“De Gaulle,” by Julian Jackson
2021 in Review
New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.
This superb biography of the former French leader brilliantly explores how he managed to dominate his country’s political life for decades. Jackson’s account of De Gaulle’s youth and conservative milieu only enhances one’s respect for De Gaulle’s stand, in 1940, against the Vichy government, and his account of De Gaulle’s war years in London makes clear why Churchill and Roosevelt found him almost impossible to deal with. The second half of the book—which deals with De Gaulle’s return to power during the conflict in Algeria, and his somewhat autocratic presidency—is even more compelling; together the two halves form as good an argument as one can make for believing that a single individual can alter the course of history. But Jackson, with sublime prose and a sure grasp of the politics and personalities of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics, never allows that argument to overshadow De Gaulle’s extremely difficult and domineering personality, and why it never entirely fit the democracy he helped rescue and then presided over. —Isaac Chotiner
“Segu: A Novel,” by Maryse Condé
In a year that began with an attempted coup, it was good to remember that zealotry and factionalism have menaced every society—and often make for excellent storytelling, too. Maryse Condé’s 1984 novel “Segu” opens in the ruthlessly competitive capital of the eighteenth-century Bambara Empire, in present-day Mali, where the ruling mansa uneasily monitors the rise of Islam and the mysterious arrival of white explorers. Griots sing the exploits of a noble family, the Traores, whose sons are destined to suffer every consequence of modernity’s upheavals. Condé, who was born in Guadeloupe but spent years in West Africa, is the great novelist of the Afro-Atlantic world, and “Segu,” her masterpiece, is the mother of diaspora epics. The novel follows the Traores as they are scattered across the globe, from Moroccan universities to Brazilian sugarcane fields, pulled every which way by their ambitions, lusts, and religious yearnings. Condé excels at evoking the tensions of a world in flux, whether it’s the ambivalence of a man torn between his family gods and Islam’s cosmopolitanism or the cynicism of a wealthy mixed woman who sells slaves on the coast of Senegal. Despite its magisterial scope, “Segu” is also warm and gossipy, and completely devoid of the sentimental attachment to heritage that turns too many family sagas into ancestral stations of the cross. Condé has a wicked sense of humor that doesn’t play favorites, especially with her mostly male protagonists, whose naïve adventurism and absent-minded cruelty (especially toward women) …….