Douglas Johnson

Douglas Johnson is Emeritus Professor of French History at University College London and a senior member of the Franco-British Council.

Too Much Gide: French writers (1940-53)

Douglas Johnson, 15 November 2001

The historians who have argued that the continuities of French history count for more than its ruptures and revolutions have tended to avoid examining the disastrous year of 1940, when the Third Republic came to a bad end and the German Occupation began. These four books suggest that even this cataclysm can be fitted into the pattern of continuity.

In her long and detailed examination of the...

From 1830, when it was conquered, until 1962, when the Evian Agreements made it into an independent state, Algeria was said to be French. Since 1962, because of French investment there, and government loans, as well as the presence on French soil of large numbers of Algerians, France and Algeria have continued to form a strange but inseparable duality. Lionel Jospin, sending his good wishes to Abdelaziz Bouteflika, after his election to the Algerian Presidency on 15 April, spoke of the intimate knowledge that each country had of the other, and said that relations with Algeria were fundamental for France.

Counting their rosaries

Douglas Johnson, 14 May 1992

Just after 8 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 24 May 1989, a special unit of gendarmes entered the priory of Saint François at Nice in search of a certain Paul Touvier, who was living there under the name of Paul Lacroix. An arrest was made and within half an hour Touvier was on his way to Fresnes prison in Paris. He was eventually installed in its hospital. The gendarmes had been searching monasteries in Northern and Central France on the two preceding days and, worried lest their man should get away, had travelled through the night. They were right to be worried: the object of their search, then a man of 74, had been on the run for some forty-five years. The facts were simple enough. Touvier came from a very Catholic, right-wing family in Chambéry in Savoy. He had been discharged from the Army and, on its formation by the Vichy Government in 1943, joined the Milice – a paramilitary force charged with maintaining order, putting down the Resistance and persecuting the Jews. It took over these duties from the regular French Police, whose resolve was supposedly flagging, and from the too easily outwitted Germans. Touvier rapidly reached a position of some administrative authority in the organisation and was allegedly prominent in a number of well-known cases involving the murder and deportation of Jews and Resistance fighters in the Lyons region. When the Liberation came, his name was included on the list of those who were to be brought to justice, but he always got away – even when he was arrested in Paris he succeeded, mysteriously, in walking out of the police headquarters in the Rue des Saussaies.

He knows a little place

Douglas Johnson, 13 February 1992

The contents of this vulgar and irritating book – can the author have deliberately set out to be irritating? – are totally predictable. It is, however, unexpected that we have to wait until page 166 before encountering a familiar example of what some consider to be admirable behaviour. A man leaves a restaurant, naturally a grand and expensive establishment, after paying his bill. The mâitre d’hotel follows him and asks if he has not forgotten something. The diner, heroic in his conviction that the mâitre d’hotel has not done his duty by him, produces a ten-pound note. ‘This was for you,’ he says. But, instead of handing it over, he produces his cigarette lighter and burns the note in the face of the mâitre d’hotel, bids him good evening and goes on his way.’

A Waistcoat soaked in Tears

Douglas Johnson, 27 June 1991

About Rousseau, as about Romanticism, it is tempting to use the word ‘disorderly’. Maurice Cranston showed us in the first volume of this, the most masterly of biographies how he had spent his early life as a wanderer and adventurer, he had been an itinerant tutor, a humble music-copier, an ambitious composer; the lover of a Swiss countess and the secretary to a diplomat; he had become a fashionable writer with an obsession about preserving his independence; he was an uneasy Catholic who needed a religion and who thought that he had found it in Protestantism; he was someone who discovered that his waistcoat was soaked in tears but who had not been aware that he had been weeping.


Douglas Johnson, 25 April 1991

During those days when the war in Western Europe had not yet got under way, so that it was called ‘the phoney war’, the drôle de guerre or the twilight war, an English journalist, with Labour sympathies, visited a number of French factories. He subsequently called on the minister responsible for industrial production, and posed the question of whether or not French workers were being obliged to work unjustifiably long hours. The minister replied: ‘If only there were a few more British soldiers in France, we could send more of our men back to the factories and the work load could be reduced.’

Who’s best?

Douglas Johnson, 27 September 1990

During the academic year 1982-83 Alain Besançon, a French specialist on Soviet affairs, became a visiting professor at the Hoover Institute in Stanford. He arranged with his Parisian colleague, Jean Plumyene, that they would write regularly to each other and that their correspondence would be published. The interest of this exchange of letters between French academics, the one in California and the other in Paris, lies in Besançon’s reactions to America. At first he finds it unreal. He feels as if he is enclosed in a bluebird paradise under a protective film of celluloid. It is an effort for him to enquire about what is happening in Paris. But he is disconcerted by what he experiences. No one in Stanford has the slightest interest in France, or in Europe. He watches old American films on television and reflects that nothing has changed since they were made. He has unfortunate experiences with young Americans who are not slow to abandon their initial good manners, who become aggressive in a way which he thinks of as adolescent, and display tastes that he deplores, for women’s lib or biogymnastics.

En famille

Douglas Johnson, 16 August 1990

When one thinks of crime in France, one remembers those who are considered to be the great criminals, those who have met the guillotine, which has been called Le Goncourt des assassins. There is the infamous Landru. There is the anarchist Jules Bonnot and his gang, who cried Vive la mort when they were encircled by the Police. Eugène Weidemant, who used to shoot his victims in the back of the neck and then rob them of ludicrously small sums of money: his was the last public execution in France, in June 1939, due to the shock caused by his admirers, who had soaked their handkerchiefs in his blood and kept them proudly. Dr Pétiot, a former mayor of his commune, who wore a neat bow-tie and who despatched some thirty bodies from his cosy den in the Rue Le Sueur. Pierre Loutrel, known as Pierrot le Fou, who was liable to shoot at anybody and who eventually shot himself. These were the stars who strutted on the boulevards of crime. But, perhaps more typical of France are the mysterious, enclosed, claustrophobic crimes which have distinguished many small provincial regions. There was the murder of Sir Jack Drummond and his family, at Lurs, in the Basses-Alpes, which revealed, as in a Giono novel, the unusual lives of the Dominici family, le clan Dominici. There were the activities of Marie Besnard, la bonne dame de Loudun, who fed arsenic to some thirteen relatives (but whose guilt was cast in doubt when it was discovered that one of the scientific witnesses at her trial suffered from acute myopia). A young working-class girl was murdered in Bruay-en-Artois, and the local notaire was arrested for the crime. When he was released, for lack of evidence, most French people believed in his guilt because they knew how grandees behaved in a place like Bruay-en-Artois. A certain Madame Weber, la diabolique de Nancy, is to stand trial for two murders and for falsifying a marriage.

History is always to hand

Douglas Johnson, 8 December 1988

In his novels, the late Gwyn Thomas used to refer to those who frequented the pubs and cafés of small Welsh towns as ‘the voters’. It would certainly be the way to describe the adult population of France who, last spring, voted twice to elect a President (on 24 April and 8 May) and twice to elect a Parliament (on 5 and 12 June). In September they voted in local elections, and in November the referendum on the future of New Caledonia took place. Many of them are now thinking about how they will vote in next year’s municipal and European elections, and some wiseacres point out that the Constitution would allow the President, if he so wished, to dissolve the present Assembly in May 1989 and start the whole round all over again. Readers of René Rémond’s history of France in the 20th century will find these cascades of elections less surprising. On 16 November 1919, there were parliamentary elections; on 30 November and 7 December, municipal elections; on 14 and 21 December, elections for the general councils. Thus the French voted on five Sundays out of six, and in the following January those who were entitled to vote by indirect election chose two-thirds of the Senate and a new President of the Republic. The high level of abstentions in those Assembly elections – around 30 per cent – ought to have prepared the experts at any rate for the similar abstention level of June 1988 and the very much higher level (around 63 per cent) in November.

May ’88

Douglas Johnson, 21 April 1988

In April 1984 President Mitterrand gave a press conference unlike any that had previously been held under the Fifth Republic. He did not sit at a sombre bureau Louis XV decorated with red, white and blue flowers. He was not playing the part of the professor from the Sorbonne, as de Gaulle had so often done, lecturing his audience on the history of France. Even less was he the informal, friendly, pullover-wearing head of state whom Giscard d’Estaing had once sought to be. The site was the gardens of the Elysée Palace. The President strode in, mounted a platform and stood at a lecturn, with the national flag flying behind him. He had ceased to be Monsieur le Président. He had become Mr President.

Touchez-pas à mon de Gaulle

Douglas Johnson, 19 February 1987

‘La France Libre,’ de Gaulle wrote to Jean Marin, who’d been his companion in London from the summer of 1940 and was now the Director of the Agence France-Presse, ‘that was the finest thing we ever did.’ He believed this. Many of his closest associates believed it too. But as the leader of la France Libre (and la France Combattante), de Gaulle was hardly a free man. Dependent on British money, controlled in his utterances by the Foreign Office and the BBC, at the mercy of a hundred intrigues and rumours, watched by the critical and grudgingly admiring Churchill and by the hostile and non-comprehending Roosevelt, de Gaulle was forced to fight battles which were not of his choosing and usually far removed from his own more grandiose preoccupations. The man who defined his objectives by consulting the globe rather than a mere atlas was too often reduced to scrutinising an agenda that had been prepared by British civil servants. It was only in 1958 when he was elected President of the new Fifth Republic that he was able to exercise a power and to enjoy a prestige that were free both from the supervisions of foreign governments and the constraining confusions of the Liberation. It is true that he continued to see his legitimacy as deriving as much from the achievements of June 1940, when he carried with him to London both the sovereignty and the honour of France, as from the vote of 21 December 1958 when a restricted electorate chose him as President. It is true, too, that when he took up residence in the Elysée Palace in January 1959 (he would have preferred Vincennes, Versailles or the Invalides, anywhere on the Left Bank, because, he said, ‘you don’t make history in the eighth arrondissement’), he brought with him those who had been his companions in London or who had followed him in the unsuccessful adventure of the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, men such as Geoffroy de Courcel, Pierre Lefranc, Jacques Foccart or François Flohic. The Fifth Republic was not to be a resuscitation of the headquarters of Carlton Gardens or the Rue de Solférino, however. De Gaulle surrounded himself with what were for him new men, some of them products of the recently-created Ecole Nationale d’ Administration. In spite of a pessimism that was both innate and a natural reflection of the fact that he was now 68 (‘I’m ten years too old,’ he used to say and he was constantly haunted by the spectre of the senile Pétain), he created the machinery for a new and lasting type of Presidency. He established the role of the President under the new constitution and he indicated the part that France would play in Europe and the rest of the world. It is these impressive and significant years which Jean Lacouture now describes.

The General vanishes

Douglas Johnson, 18 September 1986

An interesting moment has been reached in de Gaulle studies. That the traditional approach has by no means been exhausted is shown by the biography by Don Cook, a journalist on the Los Angeles Times. It is still possible, and some would say still desirable, to write about the General using the same evidence and the same anecdotes that have already been used by scores of other writers. As the music-hall comedian said to his partner who was complaining about their act, ‘it was good enough for my mother and father and it’s good enough for you.’ But with the research organised by such bodies as the Institut Charles-de-Gaulle and the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent bringing together those who knew and who worked with the General and historians with an interest in establishing their own analyses and narratives, we are able to proceed to new assessments both of de Gaulle himself and of those long periods of history with which he was associated. New documents and témoignages have become available, and we are now in a position to look more sceptically at sources, such as the General’s own memoirs, which earlier had demanded almost uncritical acceptance.

Homage to Spain

Douglas Johnson, 22 May 1986

Revolutions have frequently been analysed and categorised. Wars, and the art of war, have been carefully studied. But the category of civil wars has been neglected. Perhaps this is because they are difficult to recognise or to define. Should we continue to write about guerres franco-françaises, arising from the Paris Commune, the Resistance movements, or the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète formed by Algerian settlers, or should we think of them as civil wars? Often there is a reluctance to admit to the existence of civil wars as anything other than an accident or temporary aberration: many English historians have liked to play down the importance of the English Civil War and tell anecdotes about the way in which the two sides paused at the moment of battle so that a hunting party could pass between them, or, more philosophically, to ask whether the Civil War had any effect on English history at all. Civil wars can be dismissed as the terrorist activities of small groups of individuals whose aggressive intolerance or violent insistence upon their own identities causes them to reject, for as long as they can, the society that envelops them. Since the antagonists in civil wars invariably appeal to foreigners to come and assist them, the story of civil wars becomes embroiled in questions of invasion and of international relations, thus creating the sort of complexities which make historians impatient.

Come back, Inspector Wexford

Douglas Johnson, 7 March 1985

We still have a Queen of Crime. For nearly twenty years Ruth Rendell has been hailed as the successor to Sayers, Christie, Marsh and Allingham, perpetuating the old question of why it is that there should be a particularly feminine talent for detective fiction. Her Chief Inspector, Wexford by name, has joined the ranks of legendary police heroes, and although he is Sussex-based he can occasionally, via a nephew, call upon the resources of Scotland Yard. He has become such a real character that there have been women readers who would, apparently, have liked to marry him, whilst some of their male counterparts have been eager to identify with a character whose successes are due to the patient intelligence that compensates for growing old.

Simone de Sartre

Douglas Johnson, 7 June 1984

Has anyone ever written a satirical account of the first meeting between Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre? In an age when victims long to be mocked, in a country where satire is an essential part of the cultural heritage, and with two principals who have together inspired much controversy and aroused much dislike, the apparent absence of ridicule must be significant. There is, in fact, an appealing dignity about the way in which these two lives became linked together. It was in July 1929 that René Maheu, later to become a tempestuous director of Unesco, introduced Simone de Beauvoir to Sartre at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. They were both preparing for the oral part of the competitive examination in philosophy, the agrégation. They were both successful. Beauvoir, who had been given the sobriquet Castor (or Beaver) by Maheu, has claimed that when they went their separate ways that August, she knew that Sartre would always be a part of her life. In 1973, Sartre told an interviewer that he had never been so close to any woman as he had been to le Castor. After his death, seven years later, Beauvoir wrote in La Cérémonie des Adieux:

God’s Godfather

Douglas Johnson, 6 October 1983

On the evening of 15 June 1982 Roberto Calvi landed in a private plane at Gat-wick airport and using a false passport proceeded to London. At the time he was one of the most sought-after men in Europe, and at the centre of a considerable financial scandal. The Ambrosiano Bank, of which he was director, was in the process of collapsing and there was talk of gigantic sums of money, thousands of millions of dollars’ worth, having vanished into thin air. And this was not all. Scandals surrounding banks are common enough in Italy, but this promised to be something big even by Italian standards. Not only were many famous institutions and individuals implicated: it was certain that the Vatican was involved. Via the Instituto per le Opere di Religione, and through a host of surrogate companies and banks, Calvi had lent large sums to the Papacy. He was no ordinary banker. He was God’s banker.

Knucklehead Truman

Douglas Johnson, 2 June 1983

Westward look the land is mediocre: eastward look the land is sombre. Those who are between can only find this dispiriting. But whereas for Western Europeans the dismal spectacle of the Soviet élite has assumed a mysterious inevitability, the second-rate quality of American government remains surprising and is all the more irritating for that reason. Who can accept that the richest of all nations should be governed by such unimpressive men? Who can understand how successive Presidents of the United States, supposedly the most powerful men in the world, should be uniformly second-rate?

A Flat in Neuilly

Douglas Johnson, 3 February 1983

In 1965 I spent several weeks working in the manuscript section of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, reading documents which were relevant to the Dreyfus Affair. After I had returned to England I received a letter, sent to my university address, which told me that if, in any forthcoming book on Dreyfus, I wished to avoid the mistakes which had been made by so many previous historians, I would be well advised to call on the author. I saw that the writer of the letter had the same name as that of an officer who had played some part in the Affair, and I assumed she was his granddaughter. But how had she known that I was writing a book about Dreyfus? She gave no explanation and her short and cryptic letter was intriguing. Naturally I replied, and after a short correspondence I arranged to go to Paris and to call on her in her flat in Neuilly. This I did, one wintry afternoon. She led me into a darkened room and invited me to sit down in a wicker chair which, she told me, had been sat in by General Billot (who had been Minister for War during a crucial period of the Dreyfus case). By sitting in it, she said, I would know that I was now fully immersed in the Affair.


Douglas Johnson, 15 July 1982

When Sherlock Holmes was seeking to elucidate the mystery of the Six Napoleons, he went on a ten-mile drive from Kensington to Stepney, and Dr Watson records that ‘in rapid succession we passed through the fringe of fashionable London, hotel London, theatrical London, literary London, commercial London and, finally, maritime London.’ One may be puzzled at this description and one might have wished that the good Doctor had been more precise in his definitions and delineations. Is it possible to note so exactly these different areas of London?

A Spot of Blackmail

Douglas Johnson, 1 July 1982

‘Hale knew, after he had been in Brighton for three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ The opening sentence of Graham Greene’s most famous novel runs, in menacing innuendo, through his pamphlet J’Accuse. He denounces the world of crime, injustice and corruption which constitutes ‘the dark side of Nice’, and he has let us know that, as he lives in the neighbourhood, at Antibes, he himself is now threatened by those whom he accuses. There have been mysterious phone-calls and an inexplicable burglary: he is said to carry a canister of gas with him in order to repel would-be assailants.


Douglas Johnson, 20 May 1982

On the morning of 16 April 1980, two well-known Oxford figures chanced to meet in the High. ‘Have you heard the good news?’ called out the one, the former head of a prestigious college. ‘Sartre is dead.’ The other, a well-known and distinguished man about French history, was delighted. According to his own account, the two of them then enacted a little dance or jig to express their pleasure. The occasion may be compared with Mrs Bessie Braddock’s notorious celebration in the newly-elected House of Commons of 1945, when she marked the absence of Winston Churchill from the government Front Bench with a few rhythmic steps.


Douglas Johnson, 4 February 1982

On Wednesday, 23 December 1981, four men were sent to prison for the murder, on 24 December 1976, of the Prince de Broglie. The trial, in the Paris assize court, ended with Gérard Frèche, the gunman, being given a ten-year term; Guy Simoné, a former policeman who was heavily involved in the conspiracy to kill, and Pierre de Varga, a self-proclaimed aristocrat of Hungarian origins who was allegedly the instigator of the whole affair, were also given ten years; Serge Tessèdre, who was accused of recruiting the gunman, received five years, and as he had already spent that time in prison, was almost immediately released. The trial had lasted more than six weeks; the jury of nine laymen and three magistrates had deliberated for five hours; the inquiry into the crime, which had of necessity been going on for several years, had resulted in some five thousand documents being assembled in the dossier. But no one was satisfied either with the trial or with the verdicts. All the commentators were agreed: although the court had summoned before it a former prime minister and all the leading ministers and officers of the police who had been involved in the case, the mountain had given birth to a mouse. The assassination remains a mystery.

Aux sports, citoyens

Douglas Johnson, 3 December 1981

Richard Holt begins his book on French sport with two misleading observations. In the one, he recalls that when, in the course of his research, a pile of books on football or on cycling arrived on his desk at the Bibliothèque Nationale, his neighbours were bemused by his reading material. How extraordinary that he never seems to have found himself sitting next to one of those readers who begins his day’s work with a careful perusal of L’Equipe or Paris-Turf. None of them would have found it strange that he was reading up the history of past sporting events. The other, more chilling observation seeks to assure us that, in spite of the beliefs of what he calls ‘Anglo-Saxon circles’, sport is as popular in France as it is ‘almost anywhere else’. My personal experience suggests that sport is more important nationally in France than it is in this country, and I would have thought that anyone writing about it would want to describe and analyse this phenomenon, rather than present an apology for his subject.

La Grande Sartreuse

Douglas Johnson, 15 October 1981

There will be many who will find it significant that Anne Whitmarsh, beginning a careful and detailed study of Simone de Beauvoir with a section called ‘Biographical Notes’, should make the first entry read, ‘1905 21 June: Jean-Paul Sartre born in Paris’, and the last: ‘1980: Death of Sartre’. There are those for whom Simone de Beauvoir is important only because of her association with Sartre. Her four volumes of autobiography are sometimes seen merely as useful source material for the life of Sartre. A film about her, shot in 1978, was said to show that, even in old age, she remained Sartre’s disciple as well as his companion, since in his presence she continued to behave like a good pupil, looking for approval, not allowing herself to smile at the jokes and replying to questions diligently and awkwardly. She has herself repeatedly emphasised that it was Sartre who was creative and original, who took the initiatives and who dominated the relationship. ‘I must talk about him,’ she once wrote, ‘in order to be able to talk about us.’ There are so many references to Sartre in this book that he does not even figure in the index.

