Fizzles

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

  • Promenades by Richard Cobb
    Oxford, 158 pp, £5.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 211758 0

These Promenades come from a man who, although he is the most hexagonal[*] historian in the United Kingdom, is still not recognised at his true worth south of the Channel. Right from the start of his itinerary Cobb gaily mixes everything together. He paints well-behaved Norman children such as one can only dream of meeting these days. He rides his biography backwards, he describes his period as a pion (a supervisor) in boarding-schools run either by priests or by anti-clericals, both of whom were great believers in corporal punishment. Lay or clerical, these child-rearers shared the pedagogical sadism that Dr Spock later decided to abolish: are we to believe, with reactionaries of all shades – among whom we of course are not numbered – that in doing away with the repression of children Spock gave rise to the generation of 1968, with its drop-outs of all kinds?

For Cobb, that indefatigable wanderer who has explored every one of our regions, including Paris, the French town is the longest distance between the seedy hotel where the impecunious researcher has to spend his nights and the departmental archives where he spends most of his days. He observes the town, but he also explores the regional literature. People in France, and elsewhere, are always talking of the death of the novel. Cobb ignores this. He has read Henri Béraud, Maxence Van der Meersch, Eugène Dabit, and many other minor masters of the French récit who though often forgotten are nevertheless excellent witnesses, even in Paris, to a provincial life that refuses to die. My compatriots have long despised this provincialism, even if they put it into practice without realising it.

For anyone who can see, and God knows Cobb doesn’t go about with his eyes shut, a first-class funeral may often be tragic, but it is also much better than a family dinner: it is a kind of photographic developer and fixer of the life of the notables. Especially in the department of the Nord: in Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing this sad ceremony was the connecting link in the golden triangle of the textile, Catholic and bourgeois families. In the years between 1930 and 1950 they had both a superabundant birth rate and their châteaux de la densité (this ‘density’ was an allusion to certain methods of measuring the amount of sugar in the beetroot, which enriched the owners of the big sugar refineries). And let us not forget the ritual gatherings of this or that great family of the Nord, each of which alone may have had 5,000 participants, with a special train for the family, and a Mass concelebrated by priests belonging to the lineage ... Roubaix, so dear to Cobb, has decidedly a great deal to teach us about this erstwhile northern French élite, which, though ultra-Papist, was nevertheless just as efficient a manufacturing caste as, horror of horrors, the Calvinists described by that great ‘novelist’, Max Weber.

Cobb is also, with a wry smile, the inspired eulogist of military service. This rite de passage much precedes (at least in theory) burial: it comes between the first communion and the first marriage. Who would have believed, in the days of Louis XV when the French balked at anything, however small, to do with the militia, that grosso modo they would cheerfully accept universal conscription after the disappearance of the Bourbons? England had its steam-engine and its Lancashire cotton mills. But France, after the fall of the Ancien Régime, distinguished itself by shutting up most of its young males in barracks. While serving under the flag, and away from their villages, these temporary soldiers lost their innocence with prostitutes or camp-followers and learnt the ‘dreadful secrets’ of contraception. This (among other factors) contributed, from about 1800 to 1830, to the decline in the French birth rate fifty years before England, though more industrialised, more ‘advanced’, began to practise birth control in the latter days of the reign of Queen Victoria. This military service, so characteristic of us, was to become the target of fierce satires by people like Courteline. No one in France now reads this writer, the bête noire of sergeant-majors and bureaucrats. Cobb is one of our last Courtelinists.

From Time, we pass on to Space – in other words, to regionalism once again. Regionalism was adored, for better or worse, by generations of French writers. Right from the start, our author chooses his camp. He has nothing but scorn for the vogue for expressly regional novels which colonised our literature at several periods between 1880 and 1980. This fashion may be embodied either in a left-wing preoccupation with the sordid or a right-wing preoccupation with the idyllic. What does it matter! Pétain’s exaltation of the peasants, ‘their features seamed by harsh toil’, leaves the English historian cold. As Gide said, ‘fine sentiments make bad literature.’ There is, of course, no question of the regions being denied their proper place, but they only really come into their own at times of utter chaos or unmitigated tragedy – for instance, during the time of the Revolutionary armies, whose history the young Cobb wrote. Or during the 1940 exodus, the Occupation and the Resistance. The years between 1940 and 1944 were those of great discoveries: this was the time when Parisians, that unpopular breed, forged close links with the Dordogne. The Gaullists, who for preference emigrated to England, mythically recomposed even in that island a Gaul such as had never been known since the Roman Empire. It spread to London, to Manchester – to wherever the Free French happened to find themselves.

