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De Gaulle: The Tragic Poet Magnifying France to Suit His Style : BOOK MARK: Charles de Gaulle, the leader who epitomized both the grandeur and the arrogance of France, was, in his early days, one who challenged the system instead of running it. In "DeGaulle: The Rebel, 1890-1944," the author describes the man. An excerpt.

November 18, 1990|Jean Lacouture | Jean Lacouture, former foreign editor of Le Monde, has written biographies of Andre Malraux, Leon Blum and Pierre Mendes-France. His translator, Patrick O'Brian, is the author of a biography of Pablo Picasso

What did Charles de Gaulle have in common with the man who had left France four years earlier (as war began), a half-clandestine traveler into the impossible, clinging to the raft of the vanquished, more an actor than a general, more illegal than heroic, more of a scandal than a prophet?

From failure to rejection, condemned by Vichy, made game of by the eminent, reviled by his equals, denied by Roosevelt, disowned by Churchill, he had survived and increased in size; he had mastered fate. And now, shaped for four years on end by the most dangerous "surge of history" ever faced by a man sailing the high seas in a cockleshell, here he was, turned into himself at last by the trial.

We know that he had never doubted that he would be at the head of "French affairs." At first he had surprised people: that mythical name coming from the remotest ages, that voice, now strident and now deep, that came with its horn and trumpet tones from the other side of the sea, making its way through fogs and jamming. Then he had moved, a pathetic watchman who, not content with standing upright, sent true reasons for hope through the darkness.

He had also angered some with his conscientious presumption and his denial of an obvious collective collapse that went much farther and deeper than the humiliations of field-gray uniforms on the Champs-Elysees. And lastly he had convinced them, when he, the emigre, had obtained an undeniable vote from the fighting-men inside the country.

And here he was at last, marching toward his consecration through a landscape of ruins and barbed wire, in a confused noise made up of shrieks from torture-chambers and the song of the resistants, the uncompromising bearer of a hieratic legitimacy.

The Republic could not wait to be proclaimed by his voice--even though it might fear being stifled under his weight. All he had to do was to appear, spread his prodigious antennae and speak with his vibrant, crusade-preaching voice for Coutances, Rennes, Chartres and Paris.

In the first place, it was the giant who struck the people's imagination. This height of rather more than six feet, four inches stalking above the ordinary motions of his contemporaries attracted the attention of the most indifferent. Curious windmill motions, surprising jerks, strange lurches.

"An odd-looking fellow" is a usual description of someone out of the ordinary. No words could suit him better. Merely by walking into a room, merely by standing, high above the crowd, his arms like Maypole ribbons, he was continually making people stare. If only the ground were suitable, as it was near Montcornet in May, 1940, for example, he saw fit to increase his height by standing on some knob, bank or mound, thus adding more layers of air between the eyes of those addressing him and his own. Thunderbolts ought to come from on high.

Then his face. Whether or not it was crowned by that kepi in the shape of an imperfect tube that the French army inflicts upon its higher ranks, it was rich in unlikely planes and above all in a nose whose Bourbonian proportions seemed all the greater for being directed at his opponent like a gun-barrel, a nose so large that it took away from the chin's asperity and made the beholder forget the forehead bordered with brown locks that seemed to have been plastered flat by some imaginary rain.

Did this unusual body distress him? He paid no attention to it, feeling neither heat nor cold and being very insensitive to pain--pain arising from wounds between 1914 and 1916 but not from illness, which he was almost always spared.

He did not mind bad weather. He had a good appetite; he ate fast, drank moderately and could do without food for long periods.

This great frame in which he housed his great dream did not inconvenience him. Indeed, he thought it had certain advantages: It turned him into a semaphore, giving his gestures such as the V formed by his arms, a superhuman dimension.

He was a soldier. Up until the period we have reached, August, 1944, he was in no hurry to take off his uniform, even when it was a question of charming foreign political leaders or statesmen, and he wore mufti only with his family. He took pleasure in the straps, accouterments, sword-belts, boots and leggings--everything that irks an ordinary man. It was in vain that he despised his colleagues: He found it hard to suppress the reflexes of his caste, he loved going back to the staff-officer's style, drafting communiques, using the barracks vocabulary.

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