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Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Back in 2020, the lockdown provided the impetus for me to finally read historian Julian Jackson’s massive and critically acclaimed biography of Charles de Gaulle, the wartime Free French leader and postwar statesman. I’ve spent much of my life despising de Gaulle, whom I’ve long considered a reactionary and rebarbative wannabe dictator. But Jackson’s biography shows him to be a complex and intelligent man, whose love of his country was aimed at a France of the spirit rather than the flesh. This tome also makes clear that Jackson is a master of the sources and the country—and even more, of English prose. Along with Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Oppenheimer bio American Prometheus, it is the best biography I’ve ever read.

Jackson’s new book deals with a subject that intersects very much with the story of de Gaulle. France on Trial is a thorough, brilliant account of the 1945 trial of Marshal Philippe Pétain, chief of the French state based in Vichy that collaborated with the Germans between 1940 and 1944 after the French defeat and fall of the Third Republic, who was accused of treason and collusion with the enemy. Pétain signed the armistice with Germany that put an end to the French military effort and set up and led the Vichy government, and was the personification of what he called the “National Revolution,” which replaced the motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” with “work, family, fatherland.” The question debated at his trial, which unfolded over three weeks in a stifling courtroom in the heart of Paris, was whether these actions constituted treason or, as Pétain claimed, served as a way to protect the French people against the worst Nazi crimes. Ultimately, Pétain was found guilty and sentenced to death before his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he died in 1951.

France on Trial is not popular history, but it is history aimed at a broad public. Jackson eschews academic jargon as he shrewdly addresses all the primary and subsidiary matters the trial raised: questions of the nature of historical fact and interpretation, of the relative weights of legality and legitimacy, of the possibility of impartiality in controversial legal matters, and of the persistence of historical memory into the present. He deftly paints the myriad characters—resistors and collaborators, Gaullists and Pétainists and Communists—without hiding his deeply informed opinions of them and their stances. As he examines all the trial’s intricacies, Jackson never loses his narrative thread and keeps even the most abstruse matters clear and comprehensible.

Throughout the book, Jackson also carefully considers the relationship between the trial and France as it exists nearly 80 years later. He points out the disproportionate weight given to Pétain’s various crimes: The oppression of France’s Jews played only a minor role in the proceedings, while the persecution of Resistance fighters was highlighted. In the decades since, the romance of the Resistance has faded, while interest in the Vichy government’s crimes against the Jews—and Pétain’s role in them—has grown. Jackson thoughtfully explores this shift in French attitudes toward their own history.

Sadly, Pétain still looms over French politics, most notably in the far-right (and Jewish) political figure Éric Zemmour’s defense of his record. Philippe Pétain is part of a past that won’t pass, and France on Trial is an unequaled guide to the man, his time, and his place in history.

Mari Cohen (associate editor): When Alejandro Zambra’s funny and touching novel Chilean Poet debuted in English in 2022—translated by Megan McDowell—many critics focused on how the story of a Chilean poet/professor named Gonzalo, his onetime-stepson Vicente, and adrift American journalist Pru aptly symbolizes Chile’s struggle to negotiate its national identity in the shadow of history. I found these interventions helpful; yet for me, the novel’s heart lay in the delicate relationship between Gonzalo and Vicente, such that I read the story’s central question in reverse: less concerned with what their relationship might mean for the future of Chile and its literature than about what Chilean literature might mean for the connection between the poet and his stepson. While the long string of Chilean poets that Pru interviews come off as caricatures (if vibrant, amusing ones), Gonzalo and Vicente are depicted with painstaking particularity. In one of the novel’s most beautiful sequences, the narrator describes the rhythms of daily life for Gonzalo, Vicente, and Vicente’s mom Carla: “They always bought powdered cinnamon and garlic and merquén. They usually had heartburn. They usually had hopes and misgivings.” The poetics of language can both help and hurt Gonzalo and Vicente’s attempts to reach each other: In the latter case, Gonzalo struggles to adapt to the Spanish word for stepfather (“padrastro”) given how it can be literally translated as “bad father.” Yet once Gonzalo and Carla have separated, poetry serves as the magnet to pull Gonzalo and Vicente back together after a long period of estrangement. Vicente has taken after Gonzalo to become a burgeoning poet, and the two rattle off the names of the poets they’ve read: “They bring up names, which is the favorite or perhaps obligatory sport of poets, and it’s fun, but above all it allows them to talk a lot while saying practically nothing.” Can poetry—like sports or television might do for other men—provide the scaffolding that holds a relation together? Even in a novel titled Chilean Poet, most of the original poetry in the narrative is explicitly, self-consciously bad—including a hilarious series of anguished haikus that Gonzalo writes after his first breakup with Carla. If, as the novel humorously posits, poetry is the national sport of Chile, Zambra seems most interested in not the World Cup final but in families kicking the ball around in the backyard—in how, even when emotion runs roughshod over craft, poetry can supply the language for two idiosyncratic individuals to speak to each other.

Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): In a week when Israel has massacred starving Palestinians and flattened a corpse with a tank, and an American airman self-immolated in protest of the genocide in Gaza, it has felt more than ever like language is failing to capture, let alone move, our world. As I found myself despairing over the power of words, I was heartened to read Aria Aber’s interview with poet Fady Joudah on his new collection, […], in The Yale Review, in which Aber and Joudah discuss the role of language in the face of catastrophe.

While the topics of the conversation range from bookmaking to mysticism, I was most struck by Joudah’s insistence on bringing eros into his poetry alongside the horrors, even as—and perhaps because—the world is collapsing around him. “In these poems of longing, I reclaim my body from the culture that wants to hear and read me only as a voice in the aftermath of disaster and as a wound at that, not much more,” he tells Aber. By evoking the vivid immediacy of human passions and fragilities (Aber quotes a speaker’s yearning to “lick . . . ears against revenge”), his poetry wrestles language away from the same colonial expectations that make genocide possible in the first place. “Eros is a marker of life,” Joudah says, “against alienation, against death as a tool that imposes subordination.” Bringing desire and beauty into the frame when the world has turned into a morgue—against the perception that Palestinians exist only as “a repository of wounds”—can help turn poetry into a “language of life,” even if only in hindsight. “I often think that the responsibility of the poet,” Joudah reflects, “is to strive to become the memory that people may possess in the future about what it means to be human.”