The Discovery of France

Back-Road Trip to the Past

January 22, 2008By Heidi EllisonBooks

Graham Robb, author of biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has now written what might be called a biography of France, The Discovery of France (Picador), which takes the reader back through time and into forgotten corners of the country to form a contradictory yet effective portrait of this complex nation from a back-road point of view.

His thesis, such as it is, is that the unified front France presents to the world is a myth: until quite recently, the country was composed of a patchwork of communities isolated by local language and cultural differences, and by very poor transportation and communications networks. This will not really be a surprise to anyone who knows France well.

Robb, a former fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, is also an avid cyclist and claims to have covered 14,000 miles of France on a bike. It would seem that this book, which pretty much leaves Paris out of the picture and lets its searchlight scan the country and probe into the lives of the little people and places, was inspired by his explorations of the back roads of the country. The scarcity of information available about most of these people and places, however, makes his portrait of the country necessarily patchy and incomplete.

Robb has a tendency to generalize and present individual cases as if they were representative of the whole country and to describe conditions that could have been true anywhere as if they were particularly French. In presenting the miserable lot of the peasants, for example, he recounts how families would huddle up in bed together during the winter for warmth, eating little and sleeping as much as possible to conserve energy, but this certainly could have been true in any country with poor farmers and harsh winters, and it is doubtful that it was true of every farm family in France. Another annoyance is that he often does not make it clear what time period or area of the country he is talking about.

In spite of these problems, the book is gracefully written and thought-provoking, and full of fascinating anecdotes and details about France, many of them new to me. I had never heard, for example, about a persecuted class of untouchable people of mysterious origins called cagots, who lived in various parts of the country. They were not allowed to sit with the rest of the congregation at mass, for example, and had to enter a church through a special door. They were permitted to practice only two professions: carpentry and rope-making, and were often subjected to violent attacks. Being a despised cagot had a couple of advantages, however: “Until the seventeenth century,” writes Robb, “they paid no taxes because their money was considered unclean and they were excused military service because they were not allowed to carry arms.”

Robb is also very interesting on the various dialects spoken all over France and subjects like the birth of tourism. Not surprisingly, he is especially fascinated by the story of the mapping of France and the history of cycling in the country.

One suspects that this book was not only inspired by the author’s bike trips around France, but also an excuse for them. The result is a loose collection of interesting, well-presented information loosely held together by the rather weak structure of the theory of French disunity.


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