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The Discovery of France Paperback – 4 Jul 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprints edition (4 July 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 033042761X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330427616
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 3 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 9,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'(A) sparkling account...Robb cycled 14, 000 miles to bring his learning to life, which this book blissfully does.'
-- Independent

'A revealing biography of ordinary French citizens and a portrait of the world beyond Paris and the urban elite.' -- Time Out

'Captivatingly full of the author's own discoveries - exotic landscapes, weird customs, remarkable individuals and events overlooked by history' -- Guardian

'Engaging and lyrical... Gives voice to the France we have forgotten. Formidable.' -- Psychologies Magazine

'Full of amazing new facts, some horrific and some hilarious. A wonderful read.' -- The Guardian, Readers' Books of the Year

'Robb is a compellingly and hugely knowledgeable guide to a country that we only thought we knew.' -- London Review of Books

'Superlative history of la France profonde' -- Sunday Times 100 best holiday reads

'The most informative book I read was Graham Robb's brilliant, insanely compendious The Discovery of France.' -- Sean O'Brien, The Times Literary Supplement

'The search for an elusive `real' France haunted both natives and visitors throughout the 20th Century...' -- London Review of Books

'This is a vivid and indispensable book, so full of unexpected and wittily related treasures...' -- Daily Telegraph

Book Description

It's easy to reduce France to the sum of its parts: weekend breaks amid the culture of Paris or summer holidays basking in the sunshine of the south; accounts of the Revolution -- Madame Defarge knitting beside the guillotine -- and Napoleon's battle at Waterloo (mis)remembered from school history lessons; a country famous for its intellectuals, its philosophers and writers, its fashion, food and wine. Despite this, however, the notion of 'the French' as one nation is relatively recent and -- historically speaking -- quite misleading; in order to discover the 'real' past of France, it's not only necessary to go back in time, but also to go at a slower pace than modern life generally allows: this book is the result of 14,000 miles covered by bicycle (and four years spent in the library). It is -- at last -- a book which tells the whole story. Praise for Robb's last novel, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century: ‘Funny, enterprisingly researched, and undertaken with few apparent preconceptions . . This is an excellent, amusing, decent book, which covers an enormous amount of ground in a little space’ Philp Hensher, Spectator ‘A fascinating study of a complex subject, written with humanity, sceptical intelligence and an impressive command of the sources’ Daily Telegraph ‘A fascinating mix of personal testimony and judiciously filleted history’ The Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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First Sentence
ONE SUMMER IN THE EARLY 1740s, on the last day of his life, a young man from Paris became the first modern cartographer to see the mountain called Le Gerbier de Jonc. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Nicholas J. R. Dougan TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 5 Oct. 2008
Format: Paperback
A Francophile with a penchant for learning about France while taking cycling holidays there, Robb has written a brilliant evocation of a lost world, when most inhabitants of France from outside the Paris region did not speak French and did not think of themselves as being French, and then an equally fascinating story of how the railway and the bicycle allowed the French state to impose "Frenchness" on the country. The book draws on evidence mostly from pre-revolutionary France, but with enough from the nineteenth century to support the thesis that it was late nineteenth century technology that made the difference. The storied are fascinating - I was particularly amused to read of a (mildish) torture called "putting on pressure" that Breton women visited on men that they caught alone, and of the fact that in creating the shrine at Lourdes that village put another local place of pilgrimage out of business. You also discover that the original Tour de France was a series of circuits by artisan journeymen and that France had its own caste of "untouchables", the cagots.

If I think that there is any deficiency it is that there is no sense of connection between these simple, sometime primitive, often poor people and any kind of larger society. Most of these people would have had landlords, and not all would have been absentee ones. Even if they did not think of themselves as French, they would have known, and have had mutual bonds of obligation to, people who did. France, after all, produced enormous armies of conscripts throughout the revolutionary wars, and France was generally regarded as the richest country in continental Europe.
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58 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Earthshaker on 8 Oct. 2008
Format: Paperback
Visiting relatives in France, I often drive down the A26 autoroute over the plain of Champagne: mile after mile of chalk plateau, with never a village or house in sight. I've often wondered how this landscape looked before motor transport, when getting from your house to work the fields involved horse-power or your own feet: was the settlement pattern denser, with hamlets and villages now swept away by the depopulation following agribusiness, or has it always been this empty? Graham Robb answered this for me in this splendid study of the making of modern France: it always was empty, to the extent that in early cartographic surveys of the country the need to record landmarks on this featureless plain led particularly conspicuous trees to find their way onto national maps.

Robb is both a historian and expert on France, and someone who has cycled extensively in the country, and he brings to his writing a grounding in the sheer physicality of the land that I don't remember encountering in a comparable historical work before: he is intensely aware of the distances, the physical effort involved in traversing them, and the network of minor roads and tracks that form a network below the sightline of the motorway driver. He is equally good on the sights, sounds and smells of the French landscape.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Josquine on 19 Feb. 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Well, perhaps not EVERYTHING, but such a lot. I have lived in France for 14 years. When I first arrived, having moved from one rich occidental country to another, everything seemed to be in principle pretty well the same, (some better run, some worse run) as in England - supermarkets, transport, schools, etc. I felt so much at home, having made some nice friends here, and found work, that after a few years I decided to go for dual citizenship, in order to have the right to vote. For various reasons, I didn't pursue this, and now I'm very glad I didn't. When you've been here for a few more years, you come to see how, despite the superficial similarities of a western lifestyle, fundamental attitudes and approaches are just so different, and the longer I remain here (and I do intend to remain here for the rest of my life) the less French and the more English I feel. Even if Robb is describing (in Part I) France as it was, he is also explaining the country as it still is, subtly under the surface, today. In Part II he describes the unification of France, but enables one to see that there are still many France-s. I now feel I understand why the dear (and I mean that) French are so: gullible, superstitious, anti-authority, terrified of reform, attached to regional loyalties, conformist, and 'conservative' with a small 'c'. He also manages to debunk a whole lot of myths about France and the French in the process.
What an enjoyable read!
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155 of 160 people found the following review helpful By I. Curry VINE VOICE on 30 July 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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