Général de Gaulle encore une fois:
a matter of price?
IN 1995 Biblionews carried my short survey of the published works of General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), the London refugee French general who foresaw the 1940 French military debacle and who declined to succumb to it.1 Within twenty years of his heroic wartime role as leader of the Free French he became the architect of the Fifth and still continuing French Republic and its first President. In the previous year I had issued my Terre de France à La Perouse?, a history of the myth of sovereign French soil at La Perouse on the north headland of Sydney’s Botany Bay.2 This study was dedicated to the memory of de Gaulle as “soldier and statesman, a nemesis for Colonel Blimps in the first avocation and the scourge of party political nonentities in the second”. In his time “the most illustrious of Frenchman”.3
That same year a woman librarian friend went in the fiftieth anniversary year of the D-Day landings to Normandy en vacances. From Bayeux she brought back two de Gaulle items for me.
The first of these items was the brochure chronology of the general’s life and extraordinary career issued by the town of Bayeux in association with an exhibition entitled Charles de Gaulle: un homme, un destin [C. d. G.: a man, a destiny], which was mounted to commemorate the 1944 liberation of the town.4 The second item was a keyring with a penchant medallion, which I still use. The obverse features a left-facing head and shoulders profile of de Gaulle with képi in relief surmounted by “Général de Gaulle 18 Juin 1940”, the date of the first and little heard BBC broadcast urging continued military resistance to the German conquest of France. Its peroration by this then obscure brigadier general defying the defeatist French grands chefs called on all French officers and men, engineers and skilled workers from the armaments
factories then on British soil to join him. This began: “Moi, Général de Gaulle” [I, G. de G.].5 The medallion’s reverse quotes the statement that subsequently appeared on Free French recruiting posters in London. Translated it is: “France has lost a battle. France has not lost the war.”
The projection of de Gaulle’s indomitable personality was an essential and indelible aspect of the Free French movement well beyond the 1944 liberation of France. A French historian writing beyond the de Gaulle era epitomised the combative general’s wartime role: “[…] de Gaulle seemed to be perpetually waging a public war against Vichy and the Germans, and a private war against the British Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the War Office, the Intelligence Service, the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister, the State Department and the President of the United States.”6 In all instances he had some conspicuous successes, notwithstanding the intermittent fury of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the light-minded distrust of President Franklin D Roosevelt. Anecdotes of his unfailingly forceful demeanour abound.
In 1975 I came to know a World War II RAAF veteran who had witnessed a de Gaulle visit in North Africa. He related how a frivolous Australian pilot in a Spitfire had swept over the official party not much above head level. British and French officers hit the ground, with the exception of the tall de Gaulle, who remained erect and unflinching. My informant also mentioned that some Australian soldiers had plotted kidnapping the General’s képi. Mature consideration of de Gaulle’s volcanic and voluble temper deterred them from the prank.
From the foregoing preamble it might be presumed that I have a considerable collection of books by and about de Gaulle. But before moving to rural Victoria in July 2007, I reluctantly, but ruthlessly, reduced my books to a residue that could be consigned interstate by post in four standard archive boxes. Private papers filled a further dozen or so. I retained but one book by de Gaulle and three about him, to which I have since added a 50¢ opportunity shop copy of Alexander Werth’s 1965
De Gaulle: a political biography in the Pelican series Political leaders of the twentieth century.7 The remaining book by de Gaulle is his The edge of the sword, published by Faber in 1960. The title page verso erroneously notes the publication date of its original French title, Le Fil de l’épée, as 1944, which is corrected to 1932 on an erratum slip beneath.8
This book examines the position of the French Army and its future prospects within the structure of the French state fourteen years after the end of the First World War, in which, from the outset, the army had been so terribly mauled. In 1932 it was fairly obviously aimed at the strategic complacency and Maginot Line mentality of the French military hierarchy.
Leadership was the writer’s main preoccupation, which he treats in separate chapters headed ‘Of character’, ‘Of prestige’. ‘Of doctrine’ and ‘Of politics and the soldier’.
