You may have heard French novelist Théophile Gautier’s phrase, “The French lack the sense of the epic.”
Unfortunately, the saying remains accurate nearly two centuries later.
Indeed, it applies beyond France, from one end to the other of a discouraged Europe overtaken by nihilism, where even the idea of envisioning or imagining something a little greater for mankind has become unintelligible and absurd.
Which is why I am always inclined to view with a favorable eye books that reveal an attachment to the old-fashioned virtues of heroism, greatness, and a will to go beyond what was thought possible, despite the generalized disenchantment and cynicism that are the hallmarks of our age.
One such book is La Nostalgie de l’honneur, to be released in France on September 6. In it, journalist and columnist Jean-René Van der Plaetsen looks back on his grandfather, General Jean Crépin, one of the brightest (but until now poorly documented) figures of the epic of Free France.
The story begins in Manoka, Cameroon, where, on the morning of August 20, 1940, an artillery captain in the French colonial army, gripped by one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions on which great destinies are sometimes built, decides to follow an unknown general, Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque.
It continues with the adventures of a handful of “mystical bums” who, like himself, bet their lives on the crazy dream of liberating Paris, of hoisting the French flag over Strasbourg cathedral, and of ridding Europe of Nazism.
That mission accomplished, the story follows the heroes into a complicated Indochina redolent of the novels of Graham Greene and French novelist Lucien Bodard.
And then into the quagmire of the Algerian war, where some of the band will lose their way, even while continuing to believe themselves faithful, literally, to the oath they took in the summer of 1940.
And finally into old age: Splendidly gray, proud of their military feats but strangely sad, recognizing one another, Van der Plaetsen tells us, by the fixed star they bear on their forehead like a seal visible only to those who have seen and done what they have seen and done—these are taciturn men with the overwhelming modesty that is the mark of the truly great; reticent men, hesitant to impart lessons of courage and nobility, which must be pulled out of them, as here, by stubborn grandchildren.
Some may find some aspects of this story overly martial.
Some may be startled to read that, in the eyes of the author, there is no “calling more noble than that of the soldier.”
And perhaps they may detect, here and there, an echo of the “prodigious atmosphere of youthful friendship” typical of nostalgic war writing in the mold of Philippe Barrès’s La Guerre à vingt ans (War at Age 20) or Henry de Montherlant’s La Relève du matin (Morning Watch), both published at the beginning of the twentieth century.
But they would be wrong to leave their assessment there.
Because the essence of the book lies in its portrait of the generation of justly named Free French who make up the loftiest, most chivalrous, and most romantic of French orders of merit.
It lies in its description of that brotherhood’s ties of suzerainty to General de Gaulle, who emerged suddenly from the ranks in an ascent that can be compared only to Napoleon’s rise over his own peers.
I admire the author’s way of bringing alive the conversions of philosophy professor André Zirnheld, of mountain infantryman Tom Morel, and of an obscure Georgian prince, and others—all transformed, by the grace of their heroism, into the stuff of legends. Plaetsen’s feat reminds me of Roland Dorgelès’s observation in Wooden Crosses (1919) that, were it not for war, Joan of Arc would have died a shepherdess and 1789 hero Louis-Lazare Hoche a stable boy.
Because that is all true, and because it echoes a truly great novel of war from the 1920s, Jean Schlumberger’s Camarade infidèle (Unfaithful Comrade), I admire Van der Plaetsen’s conclusion that his characters “tasted something so layered and so strong” that everything against which they later had to measure themselves seemed either bland or bitter.
And I must say that these pages contain scenes of great beauty: the entrance of undaunted De Gaulle, accompanied by generals Koenig and Leclerc, into the nave of Notre Dame under fire from the last collaborationist militiamen; the funeral of Leclerc, two years later, with a tank carrying his coffin and with the hero of the book, by request of his peers, stock still at attention at the right of the tank, to offer last military honors to the departed hero; or, forty years later, the encounter between the junior general, now a very respectable bourgeois gentleman, with a column of union demonstrators who jostle and manhandle him until Crépin, pulling himself up to his former height, raising his voice slightly, and brandishing his cane as years ago he would have done a sword, holds his ground until the marchers back away and allow him to pass, dumbstruck by the unassailable, almost magical authority that he still exudes.
I, too, am a son of Free France.
Like the author, I was raised to respect the exceptional adventure that was early Gaullism.
And, like him, I have never been able to read without a shiver the commendation my father received on July 19, 1944, after the battle of Monte Cassino, from another of the book’s character’s, General Diego Brosset: “André Lévy, always willing day or night whatever the mission, performed evacuations under mortar fire with complete disregard for his personal safety, returning several times to the lines to recover the wounded under intense enemy fire ...”
Which is to say that in paying tribute here to Van der Plaetsen’s Nostalgie de l’honneur, in saluting his noble act of devotion, reparation, and preservation of memory, I know what I am talking about—and have weighed my words.
Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy