Getting to Know the Colonel

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The name on the cover of the battered paperback unceremoniously pushed to the back of the bookstall’s foreign languages section was vaguely familiar: André Maurois. The title of his book could not have been simpler, just 1885–1967 Mémoires. So a pound or two spent to satisfy my curiosity seemed worthwhile. And I was right.

Maurois was a literary celebrity of the 1920s and 1930s who became one of the French great and good after his election in 1938 to the Académie française. He had wanted to write from an early age but, for a man who worked in his family’s textile mill, it could only be a matter of scribbling in his spare time. Still, he learned and became fluent in English, and not long after the outbreak of the First World War, he was sent by the French authorities to a British unit as an interpreter. From this experience Maurois wove the collection of sketches that made his name: Les Silences du Colonel Bramble (1918).

Colonel Bramble is not the sort of war memoir in which a general recalls his actions or a private soldier reminisces about suffering in the trenches. Rather, it is a kindly look at the British, more of an affectionate tease than a serious analysis of military organization. The book does not have a strong narrative line but it does transport the reader straight into the officers’ mess of the fictitious Lennox Highlanders, stationed on the Somme, allowing us to eavesdrop on the conversation of four central characters who come from a huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ world in which physical prowess is highly prized.

Indeed, Colonel Bramble opens at a brigade boxing tournament to which Aurelle, the interpreter and narrator – manifestly Maurois himself – is taken by Colonel Bramble and his second-in-command, Major Parker. This provides a suitable introduction to discussion and dismissal of intellectual values. ‘I hate the clever types,’ Bramble tells Aurelle, followed quickly by, ‘I b

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About the contributor

Paul Cheeseright is a former reporter for the Financial Times who has responded to Brexit by reading more in French.

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