Graham Robb wants you to see France — not the country you think you know, the one with the Louvre, the existentialism, the sublime cuisine, and the fashion sense. Nor the picturesque version of laid-back life in Provence made famous by Peter Mayle et al. The author of award-winning biographies of Balzac and Rimbaud explores a truly unknown country in The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. On bicycle (enabling a horse-bound traveler’s perspective), the author meanders through the French landscape spatially, while his deeply researched book dives backward in time, recovering with a sense of wonder France’s assemblage of wildly diverse “tribes.” He gives us a nation of competing languages, of wild wastes and prehistoric rituals, where wolves were still a danger to village people in Dordogne at the turn of the 20th century. Most winningly, Robb’s France is a mosaic of indelible images and still-resonant tales: stilt-walking shepherds in the Landes; a rock-ledge hamlet in the Pyrenees where the dead were lowered by ropes to the valley below; and the strange, moving saga of the cagots, a persecuted “caste” whose ethnic identity remains a historical mystery. Connecting the plight of the cagots to the later effects of anti-Semitism (and modern French controversies over Islamic “assimilation”), Robb proves that his tour of the vast countryside of the past inevitably winds up returning us — wiser or not — directly to the present. -
About the Author
Bill Tipper has been Managing Editor of the Barnes & Noble Review since its launch in 2007. His reviews have appeared in the Washington Post Book World and elsewhere.