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De Gaulle Redux

Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor

by Charles de Gaulle, translated by Terence Kilmartin
Simon & Schuster, 392 pp., $10.00

Les Chênes qu’on abat…

by André Malraux
Gallimard, 236 pp., 21 francs

No sooner had General de Gaulle resigned, after his defeat at the referendum of April 27, 1969, than he started writing a new memoir. Even before his defeat, which he seems to have anticipated, he had begun to prepare the documents he would need in his country house at Colombey. For the next year and a half, aides brought him the papers he requested. He worked almost uninterruptedly on his manuscript, even during his holidays in Ireland and in Spain, while his daughter typed his drafts in Colombey.

He had planned to write three volumes, of course—not only had there been three volumes of War Memoirs, written during his “years in the desert” and published between 1954 and 1959, but de Gaulle, like all Gauls, according to that other great soldier-statesman-memorialist, Caesar, was an addict of the threefold division. Only the first volume of these Memoirs of Hope, Renewal, was finished and published by the time of his death on November 9, 1970. Its appearance just a month before the General’s fatal heart attack was a huge public (if not critical) success. He had written two chapters of the next volume, Endeavor, when he died. His family decided to publish them—a decision that was sharply but wrongly criticized by some reviewers, who pointed out that de Gaulle might have made further changes had he lived.

However interesting the nine completed chapters of Memoirs of Hope may be, they are but a fragment of the larger work de Gaulle had planned. Although many of his reflections on the decisions and events of the years 1958-1963 (roughly the period covered in these chapters) anticipate the dramatic crisis of May, 1968, and suggest how de Gaulle might have explained it in a third volume, these reflections are only tantalizing. Moreover, he had wanted the seventh and last chapter of Endeavor to be the keystone of the whole construction. First, he thought of writing “a chapter of a ‘philosophical’ nature, in which I shall give my personal view on the situation of France, Europe, and the world.” Later, he decided he would invent a dialogue between himself and the other great figures of French history—including Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Clemenceau—comparing his own situation with theirs.

The only indication we have of what this might have sounded like is in André Malraux’s book, Les Chênes qu’on abat…, an account of his last meeting with de Gaulle, on a snowy day in December, 1969, which includes a conversation about Napoleon during lunch. Les Chênes was as well received by the French public as Renewal (and much better received by the critics). It was published in France last spring shortly before the unfinished Endeavor, but has not yet appeared in English.

The truncated Memoirs of Hope has now been published in a single-volume English version. Terence Kilmartin’s translation is superior to Richard Howard’s translation of volumes two and three of War Memoirs, which contained several inaccuracies. But de Gaulle’s Latin style, with its complex sentences and symmetrical constructions, sounds as clumsy in any translation as Churchill sounds pompous in French. The General’s passion for the mot juste—especially in his portraits of individuals—must be a translator’s nightmare, since more often than not there are no exact equivalents in English: either because shades of meaning get lost (Kennedy “encore quelque peu tâtonnant et foisonnant” is not quite the same as “still somewhat fumbling and overeager”) or because alliterations are dropped (an allusion to May, 1968: “l’alliance des chimères, des chantages et des lâchetés,” becomes “a coalition of illusion, blackmail, and cowardice”).

Memoirs of statesmen always raise two questions. Why should we read them? Why do they write them? Sometimes we read them in order to get an insider’s view of history, to find out how things looked at the center of decision. Sometimes we read them in order to get a glimpse of the writer’s intimate personality—to discover who was the man within the statesman. Memoirs that provide neither are usually dreadful bores, like most of Lyndon Johnson’s recent book. De Gaulle’s memoirs—these or the previous ones—provide neither. Yet they are fascinating, because the General’s approach to his task is so different from that of most other memoirists. To be sure, his book is an attempt at vindication. There are no admissions of failure or error (by contrast with his conversation with Malraux): when things go wrong, he usually pins the blame on others; when they work out well he carefully lists the praise he has received from others.

But whereas the writing of memoirs is usually a substitute for action, for de Gaulle it was a form of action. Being in power had, needless to say, its attractions for him; but he did not live for those. His political career began in 1940 when he was almost fifty. He stayed out of power for twelve and a half years—largely because he refused to make the compromises that might have brought him back sooner. His two regimes ended, in effect, with his voluntary resignation: the first time, in 1946, because he wanted to avoid the erosion of his capital in a war of attrition with France’s parties; the second time, in 1969, because he decided to play Russian roulette with his authority in a risky referendum for reform (“the men of History are necessarily gamblers,” he told Malraux), instead of remaining in power as a manager of immobility.

