From Publishers Weekly
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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Exhilarating ... With gloriously apposite facts and an abundance of quirky anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of people, places and customs, Robb, on brilliant form, takes us on a stunning journey through the historical landscape of France Independent This splendid history of France mixes the rambling charm of a traveller with a scholar's rigorous research ... At once history, psychogeography, itinerary and cabinet of curiosities, The Discovery of France is an astute sociological catalogue of France's changing idea of itself ... It's [also] an extraordinary journey of discovery that will delight even the most indolent armchair traveller Daily Telegraph Robb's concise and fast-paced writing pedals along with never a dull paragraph, as facts, events, characters and quotations flash by ... This book is an elegy to what has disappeared, a retrospective exploration of that lost world. But the British love affair with France makes this particular story special, and Robb, from his two-wheeled vantage point, has made a dazzling and moving contribution to a long tradition Sunday Times It is an astonishing, eccentric book that defies linear narrative to detour, circle back, swerve and dodge between the centuries. Robb carries the reader along on flawless prose, over France's terra incognita, probing, discovering, and getting to know a country still deeply at odds with itself. There is information in this book to surprise even the most avid Francophile, and to delight anyone who is even vaguely thinking of boarding the new Eurostar The Times As an alternative view of French history it is a fascinating diversion. Its real value lies in helping to explain why modern France remains a centrally directed society that has adopted big ideas and bloody ideals in order to create itself. Daily Mail It is beautifully written and truly eccentric, seeking out the obscure or forgotten parts of a nation that - Robb argues brilliantly - is still discovering itself. Times Literary Supplement Writing with humour but without condescension, with understanding but without naivety, Robb brilliantly reconstructs a world we have lost. There is hardly a page that does not contain a detail that is illuminating, surprising or entertaining, and often all three. Sunday Telegraph Elegant, entertaining and occasionally brilliant ... As this book powerfully demonstrates, French history is nothing if not built on paradox and contradiction. Most importantly, Robb reminds us why France still matters. Observer
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