Josef Joffe: Review of Jonathan Fenby's "The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved"
Dare I call a 707-page biography a page turner? For once, the fake enthusiasm of blurb prose rings true. I did “finish the book in one sitting,” as another chestnut has it, though the sitting was a very long flight of 16 hours. And why? Because Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of The Observer of London and a prolific author, knows how to turn breadth and depth into enthrallment. Academic historians tend to shy away from the grand sweep, while journalists like to stick to the chatty and topical. Fenby has blended the best of both crafts — the historian’s gravitas, the journalist’s feel for drama — into a magnificent book that will rank alongside a classic like Jean Lacouture’s multivolume biography of Charles de Gaulle.
Fenby actually gives us two books, masterfully intertwined, for the price of one. “The General” isn’t just the story of a 20th-century giant who captivated the public’s imagination even while he was still alive. It also traces the course of a great nation that refused to come to terms with the loss of the strategic pre-eminence it had once enjoyed. This is history with an almost literary flavor. Think of Booth Tarkington’s “Magnificent Ambersons,” which charts the waning fortunes of an aristocratic family in 19th-century America, and more particularly think of the movie that was made of it. Fenby hasn’t written a novel, but one can imagine how Orson Welles might have turned “The General” into a movie classic. Hollywood, take note....
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