The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

Mostly in lieu of a proper review, excerpts from The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, the best non-fiction book I read in 2009. (Tough competition, too: In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak, Gold and Iron by Fritz Stern and To the Castle and Back by Vaclav Havel were all top notch.)

To many minds, the clearest demographic distinction was not between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ but ‘Parisian’ and ‘provincial’. …
In 1801, more people lived in Paris (just under 550,000) than in the next six biggest cities combined (Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Rouen, Nantes and Lille). In 1856, Paris could have swallowed up the next eight biggest cities, and in 1886, the next sixteen. Yet Paris accounted for less than 3 per cent of the population until 1852 and, until 1860, covered an area of only 3,402 hectares (thirteen square miles), which is not even twice the size of the Eurodisney site. p. 14

Title of Chapter 4: O Òc Sí Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua

These beliefs thrived on the established Church like mistletoe on an oak. They had no religious institutions of their own, but they were consistent enough, throughout France and much of Western Europe, to be described as a form of religion. [I suspect this might also be true of Central and Eastern Europe as well, but think that Robb is hedging because he does not know the material well enough to say. – DM] The nameless faith borrowed elements of christianity but dispensed with most of its moral and theological foundations, and reorganized the hierarchy of sacred beings. The Virgin Mary was always more important than God. Like his son, God offered neither redemption nor forgiveness. He had been known to destroy towns and to cause serious road accidents just to make his point. He was no more popular than a bishop. In 1872, a woman in Chartres who was standing in the way of a church procession was asked to make way for ‘le bon Dieu‘. She retorted, ‘Huh! I didn’t come here for him, I came for her‘ (pointing at the Virgin).
The Devil was almost as powerful as God and far more accommodating. … Any stroke of luck — finding buried treasure, coming into an inheritance, not losing livestock to an epidemic, or a rockfall that conveniently bridged a torrent — was probably the Devil’s work. Despite his power, the Devil, who usually looked like a gentleman or a wealthy farmer, was notoriously gullible and had sometimes been tricked into building churches and abbeys. …
Jesus Christ was a relatively minor figure. In the not-so-distant past, he had walked the land dispensing practical advice. He was known to have been a beggar, which explained his resourcefulness and cunning. In pseudo-Gospel stories — told as tough they were local events — Jesus would try to beat some sense into his muddle-headed sidekick, Saint Peter.
God, the Devil and Jesus, like Gargantua and the fairy Mélusine, were the protagonists of folk tales who had been active in the recent past. … The main difference between the Christian figures and the pagan fairies is that the fairies were generally expected to return in the next century or as soon as Christianity came to an end.
These legendary or part-legendary figures were spectacularly outnumbered and out-performed by saints. Unlike God and the fairies, saints belonged to everyday life. On his own ground, a saint was more effective than God. As the curé of Étaples near Le Touquet reported to his bishop, referring to the local miracle-working saint, ‘There are two “Dear Lords” at Étaples: the real one and Saint Josse, and I’m not at all sure that Saint Josse isn’t number one.’ pp. 130–132

A century and a half after [William] Windham [Sr.]’s expedition to the glaciers of Savoy, when cyclists were pedalling over the Pyrenees and the first cars were chugging along the dusty roads of France, it would be hard to believe that there was anything left to explore — though the fact that the grandest canyon in Europe somehow escaped attention until 1896, when it was discovered less than twenty miles from a departmental capital, suggests that the country was not quite as well known as it seemed to be. p. 300

A cyclist on holiday in the Vendée in 1892 found that a few disobliging remarks about Parisians ensured cooperation and courtesy from the local peasants, who had ‘an instinctive antipathy’ to the capital. The word ‘Parisien‘ is still uttered as an insult in many parts of France, and any visitor with derogatory things to say about Paris is always likely to be treated sympathetically, even by bureaucrats. p. 307

The remarketing of France was pioneered by local historians and politicians, provincial academies and geographical societies, railway companies and journalists. Parts of the country were unofficially renamed to make them sound more attractive: the coast of Provence became the Côte d’Azur in 1877. Then came the Côte Émeraude (Emerald Coast) of Brittany, the Côte Sauvage of the Vendée, and the Côte d’Argent (Silver Coast) on the Atlantic between Royan and Bayonne. Little Switzerlands sprang up all over the place, beginning with the unfashionable Morvan and the Limousin. It has since become almost obligatory for any region with rolling pastures to call itself Switzerland. At the time of writing, there are ten French ‘Swizterlands’, from the ‘Suisse Normande’ (fifty miles north-west of the ‘Alpes mancelles’) to the ‘Suisse Niçoise’ and the ‘Suisse d’Alsace’. [The Swiss phenomenon is not limited to France. I know of at least two in Germany as well, the fränkische Schweiz and the sächsische Schweiz, in northern Bavaria and Saxony, respectively. – DM] p. 331

Just over a hundred years ago, when Paris had a Métro and the Eiffel Tower was showing signs of age, one of the natural wonders of the Old World was known only to a few woodcutters and carvers who saw no reason to share their knowledge of the local inconvenience with the outside world. The Grand Canyon of the Verdon runs for thirteen miles through the puzzling limestone landscape of the Pré-alpes de Castellane. Many of the boxwood balls that arced through the air on the dusty malls of Marseille had begun life as gnarled sumps clining to the edge of the longest and deepest canyon in Europe. Men from the hamlets on either side of the canyon lowered themselves into the chasm to cut the best wood for making boules while, two thousand feet below, the metallic-green Verdon rushed through its narrow gorge, scouring the gravel bed and carving out new caves. …
A road along the south rim of the gorges, accurately called the Corniche Sublime, was opened in 1947. The north road was completed in 1973. Both roads form an exhilirating circuit of sixty-two miles. pp. 335–37

Discovering this book is nearly as good as discovering a whole new France.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture, France, Geography, History, Life by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

One thought on “The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

  1. “The word ‘Parisien‘ is still uttered as an insult in many parts of France, and any visitor with derogatory things to say about Paris is always likely to be treated sympathetically, even by bureaucrats. p. 307”

    So true. I have heard Parisians apologize for being Parisians here in Brittany 🙂