Barchester Popes

Douglas Johnson, 16 July 1981

It has long been recognised that one of the saddest moments in the history of the Papacy was the death of Pius VI, on 28 August 1799. He died in captivity, in Avignon. This death seemed to illustrate how the Papacy, and the Catholic Church as a whole, had been brought low, reduced to a state which some thought to be one of complete ruin, humiliated both by the general movement of 18th-century thought and by the more spectacular shocks of the French Revolution. Voltaire, no friend to Popes, had praised the Pontiff Sixtus Quintus (who died in 1599). In L’Essai sur les Moeurs he had seen fit to quote those who had described this Pope as ‘le plus haut, le meilleur, le plus grand des pontifs, des princes et des sages’, and had gone on to apply to him his own criteria for the good ruler and the great prince.

Althusser’s Fate

Douglas Johnson, 16 April 1981

‘Is it easy to be a Marxist?’ Louis Althusser put this question to a crowded audience at the University of Picardy in 1975. Is it possible to be an Althusserian? The question has to be asked now. Althusserian Marxism has always been under threat, but since the tragic events of last November we are obliged to wonder whether the ruin of Althusser’s own life and career, as he faces a future necessarily bounded by the mental hospital, will also encompass the definitive destruction of his philosophical work. If so, Althusser’s story has a very real relevance to the history of the French Left.

The Silences of General de Gaulle

Douglas Johnson, 20 November 1980

We are battered and bruised by politics. We are bemused by an apparently unending series of elections. After the West Germans, Portuguese, Australians, Jamaicans and Americans, we await the French and the Israelis. And in a separate pigeonhole there is the British Labour Party and its choice of leader. For all that each one of these contests deserves a separate and distinct analysis, we are bludgeoned into accepting the same approach and the same treatment. Thus we have been told that Schmidt is centre left and that he needs to appear as if he were more to the right, while Giscard d’Estaing is centre right and seeks to appear as if he were centre left. Foot is too nice, so much so that he is the nicest prime minister we will never have, but Healey is not nice enough and his past bullying of the unions has lost him their enthusiasm if not their support. Foot is romantic, Healey pragmatic. Carter appealed because he was able to show how he had assumed all the complicated burdens of office, but Reagan appealed because he was able to show himself as a direct man who had the determination to dominate and solve problems. Carter is not at ease within himself; Reagan is a man who is at ease.

France’s Favourite Criminal

Douglas Johnson, 7 August 1980

The summer of 1979 was fine, so far as the French were concerned. In the great annual reshuffle of the social norms, which they have turned into a ritual with all the characteristics of a cult, the instant societies of the beach, the camping-site and the résidence secondaire were readily provided with the stockrooms from which conversations could be organised. There were three focal points. There was Spaggiari, who was the organiser and promoter of the casse du siècle, when he and his associates had profited from an earlier summer holiday to break into the vaults of a bank in Nice and rifle its secret strong-boxes. Several arrests had been made but the leader Spaggiari (known as ‘Bert’) had made a dramatic escape. More recently there was a certain Leroy, the trusted employee of a security company, who had suggested to his three fellow guards that he would spend the long summer’s night cleaning all their revolvers; once they were disarmed he had used his weapon to subdue them and disappeared with the large sum of money which they were supposedly protecting. And there was Mesrine, the murderer, kidnapper and bandit, Public Enemy Number One, whom the police could not hold, and whose exploits had demanded the attention of the French public for more than six years.

Second World War-Game

Douglas Johnson, 22 May 1980

It is the historians of military events and strategical planning who have all the fun. Whereas those who study the political or economic past are confined to a discussion and analysis of the facts, and are rapped on the knuckles if they speculate about what might have happened if the first Reform Bill had been defeated, or if they dream about all the possible governmental reactions to the economic crisis which started in 1929, the historians of war are positively encouraged to indulge in a counter-historical world of fantasy. If Napoleon had destroyed the Prussians at Longwy, as he should have done; if he had more carefully reconnoitred the ground at Waterloo, as he should have done; if he had been more explicit in his instructions to Grouchy, as he easily might … Such series of reflections are endless. Nothing is more delightful than to point to the shortcomings of some powerful figure from the past, and in no area is the historian on such firm ground as in battles and the planning of battles, because it is here that the mistakes are the most difficult to conceal and the missed opportunities most obvious.


