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Theodore Zeldin was born in the British mandate of Palestine in 1933. He is a sociologist and historian, perhaps most famous for his iconic, and idiosyncratic An Intimate History Of Humanity, An which I have previously reviewed. Though purportedly about all of humanity, that book is heavily weighted towards the French experience, which is perhaps a natural consequence of his "observer" role of the French people from just across the channel. He has also written a four volume "History of French Passions," and I have regrettably only read the last, A History of French Passions: France, 1848-1945: Taste and Corruption (Oxford Paperbacks): Taste and Corruption Vol 2 But if I were to recommend only one book on France, to the foreign visitor, or even to the French themselves, who can appreciate an outsider's view, it would be this one. Throw away the guide books: SEE the people, and not the heaps of stones that prior generations have left. This is the first point that Zeldin makes, in his chapter entitled "How to avoid seeing the sights." He discusses what a fellow Englishman, Sir Francis Head, did in Paris in 1852, prior to having "guide books." "... he visited the municipal pawnshops, the asylum for blind youths, where Braille, still unknown in England, was being used, a prison, an orphanage for abandoned children, the Salpetriere old people's home, the morgue, the national printing works... the public laundry"... and on and on. Can we duplicate that today? Not quite, for as Zeldin says: "The rise of bureaucratic officialdom soon stopped that kind of curiosity" As indeed it has, but the enterprising visitor might be able to replicate half of that, and have far more memorable experiences than playing monument tag as the guide books would advocate.

All Zeldin's chapter heading start with "how," "what," "where," or "why." He is not a "niche" player; virtually any aspect of the human condition can interest him. Sample headings include: "What lovers want from each other," "How small shopkeepers survive," "How not to be intimidated by their intellectuals," and "What becomes of the drop-outs." In his meandering style there are many unique observations provided by a fresh perspective. For example, he cites an opinion poll taken in 1961, asking American women to name their ideal man. Three Americans were named, along with the actor Yves Montand, of Criterion Collection: Z. [DVD] [1969] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] fame, and much else. There is a telling portrait of Montand's poor upbringing in Marseille. Zeldin also provides the background and operating philosophy of my favorite French newspaper, "Liberation." Alas, I suspect it has been hammered by "economic forces" since this description. He notes that "The unification of France was achieved in the nineteenth century, at the beginning of which something like a quarter of the inhabitants spoke no French at all and another quarter were virtually incapable of conducting a continuous conversation in it" This is a subject covered in greater detail in the excellent The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, from the Revolution to the First World War.

In terms of the elites, Zeldin identifies the "filter": "Math has replaced Latin as the instrument for selecting the elite, the prestige of this elite can be judged by the fact that an unusually large number of people are called scientists and engineers..." On immigration, the author notes: "France has something else in common with the America of the nineteenth century, where prosperity was, of course, originally partly built on slavery." Quoting from "Le Monde,": "My thesis is that the immigrant workers are a new sort of slaves."

There are numerous editions of this work; mine is dated from 1995, published by Harvill Press in London. It contains a number of incisive cartoons illustrating points about French life. It is over 500 pages, but I never wanted it to end. Zeldin's anecdotal approach to French life is brilliant, and his erudition shines through. Keep the "let's look at the stones" guidebooks at the bottom of the pile. This one should be your daily travel companion. 5-stars plus.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on May 16, 2011)
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on 4 February 2000
The title is a tad misleading; you won't really learn much about the French as a whole from this book. However, readers who have already discovered the phenomenal Intimate History of Humanity (which I had read before The French) will find another collection of fascinating conversations with ordinary-made-extraordinary people, and Zeldin's profound reflections on them.
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on 14 July 2014
Quite a tome, but entertaining and witty.
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