The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved

Some archive trawling and analysis would have improved this fine narrative, says Andrew Knapp

July 29, 2010

Most biographies of Charles de Gaulle run to two volumes or more, and it is easy to see why. The General's 30-year political career spans two distinct but related stories, each worth a long book: the Free French epic of 1940-44, and the decade-long founding presidency of the Fifth Republic (1959-69). Therefore, it is quite an achievement to have squeezed de Gaulle, at a considerable level of detail, into not much more than 600 pages of text.

Jonathan Fenby is an eminent journalist - he has edited The Observer and the South China Morning Post - who began reporting from France in 1965, met de Gaulle late in the presidency, and in 1998 published a critical although affectionate study of contemporary France, On the Brink: The Trouble with France. More than On the Brink, The General is a journalist's book. Fenby is superlatively good at turning a mass of facts into a clear, well-paced narrative that will be immediately accessible to readers who know nothing of his subject.

Consequently, if you want to know what happened in June 1940 (France's Armistice with Nazi Germany and the historic BBC broadcast of 18 June that launched the Free French movement) or in May 1958 (de Gaulle's return to power, by legal methods but on the back of a military insurrection in Algiers) or in May 1968 (the student revolt and near-general strike that fatally weakened his presidency), you could do far worse than consult the day-by-day accounts offered here.

Remarkably, given the scope of the subject, there are few gaps, although I would have wished for a fuller treatment of de Gaulle's relations with the Communists and the militias in late 1944 and early 1945.

Fenby also has an eye for human interest. To a greater degree than previous biographies, The General dwells on de Gaulle's family life - an irreproachable marriage to the conservative and Catholic Yvonne, a deep affection for his son Philippe and for his grandchildren, and above all for his handicapped daughter Anne. We see de Gaulle in unaccustomed poses: feeding grass to a pet goat at the house in Marly he rented in 1946; and even, fleetingly, in pyjamas (no one saw him naked, not even in the communal showers at his German prisoner-of-war camp during the First World War).

But Fenby's approach, although he eschews sensationalism, suffers from some of the weaknesses of the journalistic genre. He rarely gets to archival sources - perhaps excusably, given his thorough acquaintance with de Gaulle's own writings and with much of the copious secondary literature. More problematic, and surprising, is his reluctance to venture into analysis or interpretation. He opens the book with a bundle of paradoxes and paragraphs full of pertinent questions - about the coherence of Gaullism as a creed, about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of de Gaulle's intransigent defence of French interests, about his commitment to democracy, about the mix of calculation and raw emotion in his political behaviour.

Rather than seeking to resolve these paradoxes or to answer his own questions head-on, however, Fenby leaves the reader to pick out clues in the rare, and brief, pauses for breath in the narrative. The conclusion is barely a page long - a skimpy, and unoriginal, summation of such a life.

Fenby does his best to give us references, against what look like draconian constraints of space. The result, for which the publisher is surely to blame, is all but unusable and a discourtesy to the reader.

The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved

By Jonathan Fenby, Simon and Schuster, 707p, £30.00 ISBN 9781847373922

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