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Remembrance of France past

Graham Robb biked over 14,000 miles of French back roads to research his book. Graham Robb biked over 14,000 miles of French back roads to research his book. (jerry bauer)

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War
By Graham Robb
Norton, 454 pp., illustrated, $27.95

Happy as God in France, the saying goes. A French saying, though it could well be uttered by many of us who have spent time in that singularly pleasing country. Pleasing as a cat is pleasing if you stroke it the right way, and if you stroke it the wrong way, why, it's your own fault (or else you are a young North African in the outskirts of Paris, Lyon, or Marseille).

For much of the modern era, though, God was rather easily pleased. This according to Graham Robb's historical, geographical, and ethnographic survey of the French hinterland from the time of the Revolution up to the First World War.

Deep France, "la France profonde," is the romantic term applied by Parisian intellectuals to suggest that the glories of the metropolis, along with its country retreats and other assorted beauty spots, are fed by direct taproot from off-the-beaten-path glories the length and breadth of the hexagon. (France's shape became definitive only after it recovered the great chunk gouged out when the Prussians seized Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, but shape is part of her identity. Some French, with a touch of self-irony, refer to their own occasionally geometric way of thinking as hexagonal.)

Unknown France or even Wild France comes closer to Robb's theme. His study of the country over some 150 years, centering on the 19th century, shows something very different from the orderly unity with agreeable regional variations that we may think of.

A century ago, he writes, French was a foreign language to a majority of the French, who spoke a dozen varieties of the Occitan tongue along with Catalonian south of the Loire, and Basque, Breton, the Germanic-flavored speech of Alsace, and innumerable patois dialects elsewhere. Racine, for example, complained of being unable to order a chamberpot at his inn in Lyon.

Until the railroads came in, travel, even by stagecoach, along mainly miserable main roads was a bone-shaking crawl. At one point Robb renders distances as time: France was three weeks north to south, and three east to west.

Most of the population was rural and thus relatively isolated. Robb pictures a nation whose superstructure was provided by the central government, but whose structure consisted of communes, isolated and distrustful of one another. He tells, for example, of the pitched battle between two communes over which way a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on the hill between them would face; neither wanted the back view.

The open, beautifully ordered, and cultivated landscape we know today was quite different in the mid-19th century. Vast stretches were moor, swamp, or heath, desolate and unpatterned. Life was hard, as evidenced by the thousands of complaints entered in the "Livre des Doléances," a register opened by the revolutionary authorities to provide a census of suffering in the towns and villages.

Robb writes of the winter in Burgundy after the grape harvest was in. The men would virtually hibernate, taking to bed to keep warm and consume less food. Women worked the fields, often were treated as virtual beasts of burden, and served as target of such sayings as "A dead wife, a live horse, a wealthy man."

For his book, yearning to recapture something of that unknown France, Robb got himself a bicycle and rode 14,000 miles of back roads, dirt tracks, and open land at the speed, he notes, of a stagecoach. "A bicycle unrolls a 360-degree panorama of the land, allows the rider to register its gradual changes in gear ratios and muscle tension," he writes. "The itinerary of a cyclist recreates, as if by chance, much older journeys: transhumance trails, Gallo-Roman trade routes, pilgrim paths."

It also makes conversation "easy and inevitable - with children, nomads, people who are lost, local amateur historians and, of course, dogs, whose behaviour collectively characterizes the outlook of certain regions as clearly as human behaviour once did."

The bicycle, and the outlook that pedals it, provide much of the freshness of Robb's book. The four years he spent in library research provide much of what weighs it down. There is a conscientious pursuit of all manner of things that changed France's life as the years went by: road building, touring, postcards, seaside development, spas, cave exploration, marsh reclamation, and the mountaineering vogue.

This last provides a lovely quote from a skeptical Frenchwoman: "Mountains," she said, "were wasteland that happened to be vertical." But the book's second part, in which the changes are compiled, tends to congeal into lists.

Robb is a lively and accomplished biographer of Honoré de Balzac, Arthur Rimbaud, and Victor Hugo. In a biography the energy is provided by the life and the achievement; details serve to enrich it. When what is portrayed is more amorphous and abstract - here, a society - the detail needs the energy of ideas and concepts. Robb provides some, but they struggle with the library.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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