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The Discovery of France 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 454 pp., £9.99, July 2008, 978 0 330 42761 6
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As Graham Robb points out, the ‘discovery’ of France – by politicians, bureaucrats, map-makers, statisticians, engineers, folklorists, tourists and, until fairly recently, the country’s inhabitants on the rare occasions when they ventured outside their own patch – almost invariably involved the swapping of one set of illusions or prejudices for another. Robb, who has written fine biographies of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud, is most at home in the 19th century, but he doesn’t subscribe to that century’s certainties about progress, or to the Paris-centred vision of those who, like Baudelaire, opposed the period’s shibboleths. At times, The Discovery of France resembles a thought experiment in which you try to imagine what the country would be like if Paris hadn’t existed.

Robb presents us initially with a country that in some ways had changed little since Roman times. Until well into the 19th century, France was less a nation than a set of tribes that inhabited a vast, seemingly empty space and spoke numerous mutually incomprehensible languages. Although things had begun to change, especially after 1789, there was little uniformity: in some areas, and in some aspects of daily life, change was rapid and definitive; in others it was scarcely perceptible.

The book begins with one of many vivid set-pieces. In the village of Les Estables, near the mountain of Gerbier de Jonc, where the Loire rises, a young geometer participating in the first attempt to map the whole of France is hacked to pieces by the locals. We are in the early 1740s: an increasingly powerful monarchy is seeking to control the ‘jumble of old fiefdoms’, but the rural population see outside interference as an unpardonable intrusion. Outside Paris, there are few towns of any size and most people live in isolated communes. Viewed from the metropolis, these people are, as La Bruyère put it, the ‘wild animals one sees in the countryside’.

Robb counters this bias, evident in many surveys and travel narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries, and perpetuated in the ‘internecine racism that still plays a major role in French society’, by stressing French diversity. The pays (the Roman pagus) provided the co-ordinates of individual and group identity: your pays was where things felt familiar, an ‘aural domain’ within earshot of a particular church bell – according to one 18th-century survey, two-thirds of brides came from ‘within shouting distance of the bridegroom’. Your traditional enemies were the ne’er-do-wells in the next village, known by a rude nickname. Robb asserts that such discrimination ‘was the lifeblood of tribal France’. There was nothing necessarily sinister about this: some, like the inhabitants of the remote Pyrenean village of Goust, or the Colliberts of the Poitevin marshes, wore their isolation as a badge of pride. But Robb devotes some fascinating pages to the Cagots of western France, whose mysterious persecution, from the 11th century onwards, possibly because they were itinerant, has left many traces in local churches and monuments.

In 1790, the Abbé Grégoire sent out a questionnaire asking which languages people spoke. The answers he received (at any rate those he could understand) were alarming. Large parts of France ‘were barely French at all’: two hundred and fifty years after the Ordinances of Villers-Cotterêts, which had made the dialect of Paris and the Ile-de-France the language of official documents, six million citizens still couldn’t speak the national language. The title of Robb’s fourth chapter, ‘O Oc Sí Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua’, illustrates this by listing different ways of saying ‘Yes’. In his report the abbé wrote about the necessity of ‘exterminating’ patois, but ninety years later only a fifth of the population felt confident in standard French. In 1858, when the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, she spoke in the local dialect. The real onslaught on patois came with the educational reforms of the Third Republic, which aimed at the eradication of local cultures. As so often, Robb observes, the construction of the modern nation involved the ‘opposite of discovery’.

The enduring myth of la France profonde has always, as he says, been based on an ‘ignorance of daily life’. However well-meaning and ubiquitous they are, museums of rural life full of quaint artefacts turn the past into a junkshop. Having immersed himself in the accounts of government agents, folklorists and travellers, Robb attempts to appreciate the conditions they often deplored, and to understand what they frequently misunderstood. Some bodies of evidence, like the ‘Cahiers de Doléance’ put together in 1789, provide insights into ‘the pain and botheration of living in the natural world’: a hailstorm could destroy a crop in a few minutes, cold winters induced ‘seasonal sloth’ or an idleness attuned to ‘the rhythm of life’. The life-story of a Breton peasant called Jean-Marie Déguignet, who ‘wrote his memoirs because he had never read about anyone like himself’, involves hunger, fire, war and a blow to the head from a horse’s hoof.* But where even a perceptive traveller like the English farmer Arthur Young would have seen such evidence as confirming that rural France was in need of centralised planning, Robb is alert to the paradoxical strength of fragmentation.

