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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War Hardcover – October 17, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. France is often regarded as the center of elegant civilization, so it's surprising to find that as late as 1890, most of the population was far from civilized—outside the confines of sophisticated Paris, as noted biographer Robb explains in his riveting exploration of France's historical geography, great swathes of countryside were terra incognita: dark places inhabited by illiterate tribes professing pre-Christian beliefs and lethally hostile to outsiders. They spoke not French but regional dialects; much of the country had not been accurately mapped; and many in the rural areas lacked surnames. The author himself embarked on a 14,000-mile bicycle tour of the France passed over in tourist guides. The result is a curious, engrossing mix of personal observation, scholarly diligence and historical narrative as Robb discusses the formation of both the French character and the French state. Robb's biographies of Victor Hugo, Rimbaud and Balzac were all selected by the New York Times as among the best books of the year, an accolade that assures a select readership will be eager to pack his newest alongside their Michelin guides. 8 pages of b&w illus, maps. (Oct.)
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“Brilliant. Robb, who writes beautifully…has accomplished quite a feat. He has reintroduced France to itself.”
- William Grimes, New York Times
“Scintillating and resourceful.”
- Harper's --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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A wonderful adventurous book, ride, walk, and just encounter the hinterlands of France and the adventure of becoming a country, united by a language. It was not easy, nor was the unification of a country and it's language. All roads led to Paris, and thus the unification began. A story of the turmoil of becoming, well fed with fodder, tidbits, and appetizers to keep you interested as you journey through a huge country separated by peaks and valleys that were dividing the locals as well as the country.
I could not help but think of the parallels of the United States becoming a country of many States during the same period of time, as also the unification of Italy. It was a time when unification made sense, so people could be accounted for and the State could grow and be responsible .
Crossing the Alps was an adventure and although the Grand Tour may or may not have been mentioned it was easily alluded to in the crossing of the Alps. The horses could not make some of the steep inclines, so a donkey was brought along. The coach would be taken apart, and the donkey would haul it on a travois over the top of the incline, where it would be reassembled for the harrowing ride down the mountain. Robert Louis Stevenson and others took the Grand Tour in this manner, across the Alps to Italy, and back.
Superstition and lack of communication led to the death of one of Cassini's map makers. Spas grew up where people came to take the waters and fed by towns anxious for income more business grew up around the spas. Gossip could travel faster than man, one wondered how that could happen?
Today we think that everyone needs what civilization has to offer, but one is startled back to a one room cottage, with firepit, outside accommodations and uncleanliness. This was life for many of us before the advent of industrialization
Finally, I learned about the start of the Tour de France and I learned why, when I was in Paris in the 1950's the French would seem rude when they barked at me, "Speak French!" I did struggle to speak French, and wondered why they were so rude, after all I was only a "kid", struggling to make myself understood,( as though I could just spout out French)
The railroads, the coach roads, the many people that walked from the outlying areas, all came together in the glittering city of Paris, uniting the languages, the cultures and the ideals, until, we had ...Vive La France!
An interesting journey, worth the time for armchair travelers, that like to accumulate knowledge about the world and its people. Graham Robb is one to follow.
If you combine it with a history of France for dummies and Robb's biography of Victor Hugo, you will have become both immensely knowledgeable about France, more so than nearly all French people, but you will also have, without intending it, become profoundly francophile.
When the French get something wrong, they do it all the way. For this reason, they are a difficult problem, both for themselves and for others. But there is so much right and what is wrong can (usually) be forgiven that they are worth it.
This is an excellent book, very well written, definitely worth reading.