Douglas Johnson, 7 February 1980

It would appear to be difficult to write a book about Napoleon without apologising for it. Alistair Horne talks about the three hundred thousand which have already been devoted to this one man, but Edward Whitcomb brings about a substantial (and welcome) reduction by referring only to some two hundred thousand. David Chandler explains that ever since he wrote his excellent book on the campaigns of Napoleon ten years ago, he has been inundated by requests for further information coming from the widest possible variety of people, all of whom are, as he puts it, ‘caught up by the awesome range of Napoleon’s attributes and talents’, while Simon Schwarzfuchs, in his more specialised study of Napoleon and the Jews, refers to a change in Napoleon’s reputation and to his recent loss of repute among historians.

Macédoine de Dumas

Douglas Johnson, 6 December 1979

Angela Thirkell once said that she had read as much of Dumas as anyone alive, but this was only about half of what he had written. It is said that Dumas himself lost count of the work he had written, which probably consisted of some one hundred and thirty novels (ranging from two to 11 volumes each), some sixty plays, twenty or thirty books of travel, memoirs and numberless newspaper articles – probably running to more than 300 titles. As Charles Hugo put it, ‘everyone has read Dumas, but nobody has read everything of Dumas’s, not even Dumas himself.’ It is well-authenticated that some works which appear under the name of Dumas were not written by him at all, and certain of his rivals even attempted to have him prosecuted for deceiving the public. But the fact remains that Dumas was a phenomenon, and one that requires an explanation.


Prussian Blues

17 October 1996

David Lodge tells us (Letters, 2 January) that the Paternoster lift in the fictional University of Rummidge, which so fascinated Morris Zapp, is inspired by the Paternoster in the Muirhead Tower of Birmingham University. I think I know how this ‘wonderfully suggestive’ machine came to be installed.It was in 1964, or possibly a little later. The late Sir Ellis Waterhouse was dean of the...

The Paris Strangler

17 December 1992

Further to the discussion as to why Althusser killed his wife (Letters, 11 February) there are two additional theories now receiving attention. One is that he could not bear to think that she was actively preparing to leave him. While his mentally depressive condition was important, his act nevertheless becomes a more ordinary crime of jealousy and passion. The other arises from the fact that they...

Museum Piece

18 February 1988

SIR: I was relieved to see that John Sutherland is less than enthusiastic about Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (LRB, 18 February), since I am at a loss to understand why other reviewers have been so unstinting in their praise for this ‘runaway best-seller’. It seems to me that Wolfe has adopted the procedure of pouring into his novel all the ingredients that are present in...


20 May 1982

Douglas Johnson writes: The letter from Mr Wilcocks has all the violence, and the inability to recognise irony, that one expects from the enemies of Sartre. As, however, this letter is meant to support Sartre, then I welcome it, and I certainly subscribe to his praise of the Pléiade edition of the novels. On the subject of Victor, of course I knew what his real name was. In La Cérémonie...

Althusser’s Fate

16 April 1981

Douglas Johnson writes: I am pleased to read Mr Lock’s letter, which fills out many of the points which I made originally. I can’t of course accept his suggestion that my article contains inventions. R.W. Johnson’s letter continues to make a political and moral judgment about Althusser, just as his lively book tends to make similar judgments about the French Left in general. The disadvantage...
Douglas Johnson writes: Miss Anne Sington is quite right. I should have mentioned Mitterrand by name when I was recalling the ludicrous role which he played in the days of the Poujadists, the memory of which does not seem to have affected his political destiny (the likelihood of being defeated for the third time in a presidential election). I have heard the Pompidou building praised. One French person...


Paul Driver, 9 October 1986

From the general reader’s point of view, this tome – a scrupulous, detailed inventory of Beethoven’s pocket and desk sketchbooks, locating every extant leaf – is about as...

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