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Review of France: An Adventure History by Graham Robb

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For France’s intellectual elite, moving effortlessly through a conversation “du coq à l’âne” (from cock to donkey) — as in, from one subject to another — is an asset. Among English-speaking notables, Benjamin Franklin was a master of the game. As American minister to France during the Revolutionary War, he pursued his passion for science, philosophy, and printing; he did more than just learn French – he performed in it, writing essays to Parisian friends and love letters to women. He made himself loved by the French.

The British scholar Graham Robb is a modern impresario of the “cock in the ass”. He’s the kind of writer you want to sit down with over a good Armagnac and say, “Tell me your best stories about France.

In “France: an adventure storyRobb does just that. With joy, curiosity and more than a hint of ambition, he brings 2,000 years of French history to life, accompanying readers of Gaule until the eve of the pandemic. As a historian, Robb immerses himself in national and local archives. Aspiring to contemporary detail, he chronicles events by collecting everything he can find: video sequences, speeches by politicians, press comments, photographs, travel brochures, caricatures, street graffiti.

Robb began his career as a scholar of 19th century French literature in the 1990s with animated biographies of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud. He then became a French storyteller. He cycled 14,000 miles across the country, often with his American wife, Margaret, to research “The discovery of France(2007), which covered the French Revolution up to the First World War. “Parisians», a collection of social history essays on the city, ranging from the French Revolution to the 2005 riots in the Parisian suburbs.

His latest work can be read as the third and most important part of a trilogy. It continues on the theme that France is not a monolith but a vast encyclopedia of mini-civilizations, each with its own history, traditions and belief system that needs time to reveal itself.

He calls his approach “a slow story (“slow” as in “slow food”). which offers no hope of getting lost”. So it is with reading this book. Like a demanding bicycle journey through the back roads of rural France, it is no adventure for those who have weak-hearted You must love getting lost in Robb’s dense thicket of detail.

It’s literal in the opening passage about Julius Caesar’s offensive in northern Gaul: a “dark act of genocide on a summer’s day at the end of the Iron Age”. Caesar had to overcome the Gallic tribes’ battlefield tactics of using “saepes”, an impenetrable barrier of twigs and foliage that offered the enemy a “cloak of invisibility”.

Then there is the giant “Tree in the Center of France”, which Robb first saw on a 1624 ecclesiastical map. He used a 1552 pocket guide to find what might be a descendant of the tree, a dead elm near a distant ruin of a chapel. “‘Waste of time’ is a concept that haunts the mind of any researcher, but time itself is never a waste,” he writes.

Even readers who think they know France will discover the lives and voices of forgotten characters. Who has ever heard of Ogmios, the name given by the Gauls to the founder of the land that became France? There is also Gerbert d’Aurillac, the self-taught scientist of obscure origin who became the first French pope, Sylvester II; Jacques-Louis Ménétra, Parisian glazier, seducer and rapist whose autobiography depicts an uncontrolled and misogynistic vision of life in the 18th century; Harriet Howard, the ultra-rich English mistress of Napoleon III who financed his career; Narcisse Pelletier, a cabin boy abandoned by his shipmates who was adopted by the Uutaalnganu people of northeastern Australia and eventually brought back to France after 17 years as “the Australian savage”; Betsy Balcombe, who, at the age of 13, befriended Napoleon Bonaparte upon his arrival in Saint Helena; Maryam Pougetoux, 19, president of the Sorbonne of the National Union of French Students, who became the public voice of the student protest movement in 2018.

As a fanatical cyclist, Robb devoted a section of “Discovering France” to the origins of the Tour de France. Here, he devotes a chapter to the tour not as a mere sporting event but as a pseudo-religious phenomenon: It’s a modern party for a secular country, with bloody, dope martyrs and, like the author, acolytes passionate. This is where I found I wanted more stories about the author and his fearless wife, like the time the two cycled along the road with the runners. During one particularly difficult corner, Robb writes that his hands were shaking as a light rain smoothed the road below him. “I slammed on the brakes and felt the disturbing noise which can happen when the bars of an accelerating bike are tightened too tightly.

It brings us back to the present, with a discussion of the absurdity of the republic’s unwavering commitment to ‘secularism’, the protest movement of ‘yellow vests’, rural-urban village building since the 1970s that has eroded traditional village life, President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to be loved.

Robb’s five-page guide at the end of his book is a perfect how-to guide for bike enthusiasts who want to replicate some of his excursions. It offers a playful way of “cycling with Caesar”, which passes by the place where the tribe of the hedge-builders Nervii were massacred. Another tip: The unpaved Roman road in Reims offers a “firm, white surface with easily avoidable potholes”; in the Vercors, “winter or summer, wet or dry”, it is important to find out locally about landslides, rockfalls and road routes; all the sites mentioned in Paris “can be visited by bike in less time than it takes to find a parking space”.

I admit that I am not very much a cyclist. Severe myopia, a horrible sense of direction, and awkward balance contribute to my desire to walk, take the train, or be driven around France. But this book is an adventure for everyone, even those who don’t want to risk death on two wheels.

Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, is writing a book about falling in love with the Louvre.