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on 24 July 2017
A fantastic book which shows much more about the way of life in the different regions of France than I would have thought possible. An amazing amount of research and personal exploration has gone into this book. I shall definitely be keeping it and re-reading it.
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on 18 July 2017
A beautifully written book packed with lots of interesting facts and information.
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on 22 November 2017
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on 2 March 2017
Nice Product!
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on 3 September 2017
A real find. Dense, packed with reality, Graham Robb combines to make, as ever, an intense work of human frailties and tenacity.
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VINE VOICEon 30 July 2008
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.
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on 19 February 2009
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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on 26 September 2007
Less a history, more a biography, informed by Robb's extraordinary on-the-ground research in which he uncovers the folkloric history of a country that is widely misunderstood. Robb peers into the soul of his subject with the background of literary biographer, and is not just entertaining but learned. Robb reveals that contemporary regional identities (Catalan, Breton, Provençal, etc.) that some suggest take France back to its past are actually imagined. Robb reveals the roots to be less regional than minutely local. As late as the 19th century, Frenchmen outside the mushroom of Paris could barely communicate with one another. Robb is a cyclist and has benefited from a vélo-eye view. He offers a sharp eye and an original analysis. This is a book that amazes on every page. Even if you have read widely on France, I rate Robb a must. This is a France inédit that strips away the republican myths to show us a nation infinitely more complicated than we imagined.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 October 2008
"On the eve of the French Revolution, France was three weeks long ... and three weeks wide ... Journey times had barely changed since the days of the Romans."

Think you know France? Think again! Robb's argument is that "France was, in effect, a vast continent that had yet to be fully colonized." By turning his back on "the usual cast list of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French history", he seeks out the daily lives of "the faceless millions" and their attitudes to the France in which they supposedly lived. This is not a history of the French regions. Rather it is a history of how those regions culturally coalesced into the centralist state that is the France of today, "the celebration of home-grown diversity and the supreme importance of Paris as the guardian and regulator of that diversity."

The first part of the book is descriptive of the state of France prior to starting on that journey of centralisation; the second part seeks to describe the major stations on the journey itself. Both parts are cleverly linked by reference to certain events surrounding the Cassini expedition to map France in the 1740s. "Two men and their assistants had taken seven years to survey a narrow corridor of land. Instead of reducing the country to the size of a map ... they had shown how much France remained to be discovered."

Language is a prime key, for as the government discovered when disseminating news from Paris to the provinces, "large parts of France were barely French at all." Robb shows how "the official idiom of the French Republic was a minority language ... Educated travellers were constantly amazed to find that their French was quite useless." In Robb's fascinating review of the linguistic history and geography, we learn of the remarkable and now extinct whistling language of the Aas in the Pyrenees; of how Breton soldiers were shot in the First World War for supposed insubordination (they could not understand their orders); of the oïl/oc crescent; and why the names of the French departments are based on timeless geography.

The economic lives of the regional populations is also explored, their rhythms and their motivations. "Boredom was as powerful a force as economic need. [It still is.] It helps to explain so many aspects of daily life ... that it could form the basis of an academic discipline ... ." There is a whole chapter given over to migrants and commuters, but even then strong ties fastened the migrant to the home country rather than to any concept called `France' or even `Paris': "Mentally, they never left their pays ... In certain Paris streets, the sounds and smells of villages and provincial towns drowned out the sounds and smells of the capital."

Religion and superstitious beliefs also played a role in sustaining local cultic differentials: "The only certainty seems to be that France was a Catholic country in the sense that it was not a Protestant country." I'm not so sure about the validity of this sweeping statement, though, given the depth of feeling expressed in the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But it was amusing to read that, "... in the 1770s, a cure near Auch was heard to call out before mass, `Sorcerers and sorceresses, wizards and witches, leave thou the Church ere the Holy Sacrifice commence!' - at which some of the congregation stood up and went out."

Of course, the vast progress in means of transportation was the vital element in making France discoverable, of colonizing its plains with industry and urbanism, its waste with agriculture and forestry, "a complete and irreversible transformation." That much is obvious, but Robb shows how this process was not so straightforward, and how sometimes it even went backwards. For the advent of the railways meant that now "cows and chickens reoccupied the middle of the road." For those areas devoid of the new means of transport, "the outside world now [paradoxically] seemed to shrink away and vanish." Robb follows this up with a look at how the bicycle and then the car hastened "the rapid disappearance of undiscovered France." But as he says in his epilogue, there are still places uncolonised.

Tourism too played its part in this journey. No doubt Frenchmen and women began to explore more different parts of the country, but Robb makes no mention of the men of Napoleon's army already doing the same before the age of the railway, though there is some irony in the fact that Napoleon's new road system at least helped speed him along to Elba.

This is a fascinating book, and very well-written. Robb has criss-crossed the country on his bicycle over many years - he writes, "This book is a result of fourteen thousand miles in the saddle and four years in the library" - and it's a shame that there is little personal involvement in the narrative which is almost wholly written in the third person. Often Robb appears to stray from his route, but regardless, what he has to relate is never without interest. We learn things largely omitted from the usual history books: of the remarkable convoys of donkeys carrying drunken and unwanted babies to Paris; of the amazing smuggling dogs of Picardy; of the fact that half of the French recruits on the eve of the First World War did not know that their country had lost territory forty years before: "Alsace and Lorraine might as well have been foreign countries."

Chapters are often a series of vignettes about remarkable social customs and people, focussed on a particular theme. (Perhaps he should look to doing something similar to Britain.) His knowledge of France is clearly profound, but that's not to say there are no problems. His explanation for the origins of the Cagots, for example, is unconvincing (I prefer the Muslim convert theory), and I have already referred to other areas of disagreement, but these are more of emphasis rather than fact. It is that sometimes Robb pushes his argument too far.

But if the book does have a fault, it is one that is inescapably inherent in its subject, namely the jumping from region to region, from department to department. Not only does this make the map in the mind confused, it also makes the examples cited as well as the narrative itself occasionally inelegant and cumbersome. One example will suffice: "Until the mid- to late-nineteenth century, almost everywhere in France, apart from the Provençal coast (but not the hinterland), the north-east and a narrow region from Poitou to Burgundy, at least half the people working in the open air were women."

The book has two sets of plates, the first consisting largely of twelve atmospheric black & white photographs. The second set is in colour and features evocative maps, prints, paintings, and posters. Perhaps I should have looked at these first, because here are portrayed some of the features described in the book, such as the climb of Mont Cenis and a visual representation of the `schlitteur'. The book contains eight maps, all of significant value, but there is unfortunately no list of these cited at the beginning of the book.

There is a four-page chronology at the end, followed by thirty pages of notes that are themselves linked to the thirty-three pages of works cited. The book relies on reports of first-hand experiences "by foreigners and natives, from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth." There is a general index that seems good, but is devoid of references to `schlitteur'; and there is a most-useful geographical index.
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on 18 November 2007
This book allows you to discover a completely unexpected glimpse of a forgotten and hidden France. Some of the photographs will stop you dead in your tracks. Instead of the uniform, smooth running and modern France we see today Robb takes you into a world of a France that was scarcely known even to its own government. Using the detail from his research he describes the harshness and poverty of the French existence in rural areas and gives a sense of the isolation and boredom of life as well as the great migrations to find work such as the masons of the Limousin. Forgotten trades are explained, forgotten languages resurrected. This book is a must read to help you understand why France is like it is today.
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