Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Discovery of France

‘You must be a stranger, sir, in these parts.’
‘Yes, my home is very far from here.’
‘How far?’
‘More than a thousand leagues.’
The old woman looked incredulous.
‘More than a thousand leagues!’ at length repeated she; ‘and why have you come so far from home?’
‘To travel;--to see how you live in this country.’
‘Have you no relations in your own?’

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How do I review this book? More than almost any other I’ve read recently it seems to defy description. Parts of it were impossible to put down, other parts were relatively dull so I skimmed them. It’s written by an Englishman who doesn’t fit the mold of Peter Mayle and those in that genre (I loved Encore Provence but it does seem an overwritten genre)—his grasp of French history, sociology, psychology, folk methodology and presumably language matched only by his desire to see France by bicycle. My only reservation about the book is the baffling tone, which at first seems to venerate the lost traditions of provinces or pays of France and the people of these places, but later seems to attack their ways of life as backward. In fact he just seems to grumble about everyone and bemoan everything, whether the traditions were lost or kept. Maybe that was just how I read the book.

I hope I haven’t put you off it. I saw it in Waterstones in Cardiff in February as I was browsing and put it on my list because I was intrigued—some of the photos are haunting, for example the shepherds of Landes who clocked 10 mph speeds on their stilts! For a Francophile and history buff like myself, it was a fascinating read. I started learning some of the greater ideas the book espouses as early as in my high school years—for example, that the Voices told Jeanne Darc to go “into” France from Lorraine because Domrémy wasn’t in France at the time—and later on in French Chic in University—learning that bits of French actually come from old Celtic/Gaulish terms as well as Occitan and Provençal and the other regional languages—and from personal experience in France—seeing how much the Breton signs in Brittany resembled Welsh ones! (And the fact that a popular saying in the Alps was “Happy as a corpse” doesn’t surprise me after having lived in Chambéry.) But I have to confess like many of the reviewers of this book, the greatest fun was in going “huh! I never knew that” over and over at the amazing facts and anecdotes Graham Robb has uncovered.

Why has France had so many instances of feral children (mostly in the 18th century)? Until extremely recently—the last 50 years—Robb says it was “an undiscovered continent” where Paris stood for all of France but wasn’t really. A fascinating group in this loosely organized continent whom I had never heard of were the cagots, a persecuted caste about whom very little is known—in fact it doesn’t even seem to be clear what made a person a cagot and why they were considered inferior. Yet somehow seeing the photo in the book of a church column depiction of a cagot in Monenin I feel a resonance, even if it’s just because it reminds me of the wonderfully eccentric statuary museum in Avignon.

While I know I would find spending all winter “smoking, playing cards, hunting, and sleeping” as the people of the Rhône did in winter extremely dull, what’s a bit more shocking is that as late as 1807, people in Arras spent their winter months in underground cities carved into medieval quarries! (I picture the Mole People of New York City.) Old people were keen to die when they could no longer be of service (one thinks of some Native American tribes whose elderly would walk off into the sunset) and thousands of children were abandoned or given to “enterprising women known as ‘angel makers’” who would “perform what can mostly kindly be described as post-natal abortions.” My three jobs at once seems to have been a French precedent—“The millions of people who seemed so stubbornly inefficient to administrators were engaged in the mysterious activity known as ‘muddling through.’ The closest economic term is probably ‘cross-subsidizing.’” It is likewise not surprising to me that women did all the work, as evidenced in their omnipresence in the fields. It was that damn Code Civile of 1804 that curtailed much of women’s power (much as British Victorian legislation was slow to give women any kind of rights).

I was astonished to learn the Tour de France had its beginnings in a foot-propelled tour carried out by apprentices, going from town to town learning their trades and returning to their pays to marry and become masters. Dogs as workers and modes of transportation (surely if you’ve read 19th century literature you’ve come across a dog-cart?) is contrasted with tales of mindless animal cruelty. Surely someone’s made a film about the great map-making voyages made across France, starting in the 1740s and continuing through the Révolution (one map-maker was killed by villagers who did not wish to be on the map!). The evolution of hoteling in France is very amusing. There is certainly sadness on Robb’s part that the tourist trade was ever allowed to develop and cause native people of the pays to pander to what tourists wanted in order to earn a better living, which led to their children moving to the cities, etc, etc. It’s astonishing, yet again, that anthropologists and budding ethnologies assumed that the darker tendencies of Picards and Bretons was due to them being closer to Neathderthals! (One almost wants to cheer when an effigy of Béccassine, the cloddish make-believe Breton woman, was destroyed in the 1930s.) My absolute favorite section, however, is Mme de Génlis’ German/French phrase book of the late 18th century. Reading her phrases gives you a good idea of what travelling was like:
Postilion, stop; the brakes must be attached.
The descent is quite steep, I wish the brakes to be attached.
I believe the wheels are on fire. Look and see.

Postilion, allow this poor man to climb onto the seat.
He is so tired! Leave him alone. He is an old man!

The horses have just collapsed.
Is anyone hurt?
No, thank God.
The horse is badly wounded. It is dead.

Poor man! Be assured that I sympathize with your suffering.

I suppose I won’t bore you much more with things I read in the book that made things I had experienced while living in/ visiting France more clear (maybe I could write my own book about that). In the end maybe what I enjoyed most about this book was that I got to read it on the plane to France sitting next to the person who gave it to me.

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