164 of 167 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2007
France has always been a highly centralized country. Paris, like the Sun King, has always been the center around which lesser entities revolved. As a result, most histories of France focused on Paris, the political, economic, cultural, artistic, and just about everything else center of French life.
Graham Robb, an expert in French literature with biographies of Balzac and Hugo to his credit, has written an excellent history of France as seen from the provinces and from the seat of a bicycle. Let me explain. Robb peddled some 14,000 miles over a ten year period studying French rural culture. His original intention was to write a historical guidebook, but in the process of going off the beaten path he discovered the cultural and linguistic richness of the provinces.
France's centralizing process began before the Revolution with Louis XIV, who started to impose the cultural and linguistic norms of Paris and the Ile-de-France region on the rest of France. The Jacobins and Napoleon continued the process by extending Paris' administrative units throughout the country. Jargon-inclined literary critics have termed this gradual takeover as the colonization of the interior.
Robb learned from his travels that the centralization process was never as rapid or as complete as previously thought. In 1800, only 11% of the population spoke French (the official Parisian version) and a hundred years later only about 20% spoke it. Aside from separate languages such as Basque and Breton, there were 55 dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects. It was not until World War I - where this story ends - that it could be said that French, as we know it today, became the universal language within France itself. This was due not only to the war, but also to roads, railways, and the telegraph.
And speaking of roads, Robb, on his bicycle travelled paths inaccessible by automobile. He found very isolated villages that still spoke archaic dialects and followed strange rituals. There were people that believed in the supernatural, witchcraft, magic mountains, and healing springs. It is a picture of France that is in sharp contrast with a country that prides itself on being the beacon of civilization and modernity.
Robb also informs us that we will learn more from regional France in the future. Just as France has declined as an imperial power, Paris is losing its hegemony over the provinces. These lesser known linguistic and cultural traditions are emerging from the shadows. In fact many Parisians are no longer claiming to be Parisian, but proudly declaring to be from the region from which they originally came.
Robb's love of his subject is obvious from his entertaining anecdotes. If you are not a francophile already, you will be after reading this book.
85 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2007
This book has wonderful qualities that I am certain will be picked up by other reviewers. But I would like to add the following. This is the most profound examination of how nationality is enforced on a group of people, with the internal colonization process and the stamping out of idiosyncratic traits. As someone suspicious of government and state control, I was wondering how France did so well in spite of having a big government. This book gave me the answer: it took a long time for the government and the "nation" to penetrate the depth of deep France, "la France profonde". It was not until recently that French was spoken by the majority of the citizens. Schools taught French but it was just like Greek or Latin: people forgot it right after they finished their (short) school life. For a long time France's villages were unreachable.
A great book, a great investigation.
43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2007
One would have thought that while the American wild west was being settled, all of Europe had been sedate and blissful for centuries. Not so, as Graham Robb tells us in his wonderful new book, "The Discovery of France". Where a French national identity took years to build and a World War to cement, the different "pays" that loosely made up an amalgam of France had long been in evidence, if not for all to see. The journey to become one country took centuries.
Robb offers a wide and deep approach to the "discovery" of France. From the much-maligned cagots to the multi-cultural patois of the different villages and towns, the author points out that discrimination was the life-blood of tribal France. How the country became unified is the central core of the book and Robb investigates such things as how animals were viewed, why visitors (and later, "touristes") helped to baste the country together and even how the bicycle changed the course of modern France. It's quite an undertaking!
The highlight of "The Discovery of France", apart from the wonders that unfold, is the enjoyable narrative style with which Robb writes. While plunging into the depths of history over a wide range of topics, the author manages to keep the flow going nicely. This is not a quick read for a rainy day but one that takes necessary time to absorb what he transmits. The amount of information gleaned is remarkable...this is a man who knows France and is happy to compare notes. "The Discovery of France" is a thoughtful and extremely well-gathered book. I highly recommend it and congratulate Graham Robb for doing such an outstanding job in presenting it.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2007
Truth be told, as a Francophile, nothing would've stopped me from getting this book. The modern French are not like you and I, 17th-19th century Frenchmen are in another galaxy altogether. Very few, hell I can't think of one outside of Peter Mayle's Provence collection, deals with the French culture outside of Ile-de-France. Graham Robb does a favor with this book for Francophiles hungry for English books on French history and life that isn't about DeGaulle, Napoleon, or Paris. The book is about the French before they became "French".
