Footloose in France

Graham Robb continues his eclectic adventures across the Channel
May 12, 2022
France: An Adventure History
Graham Robb
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Graham Robb, a prize-winning historian of France and biographer of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimabaud, cuts loose from desk-bound scholarship in this winningly eccentric tour through 2,000 years of French life, from Vercingetorix to the gilets jaunes via Madame Bovary and Charlie Hebdo.

Many of the book’s chapters draw on cycling trips taken with his wife over the past two decades, in search of landmarks documented in centuries gone by. A Renaissance-era mention of an elm tree planted at the country’s geographical centre supplies an excuse for a surprisingly compelling treasure hunt.

Later, he rides a bus from Paris to Versailles to compare the view with a canvas painted in the time of Louis XIV, listening en route to the chat between two girls in the seat behind him: “it was the sort of intelligently excited conversation between friends which often turns up useful information.”

Familiar subjects such as the Dreyfus affair and the Second World War are viewed from unusual angles. There’s also discussion of Napoleon’s influence on business manuals (including Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal); the creation of the Tour de France (“the point was not to win but to suffer in the attempt”); and Jacques-Louis Ménétra, the 18th-century glazier whose seamy autobiography offers a rare glimpse of contemporary French life beyond the aristocracy.

Exploring modern-day tensions, Robb argues that soixante-huitard dogma about sex, combined with the unexamined legacy of colonialism, serves to put Muslim women under scrutiny. When he congratulates a colleague after the victory of France’s multi-ethnic football team in the World Cup, the reply comes: “France! Won by France, was it?”

Not all Robb’s detours are easy to follow, yet his footloose narrative covers so much ground as to all but guarantee the reader’s interest.