Graham Robb is a serious scholar. He has written books on Balzac, Rimbaud, Victor Hugo and Baudelaire. This list also suggests another academic and personal passion - France. He earned a PhD in French literature at Vanderbilt University after his degree in modern languages at Oxford, and has since excelled as a writer. This is a rare fusion of scholarly research and revelatory fact, written in an accessible but highly literate and engaging style.
The book is quite difficult to pigeonhole. It is at times a travel book, based on Robb's own personal experience of cycling around France and getting a feel for the immensity of what the pre-industrial nation would have been. It is also an anthropological study of the French, and the development of the nation through history. In fact the central thesis, that the idea of a French nation is a purely modern conceit, occupies much of the book. Robb then sets out to describe what the modern republic replaced. The migrations of peoples, the intricate network of towns, villages and regions, the Babel tongued array of languages and dialects, the cast of untouchables and the tenuous attachment to Paris and royal control.
It is a biography of the French people, an erudite, if potted, ramble through folklore, local history, linguistics and sociology. Perhaps most startling is that the book manages to amaze on every page with facts that even those conversant with French history would be intrigued with. This is a history of the ordinary people, of the rhythms and nature of everyday life. It is an account of a nation held together by the loosest of binds, where the Paris elite could barely travel and expect to be understood outside the Ile de France.
This is at the heart of the book. Robb considers that the bulk of history written on France starts from the central conceit that Paris, king and court were somehow representative or integral to the rest of France. He demonstrates this falsehood with startling stories, from the existence and experience of an outcast group, the Cagot to the original `tour de France', conducted on foot by the apprentice bands of craftsmen and covering the vast internal migrations of workers, the daily grind and difficulty of peasant life, and the experience of those `explorers' who ventured into this misunderstood hinterland, are revealed in a delicious and gripping text.
If I was to be glib I could say this was a Bill Bryson for the literary set, but this would diminish both Robb and Bryson's work. It is a unique and fascinating ramble through French history, with a strong central argument that modern France, and with it the modern French, are a singularly modern creation. This was built over the rich and intricate patchwork of local and regional identities, which, Robb manages to argue with an erudite conviction, were far more interesting and noteworthy entities.
Robb won the 1997 Whitbread Book Award for best biography with Victor Hugo and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Rimbaud in 2001. I expect this book to win even greater praise. This was easily my non-fiction book recommendation of the year for 2007, and is a book I will return to. It was revelatory, lucid and vivid. Anyone with an interest in France, or in history, will be well served by getting this book as soon as possible.