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De Gaulle was unquestionably one of the ""great men"" of the century; but as Los Angeles Times French bureau chief Cook (Ten Men and History) points out early, he was a dour, somewhat joyless figure--and the combination of mighty deeds and studied solemnity leads to a cut-out subject for biographers. Cook's version is a faithful run-through of the details of de Gaulle's career (which was his life) that predictably leans on the man-of-destiny angle. Attempts to jazz things up with a little off-stage color fall excruciatingly flat (as in a mention of Proust--""who delicately nibbled on madeleines in the tea garden of the Ritz Hotel and remembered things past""); the standard characterizations of major figures are less obtrusive because they are more to the point. De Gaulle's early, tortured career--impaired by his arrogance and relative lack of combat experience (he had been a prisoner during most of WW I)--is also shadowed by Cook's lack of finesse. Describing a triumphant series of lectures de Gaulle delivered to the Ecole SupÉrieure de Guerre in 1927, Cook writes that ""the lectures were a final intellectual shaping and annealing--a refining, distilling, sharpening and hardening--of de Gaulle's fascination with--indeed, obsession with--the mystique of power."" (Why, indeed, should it be extraordinary for a military man to be obsessed with power?) Petain, another lifeless eminence, was de Gaulle's champion early on; and it's not until the collapse of France found them on opposite sides that Cook's story picks up pace. His account of World War II is detailed and efficient--though made up entirely of well-worn material, down to the sidelights. De Gaulle's testy relationships with his allies are also nothing new: the confrontations and near-confrontations between French and British, and French and American troops; Roosevelt 's infuriating invitation to de Gaulle to visit him in (French) Algiers, and so on. Cook accurately credits de Gaulle with creating the modern French state--its constitutional stability, its mixed economy, its final physical form after the liquidation of the colonies. He justifiably emphasizes de Gaulle's flexibility in these matters, as well as his powerful sense of drama, with himself as the main actor. There is nothing from unpublished sources in all of this and no new insights. An acceptable but unextraordinary account--of less intrinsic interest than either Bernard Ledwidge's polished De Gaulle (K 1982, p. 1324) or Francois Kersaudy's sharp De Gaulle and Churchill (1982), and inconsequential as a general biography alongside lean Lacouture's.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Putnam