One pivotal year for Napoleon; The Escape from Elba, by Norman MacKenzie. New York: Oxford University Press. 289 pp. $14.95.
Although ''The Escape from Elba'' chronicles only the events of one year in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte (March 1814-March 1815), it was a year quite unlike those that preceded it or those that would follow. The book provides many who see Bonaparte as one of the more fascinating figures of modern European history with a unique occasion to study his character, his methods, his limitless ambition, and the intrigue that surrounded him during a time when he was shorn of power, possessed with very limited resources, and watched with suspicion by the allied powers that had brought his empire down. Undaunted by adversity, and scheming to return to power, he played off the allies against each other like the master politician he was.
It is difficult now, more than a century and a half later, to realize how completely one man could have dominated the Europe of his time, for the fear of the ''Corsican ogre'' really did haunt the major heads of Europe, all of whom (with the sole exception of George III) had been defeated on at least one occasion by Napoleon's armies.
But why would anyone except a Napoleonic war buff wish to read today about the year preceding Waterloo? Quite simply because this is a masterly study of the intrigue surrounding the Congress of Vienna and of a brief but critical period in the life of one of the dominant figures of modern European history. MacKenzie's work is highly readable, well researched, and it provides fascinating insights into the events of the year about which he has written. The conflicting ambitions and vanity of those in power in Europe at the time are carefully detailed, and the author has taken particular pains to show Napoleon's tremendous energy, his carefully disguised but clever handling of both his opponents and his followers, his unbelievable audacity, and the speed with which he acted, doing what his adversaries least expected.
The book is also an excellent picture of France in the last years of the First Empire, the role of the Bourbons during the early days of the restoration. It contains excellent sections on the Congress of Vienna and the difficulty the allied powers had in reaching agreement on the many problems cast up by the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath.
Although MacKenzie has not brought to light any new information that would require historians to reverse their verdict on the history of the period, the book is full of fascinating information, such as why Elba was selected as a mini-kingdom for Napoleon and how the famous ''escape'' succeeded against all odds. It also sheds considerable light on the complex character of the Emperor Napoleon himself.