Including the prelims the book is only 118 pages in length, less than 2cm in thickness and otherwise measures 22x15cm. Its medium blue cloth and gold-lettered spine title on a white ground in no way physically distinguishes it from many other Faber titles published in the 1960s.
I bought a new copy of this book in the mid-1960s. Foolishly I loaned it to a French teacher colleague in 1969, and she lost it. Over twenty years later I found my present secondhand copy for $3 in Duell’s Pre-loved Books, a book exchange on Liverpool Road in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield that has now, sadly, been defunct for several years.
This copy has its red and blue dustwrapper, but unfortunately reinforced with sticky tape at the head and tail of the spine, which has had a slightly deleterious effect on the publisher’s name in the latter position. On the front free endpaper, the back paste-down and the title page above the imprint is the small oval stamp of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, overstamped “ Withdrawn from Herald Library John Fairfax & Sons Ltd.”.
In other words, it is a lightly processed ex-library copy with its Dewey classification number in pencil (355.13 GAUL) at the head of the back paste-down. There is also an uncancelled Herald stamp at the bottom of the margin of p.101.
I had not thought this to be a book of any significant commercial value until I idly checked it on abebooks.com (110 million books for 13,500 booksellers). On April 14th this year I was startled to discover five copies of this first UK edition listed by three American and two British booksellers at prices ranging from US$89.88 to US$2,100.86, the cheapest held by a Californian bookseller and the most expensive by one in Hertfordshire UK. According to their descriptions both copies are ex-library, the most expensive with “some stamps and wear”. Neither was described with a
Another Californian bookseller had a copy with dustwrapper at US$599.95 and, at that same price, two copies of the first American edition published by Criterion, also in 1960 and hitherto unknown to me. All three copies were described with dustwrappers (or “dust jacket” to be exact). Although booksellers’ descriptions of their wares in abebooks.com entries is minimal, I must strongly suspect that my copy of the Faber UK edition is in a physical condition at least as good as, and possibly superior
to, both the least and most expensive copies listed. The same may be suspected for another copy held by a Norwich bookseller at US$91.29 and one listed by a Maryland bookseller at US$385; neither was described with a dustwrapper. Curiously, no copy is listed by any bookseller at a price between these two prices.
Although I have no idea of the number of copies printed in either the UK Faber edition or the American Criterion edition, neither must have survived in large numbers. Scarcity seems to be the most obvious reason for the high prices beginning at US$89.88 on abebooks.com. The high prices for a physically slight book with a jump from under US$100 to almost US$400, then to about US$600 and finally to over US$2,000 for an ex-library copy strongly suggest wanton speculation on numerical scarcity according to the notorious rubric: “whatever the market will bear”.
I would happily sell my lightly processed ex-library copy to a de Gaulle enthusiast for, shall I say, Aus$1,800 or Aus$1,000 or Aus$500 or even Aus$100 and devote the sum realised to bibliophilic acquisitions. However, I do not anticipate any perfervid collector offering even the lowest amount.
1 F Carleton, ‘Literary remains of the lone French general’, Biblionews 20(4) (March 1995), 17–22.
2 F Carleton, Terre de France à La Perouse?: a study of the historical foundations of
a local myth 1788–1950. With an Index of French warships. Kensington NSW: The
3 René Coty, last President of the Fourth Republic quoted after De Gaulle: anachronism, realist or prophet?, ed. by F Roy Willis (New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1967), p.6.
4 Charles de Gaulle: un homme, un destin. Exposition proposée par la Ville de Bayeux, conçue et réalisée par Christian Debril, (4)p.
5 The full text in English translation is quoted in François Kersaudy,
Churchill and de Gaulle (London: Fontana, 1990), p.80 (note).
6 Kersaudy, op. cit., p.186.
7 Alexander Werth, De Gaulle: a political biography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965) (= Pelican A793).
8 Charles de Gaulle, The edge of the sword. Transl. from the French by Gerard Hopkins (London: Faber & Faber, 1960).