As such, the focus becomes mainly on the population of France before the 20th century, mainly, overwhelmingly rural. That means a story of a poor, illiterate, superstitious, and excuse for me saying this, hilarious population. One passage revealed to me the possible source of the 35-hour workweek. "Farm workers rarely worked more than two hundred days a year. Factory workers rarely worked more than two hundred and sixty days. (p. 101)" You can say that the French people are working harder today than ever before!
The pervasive influence of French rural life continue with the country today. Like the seasonal nature of French harvest. By the time winter rolls around, extreme boredom sets in (ennui). Robb makes the connection that under this circumstances, the craftsmanship we come to associate with the French arose, not only to bide the time, but also as an economic necessity.
France is a vast country, and Robb's France encompasses all regions from Brittany to Aquitane. The book to me is a window to these other places that very few works are written about in English.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
For those who have visited, studied, and reflected on that immensely fascinating country called France, Robb's book provides a truly unique and informative view of the country's recent history that stands alone when compared to other recent histories of France. The book categorizes its own genre as "historical geography," but even if you've never read one of those, just dive in and watch the story unfold.
Much of France's mystique is based on the rich and iconographic legends surrounding the country's rise and development. It's perhaps easy to think that, once we have learned the main themes, we have "learned" the country. These main themes are indeed incredibly interesting in their own right: the rise of Charlemagne and the establishment of the Carolingian Empire, the development of educational institutions such as the cathedral schools and the university, the creation of premier architectural forms such as Early, High, Rayonnant, and Flamboyant Gothic styles, the rise of the Napoleonic Empire, the many artistic contributions of persons from all parts of the country, and the undeniable scientific advances made by the French in last three centuries. And yet, we find upon reading Robb's book that it is possible to know a little about all these things and perhaps not still have an understanding of how the France that we know today really came to be. It's a story interesting, surprising, and unusual, but it's a story worth telling, and it helps make all the rest of the story make even more sense.
Robb's text deals with the period between the French Revolution and the emergence of the 20th century. As such, the author particularly focuses on how the governmental programs initiated immediately after the Revolution impacted the lives of virtually every person in the country. Indeed, much of Robb's book argues that, prior to these events, France existed in a set of disparate and non-standardized "pays," with even such basics as language and weights and measures existing in unique forms in virtually every region. The text helps us hypothesize why the French people feel the way they do about their language, their way of life, and even their political and educational institutions.
The entire book is consistently fascinating, but those who have travelled to France over the years should find the later part of the book of special and curious interest, for it is here that Robb describes the rise of tourism in France, and the effect that these new creatures called "tourists" had on the country. It's a cart-before-the-horse story, where we see the country adapting to tourism, rather than tourists adapting to the county. In a way, we can see that the tourist played his own special role in the preservation of France's historical and cultural sites, and it is simply engrossing to read the symbiotic relationship France and its tourists had, and still have today.
If you speak French, or if you're just an armchair admirer of the French language, reading Robb's description of how the French language came to be the established standard tongue all over the country is surely one of the greatest highlights of this book. For the historian, this story is one that is rarely told, and holds a set of people, places, and governmental programs not normally considered in more traditional French history books. For the educator, the ability to follow the story of how the government worked in concert with local educational centers to advance and stabilize all regions in France into French speaking domains must surely rank as one of the premier examples of the power of educational programs. Don't miss it.
Every Francophile will wish to consider this new entry into the historical collection of French history books. Don't be surprised if you end up with a renewed interest in what is already a fascinating history. Highly recommended.
37 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2008
Robb has generated a book which taught me much about a place I know little--France beyond Paris. The book seems a compilation of provincial lore and wisdom accumulated over several years' of bicycle travel through this country of peoples. It was generally enjoyable, but like a long uphill climb, was tiring in places. I often enjoy books in this genre, but I found this one occasionally lacking. I still recommend it, for it will open most readers' eyes to new notions, and the author is competent. I most enjoyed the section describing Cassini's mapping of France.
