Beyond the ‘New History’

Theodore Zeldin

  • The Identity of France. Vol I: History and Environment by Fernand Braudel, translated by Sian Reynolds
    Collins, 432 pp, £20.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 00 217773 0

Shortly before his death, I talked to Braudel about the motives that lay behind his final book, The Identity of France. He had made his reputation as a universal historian, with a global curiosity. Why should he seek to crown his achievement in such a parochial fashion, proclaiming that it was France, after all, that he really loved?

‘I am a Frenchman, just like any other,’ he said.

‘But,’ I said, ‘you spent the decisive years of your life, those in which you developed your ideas, abroad.’

Had he been a normal Frenchman, he would have become a history master at the lycée of Bar-le-Duc, and stayed there till he retired: but instead he went to teach in Algeria, where he lived, as he admitted, ‘with extraordinary satisfaction’, and then he spent long periods in many different countries.

He agreed. ‘I became intelligent by going to Brazil. What I saw there was a historical spectacle, a spectacle of such social kindness’ – I translate his words literally; I shall try and decipher them in a minute – ‘that I came to understand life in a different way. The best years of my life were those I spent in Brazil.’ Being called a ‘bizarre Frenchman’ irritated him a little – ‘because it is true and not true’.

The first thing to understand about this book is that Braudel was an outsider in his own country for much of his career. So, too, was Lévi-Strauss, who also went off to Brazil, and became an ethnologist rather than the philosophy teacher he was trained to be, because he found France’s intellectual life claustrophobic. Braudel was repeatedly inspired by foreign experiences. It was not on the Côte d’Azur, but in Yugoslavia, that he discovered what his first book would be about: it was in Dubrovnik that ‘I began to understand the Mediterranean and see it as a whole.’ And Spain ‘has meant a great deal in my life’.

He was a man who was happiest on the frontiers: he had homes in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Lévi-Strauss is an Alsatian. Braudel was a Lorrainer. His ancestors became French subjects only in 1766. His attitude towards Germany was ambivalent: before 1939, ‘my love for Germany was intense.’ And in old age he was still saying: ‘I think like an Easterner.’ Born in 1902, of the generation of French people who were at once obsessed by the German menace but also fascinated by German philosophy and art, a prisoner of war from 1940 to 1945, he believed that his liberty depended on ‘France being a strong unity’. But there was an awful lot about that unity that he disliked: though French civilisation was ‘dazzling’, it was also ‘élitist, dominating, constraining’. His determination to reform it caused him endless trouble and pain.

Because it is now customary to call him the finest French historian of our century, it is seldom realised for just how long he was a thorn in the flesh of France, and what resentments he harboured at being treated as an inconvenient heretic. He complained that he was not properly appreciated by his fellow-countrymen. Even after he had been elected to the highest of all literary honours, membership of the French Academy (and it is significant that this did not happen till he was 82), he could not forgive the Sorbonne for not having made him a professor, where he would have had the power to impose his ideas on the young. His difficulties resemble, in some respects, those of Namier, whom Oxford refused to make a professor: in every country most academics, while devoted to the cult of originality, like it only in moderate, safe doses which will not threaten their habits.

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