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.
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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.
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.
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