As a novelist of the Real, Cobb delights in two-dimensional space: he needs either the super-dramatic or the ultra-quotidian. The one protects the other. To ward off catastrophe and the impending world war, since in any case there is nothing you can do, the best solution is to have recourse to the everyday, the trivial, the banal, from then on considered as sacred as the Eucharist and to be absorbed like a soft drug. The recurring events of everyday life are the negation of unilateral Time, and therefore of Death. Hence, the pertits bourgeois of Le Havre, enamoured of the Norman cuisine with its cream and butter, go for their Sunday-afternoon family walk to work their lunch off, pot-bellied, glassy-eyed, having downed great quantities of coffee laced with calvados, or of ‘tricolour-glorias’, those small cups of coffee served with cognac, rum and calvados. Life, for Cobb, is fiascos and news items, faits divers; ‘fillers’ and foutaises, as his friend Queneau would more or less say.[†] It is understandable that he felt at home in Ixelles, near Brussels, among the smells of chips, tobacco and chocolate, in the days when Belgians still existed – before they were definitively divided into Flemings. Walloons and Eurocrats.

Cobb sees towns. The great reproach he levels at Sartre is that he was not an urban voyeur, that he didn’t look, or only barely looked, at Le Havre, Paris or the Stalags. A great lover of harbour life, the English historian has undertaken to tell the story of Dieppe, or Marseilles: this Phocaean city is a serious, even sad town to him; the tall stories told about it are nothing but a tourist trap aimed at those who believe, quite wrongly, that the Nord is the only place in France where people work, pay taxes and have children. My impression of these pages on Marseilles is almost bicoloured: in them, the Navy and the Foreign Legion, with their red pompons and white képis respectively, have lengthy interviews with the Marseilles prostitutes, those repositories of human archives. The book closes with an evocation of two young Parisians, more or less childhood friends of the author: these skirt-chasers were the pillars of the semi-golden youth of the Xth Arrondissement in the Thirties.

And so ends this book, which is apparently intended to be devoid of any major ideas. It lacks a-priori, it is full of fantasy and calculated naivety: it reminds one of certain marvellously surprised paintings by the Douanier Rousseau. For the English historian Colin Lucas, Cobb’s already substantial work is an empirical model of a certain kind of Anglo-Saxon view of France, which sees the decades of the 1960s and 1970s refracted by the French Revolution. The latter has for long been the great theme of the author of these Promenades, and it remains so. In Cobb’s ironic, but not irenic wake, many young English-speaking historians have also become specialists of a French past that was made familiar to them by this master of the 18th century.

Paradoxically, although Cobb has had more than one disciple, he has not founded a school. There is no Cobbian group. The obvious leader of such a group refuses this directorial role; as a liberal, he stimulates, but leaves people free; as a radical individualist, he is totally uninterested in any kind of systematic approach. Didn’t he write – in French – a big book on the Revolutionary armies, an extremely anarchistic institution, which becomes even more so under his pen. Pedestrian, Parisian, covering the whole of our capital in interminable walks, Cobb is the man of brief instants; he has his place in a back-to-front eternity; a ‘temperamentous’ writer, as his master Restif de la Bretonne would have said, he identifies his reader with modest characters from a recent past, In snatching them away from death, he brings us back to life.

[*] ‘The Hexagon’ is a fairly recent epithet for France.

[†] Une foutaise is ‘a load of rubbish’. Queneau added a few pages of ‘foutaises’ – epigrams, witticisms, somewhat risqué puns – to one of his books, published in 1962 (though he withdrew them in later editions). Beckett has written a book of short pieces which he called ‘Foutaises’ in French: in English he calls them ‘Fizzles’.