Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua

Michael Sheringham

  • The Discovery of France by Graham Robb
    Picador, 454 pp, £9.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 330 42761 6

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.

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[*] Déguignet’s memoirs were discussed by David Coward in the LRB of 21 July 2005.