Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Where's Charlie?

There's a wonderful New Yorker from perhaps the 60s (I'm working from memory) where the lady is at the polite party with her husband; he is tall, with a parsnip nose in the air and an underslung chin, probably a mustache.  "The French," she is saying, "just loved Elmer."  New Yorker readers, unlike the speaker, would of course instantly recognize hubby as a ringer for Charles de Gaulle, sometimes military theorist, resistance leader, national leader and all round pain in the neck; also perhaps the one most incorruptible figure in 20th Century world politics..

I suspect that Europeans and Americans have pretty much put de Gaulle out of mind.  Not the French: the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, party of Nicolas Sarkozy, lives on as the "Gaullist" party with a virtually unstoppable 40 percent voting bloc in a famously fractious parliament.  It's testimony to the long shadow of a man who was not merely tall but whose political aura has outlasted him for so far 40 years--he died in 1970, just after having finished his decade-long tenure in the presidency of France.

My most vivid picture of de Gaulle comes from the moment in 1958 when he stepped in to prevent France from tearing itself to shreds over the Algerian war.  Here he was on television (television!) looking earnest, solemn and as always slightly goofy "Francais, Francaise," he exhorted "aidez moi!"  It was testimony to his capacity for connection that he offered language that even I can understand.

But he didn't arrive from nowhere, of course; de Gaulle was already the overvaulting presence on modern French life for his role--virtually single-handed, one might say--in keeping French national identity alive, and French self-respect at least somewhat intact, through World War II when a more realistic analyst would have given up France as defeated, humiliated, a closed chapter in the history of nationhood.    Churchill--hell, just about everybody--found him a colossal annoyance "the greatest cross I have to besr,"Churchill is said to hsve said, "is the Cross of Lorraine."  

But in the end, you'd have to say that de Gaulle saved France the same way Churchill saved Britain--by an iimplacable romanticism, which is to say a stubborn unwillingness to face facts.  Churchill could encounter one of the greatest cataclysms of British history and utter poetic nonsense about s "finest hour."  de Gaulle could encounter the debacle of the fall of France and act as if somebody had nicked the national bootheel in a crosswalk.   There is only one way to deal with this vision and determination, and that is to yield to it; as so much of the world did to Churchill and as Churchill did to de Gaulle.

I'm in a kindly mood towards de Gaulle at the moment because, wanting to brush up on my risibly rudimentary French, I hauled down a three-volume set of his Mémoires de Guerre (link, link, link), where de Gaulle gives his own account of World War II--not a general history like Churchill's but a gripping account all its own.  It's readable stuff, in the narrow sense that it can be read by one with modest French, and in a broader sense that it's got a sonorous directness you'd have to call Churchillian.  "Toute ma vie," he declares on page one, "je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France... J'ai, d'instinct, l'impression que la Providence l'a créée pour de succès achevés ou des malheurs exemplaire."   And later, after the hideously swift and brutal fall of France to the Germans in 1940: "Pour moi, ce qu'il s'agissait de servir et de sauver, c'était la nation et l'Etat.  

"Servir et sauver" in "malheurs exemplaire..."  The columnist Art Buchwald put it in perspective.  He said the point was that de Gaulle was tall, and that he had a giant Adam's apple, and wore a tunic.  So when he talked you found yourself staring at the tunic as it bobbed up and down.   So, explained Buchwald, de Gaulle just thought everybody was agreeing with him.  Whatever.  With thinking like that, you can take on the assembled might of the Axis powers and even Winston Churchill will have to stop and listen.


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