, Jean-Baptiste is adopted by King Carl III of Sweden… which makes Désirée Princess royal and eight years later Queen Desideria I of Sweden and Norway.

The narrator of Désirée is the protagonist herself noting down all important events of her life in a diary from the day in March 1794 when she first met the unimportant French General Buonaparte who was to become Emperor Napoleon I of France ten years later until the day of her coronation as Queen Desideria I of Sweden on 21 August 1829. Owing to the chosen literary form, the novel is a very personal account not just of Désirée’s own life and her relations to Napoleon, her husband and the rest of the family but also of the comet-like rise of Napoleone Buonaparte to power and of French, not to say European history. The author included all milestones of the careers of Napoleon and Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte in her novel interweaving them with private affairs and thus linking them to the protagonist. As far as I can judge it, Annemarie Selinko remained as true to historical facts as she could. Thanks to the narrator’s language that becomes more mature as time passes and to scores of small details – many of them painstakingly well researched, others more likely invented – the biography convincingly portraits a woman who is courageous and lively, but feels unprepared for her important role in history. All other characters are extraordinarily well depicted too. It goes without saying that I read the original German version of the voluminous book which I wouldn’t call highest literary quality, but still a good and worthwhile read.

It’s true that Désirée by Annemarie Selinko has been called one of the best historical love novels of all time, but in my opinion it is much more than this because it isn’t limited to the emotional dimension. In a way it reminded me of Leo N. Tolstoy’s War and Peace that too deals with the Napoleonic wars from the Russian point of view and includes timeless love stories. Also a film version of the book has become a classic, namely the one from 1954 starring Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons. However, since I’ll always prefer the book to a film, I recommend this gripping historical novel that sheds a different light on Napoleon and his time.

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This review is another contribution to Valentina's
2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!

To know more about this challenge and my reviews for it
»»» please read my respective post.

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