His insistence on ‘the obscure logic of daily life’ echoes Michel de Certeau (cited for his collaborative work on the Abbé Grégoire but not for his writings on the dead hand of folklore studies or on the ‘practices’ of daily life); like Certeau, Robb celebrates the ‘mysterious activity known as “muddling through”’, and writes well about crafts, trades and women’s work. A chapter on popular belief argues that in the rural world, churches and priests were less important than local saints, legends and talismanic objects and sites. ‘A saint was not a theological concept or an artistic representation. The statue or figurine was the saint.’ The Church’s attempts to appropriate primitive beliefs, for example by planting crosses beside standing stones, were often met with resistance. Robb provides some memorable vignettes: a milkless mother pressing a soft cheese to her bosom, or rheumatic pilgrims pitching balls of wool at a saint behind an iron grille, trying to hit the limb corresponding to the source of their own pain.

Napoleon’s statisticians were surprised at the huge number of tracks and trails they found even in the remotest areas. (Many of these would be effaced when official highways were built, plunging some areas into much greater isolation than before, a process later aggravated by the autoroute and the TGV.) Semi-nomadic tradesmen such as knife-grinders, seasonal workers and gleaners, and migrant workers of many types including Savoyard chimney-sweeps, moved ‘through the labyrinth like sap through a tree’. The colporteur, staggering under the massive chest he carried on his back, with its multiple compartments containing a vast array of tools, buttons and bows and reading matter, was a familiar and no doubt welcome sight. Thanks to the institution of compagnonnage, apprentices in many trades undertook a lengthy tour of France before returning home. Robb cites the memoirs of a Limousin stonemason, Martin Nadaud, who, after travelling miles on foot shouting out the songs of his pays, reached Paris in a wicker basket slung under the body of a tiny coach, the Orléans coucou. Then there was the huge animal population, domestic and wild, to which Robb devotes a haunting chapter evoking marmots, Pyrenean bears and the ‘land-going ocean liners of livestock’ engaged in transhumance.

In the 19th century, the designs of central government radically transformed rural areas: new maps were made, new roads were built, the railways came and the canals were neglected. The new Parisian bourgeoisie developed a passionate curiosity for the provinces its members had so lately abandoned: by mid-century, tourism was all the rage. Yet Robb argues that the repeated rediscoveries which were a hallmark of the Age of Progress tended to leave more concealed, and often unchanged, than they revealed. When it was finally completed in 1815, the heroic feat of map-making launched seventy years earlier under Louis XV, and masterminded by four generations of the Cassini family, recorded for the first time the names of half a million obscure hamlets (three thousand in the Aveyron alone). In 1792, not long before his execution, Louis XVI had given his blessing for Delambre and Méchain to plot the line of the Paris meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona, an undertaking made possible by de Borda’s invention of the ‘repeating circle’, which measured the angle between two points with unprecedented accuracy. Like many subsequent examples of 19th-century ‘map mania’ the expedition dotted the countryside with triangulation points and observation posts. Beyond their often very limited practical uses, maps tended above all to feed the fantasies of town dwellers. Victor Hugo cherished the sheets of the Cassini map he owned, drawing inspiration from evocative place names, symbols and shading.

Like maps, splendid new roads and railways can deceive us into thinking that dark corners have been expunged, and that life can now proceed at a new pace. The hated corvée had made road-building painfully inefficient under the Ancien Régime, but Trésagnet and Turgot’s innovations of the 1770s – restricting gradients and introducing the cantonnier, a locally employed road mender – paved the way for the Napoleonic highways that radiated from the capital. Yet most people still didn’t travel much, and when they did it was still uncomfortable. Robb cites a Franco-German phrase book for travellers compiled by Mme de Genlis in 1799 which is full of the horrors of travel by coach (‘Postilion, I do not wish to leave the main road’), and many preferred to travel by canal or river, like Frédéric in the opening of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale. This was more comfortable but if anything slower than going by road, and it could go wrong: when Stendhal travelled down the Loire his steamboat ran aground on a sandbank. The Canal du Midi, an engineering marvel of the late 17th century, linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic via Toulouse, was made largely redundant by the railways until it was rediscovered by British tourists in the 1980s. Robb asks us to forget the ‘streamlined view of the age of progress’ and to remember that for most people getting anywhere involved leg-work, whether of the usual sort (walking fifty miles in a day was not unusual) or, more colourfully, the use of vaulting poles, as in the Poitevin marshes, or leg-propelled sledges called schlitte, as in the forests of Alsace. The shepherds of the Landes, Robb tells us, illustrating his description with a memorable photograph, ‘spent whole days on stilts, using a stick to form a tripod when they wanted to rest. Perched ten feet in the air, they knitted woollen garments and scanned the horizon for stray sheep.’

