Richard Vinen reviews Jonathan Fenby's The General:Charles de Gaulle and the France he saved and Sudhir Hazareesingh's Le Mythe Gaullien, in the TLS:
Jonathan Fenby tells a revealing story. On May 29, 1958, France seemed on the brink of civil war. The army in Algeria had rebelled against the politicians in Paris. The President (René Coty) had told parliament that the country’s only hope was to “turn towards the most illustrious Frenchman, towards the man who, in the darkest year of our history, was our chief for the reconquest of freedom”. Charles de Gaulle, to whom these remarks referred, left his country house in Colombey-les-deux-Églises to go to Paris. His chauffeur drove so fast that he outran the police escort, which was only able to catch up when the general stopped his car so that he could relieve himself by the side of the road. De Gaulle the myth – the most illustrious Frenchman speeding to the capital to save his country once again – met de Gaulle the man – an elderly, retired soldier with a weak bladder.
Fenby’s book is mainly about the man rather than the myth: he writes movingly about de Gaulle’s relation with his daughter Anne, who had Down’s syndrome. Fenby is writing for an English audience. He explains the context that many French works take for granted and he translates quotations, a considerable achievement given de Gaulle’s often obscure and archaic vocabulary. This work will probably not tell those who have read recent French works, notably those of Éric Roussel, much that they do not know, though it will entertain them with its gripping evocation of the pace and improbability of de Gaulle’s life. It is certainly the best biography of de Gaulle to have been written in English.
Sudhir Hazareesingh has approached de Gaulle from a more oblique angle. Hazareesingh teaches at Oxford, but his study of de Gaulle’s myth is published by the most prestigious of French publishers (Gallimard) and, in many ways, it is a very French book. It is a wide-ranging and personal essay. Like work by Maurice Agulhon or Pierre Nora, it will one day be discussed as part of the myth that it analyses. There is even an autobiographical touch here – reminiscent of Régis Debray’s À Demain de Gaulle. Hazareesingh begins with a discussion of his father’s friendship with the Gaullist Maurice Druon and with his own evolution from youthful admiration for the French Communist Party to mature appreciation of de Gaulle. This is not, however, simply a book about de Gaulle. Rather, it seeks to show how de Gaulle evoked certain, sometimes quasi-religious, images concerned with salvation, liberation, fatherhood and martyrdom.