The British scholar Graham Robb is a modern-day “rooster to donkey” impresario. He is the kind of writer you want to sit down with over a fine Armagnac and say, “Tell me your best stories about France.”
In “France: An Adventure History,” Robb does just that. With joy, curiosity and more than a dash of ambition, he brings 2,000 years of French history to life, escorting readers from Gaul all the way to the eve of the pandemic. As a historian, Robb buries himself in national and local archives. As a vacuum cleaner of contemporary detail, he chronicles events by collecting whatever he can find: video footage, politicians’ speeches, press commentary, photographs, travel brochures, caricatures, street graffiti.
Robb began his career as a scholar of 19th-century French literature in the 1990s with lively biographies of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud. He then became a storyteller of France. He traveled 14,000 miles by bicycle all over the country, often with his American wife Margaret, to research “The Discovery of France” (2007), which covered the French Revolution to World War I. “Parisians,” a collection of essays of social history about the city, spanned the French Revolution to the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs.
His latest work can be read as the third and most sweeping part of a trilogy. He continues the theme that France is not a monolith but a vast encyclopedia of mini-civilizations, each with its own history, traditions and belief system that need time to reveal themselves.
He calls his approach “a slow history (‘slow’ as in ‘slow food’).” He writes, “Some time ago, I acquired a taste for apparently futile journeys of discovery,” and “It is a sad adventure that offers no hope of getting lost.” So it is in reading this book. Like a demanding bike trip through the back roads of rural France, this is not an adventure for those with faint hearts. You have to love getting lost in Robb’s dense thicket of detail.
This is literal in the opening passage on Julius Caesar’s offensive in northern Gaul: an “obscure act of genocide on a summer’s day in the late Iron Age.” Caesar had to overcome the Gallic tribes’ battlefield tactics of using “saepes,” an impenetrable barrier of twigs and foliage that offered the enemy a “cloak of invisibility.”
Then there is the giant “Tree at the Center of France,” which Robb first saw on a 1624 ecclesiastical map. He used a 1552 pocket-size guidebook to find what may be a descendant of the tree, a dead elm near a remote ruin of a chapel. “’Waste of time’ is a concept which haunts the mind of any researcher, but time itself is never wasteful,” he writes.
Even readers who think they know France will discover the lives and voices of forgotten characters. Who ever heard of Ogmios, the Gauls’ name for the founder of the land that became France? There is also Gerbert d’Aurillac, the obscurely born, self-taught scientist who became the first French pope, Sylvester II; Jacques-Louis Ménétra, a glazier, seducer and rapist from Paris whose autobiography portrayed an uncontrolled, misogynist vision of life in the 18th century; Harriet Howard, the ultrarich English mistress of Napoleon III who funded his career; Narcisse Pelletier, a cabin boy abandoned by his shipmates who was adopted by the Uutaalnganu people of northeastern Australia and eventually brought back to France after 17 years as “the Australian savage”; Betsy Balcombe, who, at the age of 13, befriended Napoleon Bonaparte when he arrived on St. Helen; Maryam Pougetoux, the 19-year-old Sorbonne president of the French National Union of Students, who became the public voice of the student protest movement in 2018.
As a fanatic bicyclist, Robb devoted a section of “The Discovery of France” to the origins of the Tour de France. Here, he dedicates a chapter to the tour not as mere athletic event but as a pseudo-religious phenomenon: It is a modern fete for a secular country, complete with bloody, doped-up martyrs and, like the author, passionate acolytes. It was here that I found I wanted more stories about the author and his intrepid wife, like the time the two biked along the tour route with the racers. At one particularly difficult bend, Robb writes that his hands were trembling as a light rain slickened the road beneath him. “I pulled on the brakes and felt the ominous juddering which can occur when the bars of an accelerating bicycle are gripped too tightly.”
He brings us to the present, with a discussion of the absurdity of the republic’s unyielding commitment to “laïcité” (secularism), the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protest movement, the construction of rural-urban villages since the 1970s that has eroded traditional village life, the desire of President Emmanuel Macron to be loved.
Robb’s five-page guide at the end of his book is a perfect how-to for bike enthusiasts who want to duplicate some of his excursions. He playfully proposes a “cycling with Caesar” trip, which passes the place where the hedge-building Nervii tribe were massacred. Other advice: The unpaved Roman road to Reims offers a “firm white surface with easily avoidable potholes”; in the Vercors region, “winter or summer, wet or dry,” it is important to ask locally about landslips, rockfalls and road trips; all the sites mentioned in Paris “can be visited on a bicycle in less time than it takes to find a parking space.”
I confess that I am not much of a bike rider. Severe nearsightedness, a horrible sense of direction and awkward balance contribute to my desire to either walk, ride a train or be driven around France. But this book is an adventure for all, even those unwilling to risk death on two wheels.
Elaine Sciolino, a former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, is writing a book on how to fall in love with the Louvre.