In his later chapters Robb describes the ways in which the opening up of France through technological progress created an appetite for knowledge about the country’s remoter regions just as these were becoming even more remote. The wonders that tourists clamoured to see were at the mercy of brutal forces: the military pacification of the Vendée and other areas, which implanted ugly fortress towns; suburban developments in the wake of the railways; industrial blight, which affected distant rural areas rather than, as in England, smoky metropolises; a national obsession with ‘wastelands’, which led to ecologically disastrous land clearance, deforestation and soil erosion; the despoiling of national treasures by scrap dealers who profited from the sale of estates and ecclesiastical property. ‘No sooner did poets and art lovers learn of the existence of this magical land than they found it in ruins,’ Robb says. The provinces discovered through the march of progress were disfigured by that same progress. Rather than closing the gap between the bourgeois capital and the rural world, modernisation perpetuated it through its popularisation of the notion of quaint backwardness, enlivened by sublimity if you knew where to look for it (in the Alps, for instance). Thanks to the railways, France could be crossed in a day (Paris was 33 cigars from Marseille, one seasoned traveller observed). The overwhelmingly Parisian bourgeoisie came to see les provinciaux as relics of the past, to be photographed (if they consented to dress themselves up in costumes they had in fact given up wearing) or scoffed at when one took the waters at the mountain spas or seaside resorts that sprang up in the later 19th century. The rise of anthropology in this period tended, on the basis of the measurement of skulls, to confirm the idea of superior and inferior types, the former associated with the mythical Gaul (to be recycled by Pétain, Le Pen and Astérix), the latter with ‘what seemed to be Neanderthal types living in rural Picardy and on the Breton coast’.

At the Exposition Universelle in 1878, and in the new Museum of Ethnography at the Trocadéro, the colourful world of the provinces was ‘half remembered and half invented’. The traumatic loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870 fuelled a passion for the ‘lost provinces’. Third Republic propaganda urged people to get to know France, and the cause of national self-promotion was supported by local historians, new institutions such as the Club Alpin Français, and by children’s books such as Augustine Bruno’s Le Tour de France par deux enfants. For their part, the provincials were supposed to express patriotism by speaking French and keeping their local culture strictly for tourists (a move that fomented the violent local nostalgia among Bretons, Basques and Catalans that Paris was trying to suppress). In many cases it fell to Parisians to ‘discover’ the country of which the locals seemed ignorant. Edouard-Alfred Martel, a lawyer and speleologist, provided the exotic names – the crocodile, the camel, the badger’s eyes and so on – for the strange rocks of Montpellier-le-Vieux, which were encountered by two members of the Club Alpin in 1882 (a scale model was featured at the Exposition Universelle of 1889). Inspired by Jules Verne, Martel went on to recount his exploration of more than two hundred underground caverns and rivers, including the Gouffre de Padirac and, most spectacularly, the Gorges du Verdon, which had of course been known to local inhabitants for centuries but began to exist properly only when their topographical marvels – the Voûte d’Emeraude or the Etroit de la Quille – had been supplied with labels by Martel.

Robb’s ambivalence emerges clearly in the concluding pages. He seems to oscillate between a feeling that the true diversity of France has never been fully acknowledged (and still awaits us if we too get on our bikes), and a view that its real nature has been irrevocably altered, if it ever existed in the first place. Robb conducted much of his research on a bicycle, covering fourteen thousand miles at the speed of a stagecoach, and argues that the invention of the bicycle, and its apotheosis in the Tour de France, both expanded the horizons of ordinary people and reduced the shape and size of France to manageable proportions. He links Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913, to ‘the rapid disappearance of undiscovered France, and the desire to believe that it still existed’. The ‘lost domain’ that haunts the novel’s hero is emblematic of la France profonde as a ‘distant but familiar place’. The search for an elusive ‘real’ France haunted both natives and visitors throughout the 20th century. Recent attempts to identify the country’s exact centre (several villages stake a claim), and the huge millennial picnic held on 14 July 2000, which extended from one end of France to the other, along the meridian staked out by Delambre and Méchain, are symptoms of this obsession. The best remedy, no doubt, would be a few days in the saddle, with Robb’s book close at hand.

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