'De Gaulle' paints an excellently clear portrait of a 20th-century myth

Biographer Julian Jackson manages to be always thorough but never pedantic, always clarifying but never simplifying.

De Gaulle By Julian Jackson The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018

Historian Julian Jackson's massive one-volume of biography of the semi-legendary French general and leader Charles de Gaulle appeared to showers of acclaim in the UK under the wholly superior title of "A Certain Idea of France" (a famous phrase from the opening of de Gaulle's memoirs). It appears this month in the US from Harvard University Press as De Gaulle, a great grey brick of a book that looks as inscrutably intimidating as its subject.

De Gaulle cultivated something of that aura very deliberately at every stage of his long career, from his combat service in World War I, capture, and repeated attempts at escape, to his early and outspoken championship of a modern conception of tank warfare to his valiant but doomed defense of France against the far greater Nazi manpower and weaponry to his 1940 escape to London, where he became in effect the face and voice of the French government in exile. He led the Provisional Government in France when the war was over, and a short time later was first Prime Minister and then President of France for a decade, founding the Fifth Republic and navigating the country through its emergence in the nuclear era. At the time of his death in November of 1970 he was synonymous with France, with the “grandeur” of France that so fixated him.

It's a status that he's retained ever since: a great leader, a epitome of his nation, perhaps the last great Frenchman (a term often used by both friend and foe alike), and that status has naturally generated a small mountain of books – memoirs, monographs, specifically-angled studies (de Gaulle's nuclearization of France, his defiant attitude toward Great Britain and Europe and the United States, his establishment of the Fifth Republic's surprisingly durable constitution, his jarringly quiet and compassionate personal life, and so on forever), and full-scale biographies, including Jean Lacouture's excellent three-volume work 40 years ago.

As Jackson notes, pinning down the "true" de Gaulle is maddeningly complicated both by the chameleon-like mutability of the man and also by the contradictions right at the core of his being. He was “a soldier who spent most of his career fighting the army; a conservative who often talked like a revolutionary; a man of passion who found it almost impossible to express emotions.” Even in voluble conversation, he could be opaque or elusive to the most skilled of listeners. President Kennedy's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, commented: “Talking with de Gaulle was like crawling up a mountain on your knees, opening a little portal at the top, and waiting for the oracle to speak.” De Gaulle's beliefs were always slowly, tectonically evolving, and he fought a lifelong rear-guard action against that process, constantly characterizing those same beliefs as fixed “for the last thousand years.”

It's a sobering challenge for a biographer, and it makes Jackson's achievement here all the more impressive. He's always thorough but never pedantic, always clarifying but never simplifying, and he deploys an enormous amount of research with a consistently light touch and a dry wit his illustrious subject might have appreciated.

Or not: Jackson never buys into the intense self-mythologizing that de Gaulle engaged in for the whole of his life. De Gaulle was a fountain of verbiage – radio addresses, a shelf of books, policy papers, endless speeches – and Jackson inspects it all carefully without once letting the author of it all get away with intentionally impenetrable bluster and oleaginous bathos. Likewise the tangles of key de Gaulle episodes are patiently smoothed out and narrated with a clarity that's always gentle but not always kind.

And Jackson is particularly brilliant precisely where such brilliance is most badly needed: the Algerian War of Independence. Readers of books like Alistair Horne's "A Savage War of Peace" will already know better than to expect that an objective account will favor de Gaulle. Jackson's nuanced version feels like the final word on the subject.

That definitive feeling runs throughout the book's 800 pages, despite Jackson's own warnings that his subject will always require fresh assessment. In his lifetime, de Gaulle considered it “necessary to be as vigilant against allies as against enemies,” but as he himself often predicted, history has been kind to him: it's elevated him to the rarefied heights of the French pantheon.

Such heights are unhealthy, of course, and Charles de Gaulle has been extremely well-served by this big and judiciously blunt new biography. The de Gaulle myth will doubtless continue to grow (as France's power dwindles, Jackson intriguingly suggests), but de Gaulle the man is painted perfectly in these pages.

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