My lack of enthusiasm may be because I did not find the book to be tightly structured, and I sometimes found myself wanting a crisper roadmap for the direction of the text. I also wanted a better roadmap of France in the illustrations, as the many localities described had me turning to my own atlas much of the time. The major theses of the book are lightly woven into the text. One mildly recurring theme is a whiff of anti-clericism. At one point the author suggested the Church had more to fear from latent paganism than the revolutionaries of 1789; I suspect the thousands of clergy who were massacred by the Republicans after seeing their churches destroyed and properties taken might come to a different conclusion.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2008
In my last ten trips to France, which last months at a time, I've constantly asked myself how, why, where, what????
After reading a hundred books on France, seeing 300 French movies, talking to thousands of French locals...
I am still only very slowly getting the picture.
But almost no other experience provided as big of a piece of the puzzle in a more enjoyable way than this book.
It is an overwhelming treasure of nuggets, mined, organized and presented with skills that leave me awestruck...
It's both essential and sublime, like meeting Handel in a Parisian park or gliding down a mountain in some Pyrenean paradise.
The only critical question I have is given the author's dazzling abilities, after I've fallen under his spell (here, or in his biographies of Balzac or Hugo) and suspended disbelief, how much did he really nail and how much just seems so because of the inertia he creates?
It is inconceivable to me that anyone could claim to know France or history without reading this book.
But then it is also inconceivable to me that this book could be created by a mortal, like only a handful of others I've chanced upon.
I don't think I'm exaggerating when I shout into the wind: GRAHAM ROBB IS A TREASURE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION -- and one more reason why we cannot ever dismiss the English despite their bad food, ugly cities, crimminal prices, and ruthless history.
Of course, in Paris's finest bookstores, they won't bother themselves with what any Englishman thinks about their country, which is a pity, because they, too, could learn from this book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2007
Having lived in France for a few years I was curious about the passion with which french people talk and live their local "pays". I knew of course the traditional history of france and its centralisation - the parisienne view - not until I found Discovering France did I begin to appreciate how recent and partial the changes from rural France to France Metropolitan really are.
For anyone wanting to understand why or how France is as it is this is a must read. Highly recommended.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Appreciation of France and its history can be constrained by the translation factor. Non French speakers are limited to translations from French or texts written in English by Francophones. Graham Robb, obviously the latter, well serves the reader by his writing and research; the bulk of which is French. He brings with him his biographies of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud. Borrowing a page from Fernand Braudel, he ignores kings, revolutions, elections and wars to craft a history of the dialects of the language, the French people, their adaptation to the physical nature of the land and their work.
From the building and importance of the Canal du Midi, to the Gorges de Verdon, to Cassini's maps, Prosper Merrimee, the transhumance of its people and livestock, the tidbits of this history beguile and tantalize the reader. Robb''s thesis is that France was kept together by "the ant like activity of the small landholders" rather than "the grand schemes of Napoleon." He debunks some old chestnuts; the poplars and plane trees of France were not planted to offer shade for the French troops but because they just looked nice to the French. He views France from the eye of a cyclist, a hobby he admits to in the beginning. At the end, to give cycling its own historical significance, his short history of the Tour de France adds to France's sense of nationhood. Some writing is so tight packed that the reader retraces his words to get Robb's nuanced phrases. This is a book to hold in one's library and savor it once again before that next trip to la belle France.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2008
The author will take you on a guided tour of he largely unknown hinterlands of France which will keep you laughing on every other page. All the way from Roman Gaul whose roads are still some of the best, to today's high speed transport over four-lane highways to the TGV rail system. Discussing France's geography as well as the folkways of its inhabitants, your pleasure is unlikely to flag. The tales range from 50,000 nocturnal smuggling dogs, to the alpine trails which foraging animals have followed without supervision since before humans occupied the territory. Then there are magic statues whose devotees whittle away anatomical bits, until vital features of the figures disappear entirely, having been swallowed in water to extract the magic.
The tales cover the century from the onset of the Revolution (1789) to World War I. The history of ingenious and the herculean efforts to achieve map-making in France is almost worth the price of the book.
There are copious graphic vignettes of the inhabitants of the vast countryside of France outside Paris, where hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken that are totally alien to the French of the capital.
"Discovering France" is an astonishing surprise and is the most amusing book I have had the pleasure of reading for the last five years.
E.T. Dell, Jr.