Power was just a means. The goal was making one’s mark—he had said so as a young officer in his thirties, in that extraordinary anticipatory self-description, The Edge of the Sword. He used, throughout his life, two ways of leaving a scar on history, to use Malraux’s old phrase. One was political action, in power or in the opposition; the other was literary action. One was setting a course; the other was setting an example. One lifted to the plane of statecraft what had been Charles de Gaulle’s vocation since early childhood—serving France as a soldier. The other turned into literature what had been de Gaulle’s father’s vocation—teaching France’s history.

As a result, whereas most writers of memoirs tell us, usually in good faith, what they have convinced themselves they did, and address themselves largely to their contemporaries, de Gaulle tells us what he wants us to think he did, and writes for posterity. He was in a hurry to assemble the record of what he had intended: first, five big volumes of speeches, published in the spring, summer, and fall of 1970, then Memoirs of Hope, so that future readers would find in it an inspiration and a goad. He told Malraux that whatever would be tried again some day for France’s grandeur would be the direct continuation of what he had done—not of what his successors were now doing.

It is fitting that a career ruled by will should end with a record of will rather than of facts: “I want there to be a testimony: ‘this is what I had wanted, this, and nothing else,’ ” he told Malraux, who comments that de Gaulle’s memoirs are “a Roman simplification of events” which ignore one crucial reality: de Gaulle the tactician usually had had “several irons in the fire,” out of which he would take, at the right moment, “the only efficient weapon.” When de Gaulle writes his memoirs, he leaves out, as much as possible, the unused irons and discarded tactics: they were the domain of the temporal leader, whereas the memoir’s purpose is to shape the figure of the historical personage, to state his strategy, to eliminate whatever is not, as Malraux puts it, “a tragedy with two characters: the French and himself,” and with France as their stake.

This means, of course, that for us, his contemporaries—who also read his last memoirs, although they were not written for us—there is no point at all in either looking for details, revelations, and confidences, for there are none, or pointing out major inaccuracies (usually in the form of omissions). The War Memoirs, whatever their distortions, had far greater informative value, since the French, on the whole, had not known what had gone on between de Gaulle and the Allies in London and Algiers. But the events of 1958-63 were, of course, well-known, and had been publicly discussed by de Gaulle during his far from silent presidency. (“What else have I myself ever been but someone endeavoring to teach?” he asked near the end of Memoirs of Hope). Indeed, he quotes liberally from his speeches of the period.

The two remarkable chapters on the Algerian War in no way bring back to life the uncertainties, the detours, the smells of blood, and the anguish of the tragic years 1958-62. They are an impeccable account of clear goals, means deliberately chosen in order to reach these goals, and calculated maneuvers. Indeed, de Gaulle acknowledges having had no pre-established plan—but this is no surprise, since he spent his life distinguishing between fixed plans (like that of the Maginot Line), which he condemned, and objectives to be reached through mobility and the creative exploitation of circumstances. He also recognizes that he had to “proceed cautiously from one stage to the next,” but he is careful to erase the vacillations and reversals that marked his achievement of a negotiated settlement.

What he wanted to record is mastery: how the French, led by de Gaulle, overcame a major crisis for the greatest benefit of France. It would not have served his purpose either to reveal his own disappointments, miscalculations, and retreats, or to stress that at several points only his strength of character kept the French from the abyss of civil war. To list the former would have tarnished the image of the leader he wanted to leave behind, to show the latter would have sullied the portrait of the French in which he wanted them to recognize themselves. It is as if the only thing that mattered for the record was the fact that decolonization was accomplished in a way that left France stronger. That he never was in any way the dupe of his own “simplifications,” his conversations with Malraux or with his aide Claude Mauriac1 amply demonstrate.

For his contemporaries, the appeal of these memoirs is therefore of a peculiar kind: they should be read not for what they reveal about the subject matter but for what they reveal about the author. True, de Gaulle never reveals his private self, and often speaks of himself in the third person, as if he were describing another man. But the fascination of de Gaulle’s character lay only partly in the deliberate penumbra around “Charles.” Most of it emanated from the public person, “General de Gaulle,” that “legendary character” whose “impact resulted not from his accomplishments but from the dreams he embodied and which existed before him,” as Malraux puts it. The strength, skill, consistency, and originality of the public person, the way in which he touched upon, alternately or simultaneously, France’s traditions, intellect, and culture were precisely what distinguished him from other great political figures.

  1. 1

    See Un Autre de Gaulle by Claude Mauriac (Hachette, 1971).

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