"A witty, engaging narrative style…[Robb's] approach is particularly engrossing." —New York Times Book Review
A narrative of exploration—full of strange landscapes and even stranger inhabitants—that explains the enduring fascination of France. While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.
Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He recounts the epic journeys of mapmakers, scientists, soldiers, administrators, and intrepid tourists, of itinerant workers, pilgrims, and herdsmen with their millions of migratory domestic animals. We learn how France was explored, charted, and colonized, and how the imperial influence of Paris was gradually extended throughout a kingdom of isolated towns and villages.
The Discovery of France explains how the modern nation came to be and how poorly understood that nation still is today. Above all, it shows how much of France—past and present—remains to be discovered.
A New York Times Notable Book, Publishers Weekly Best Book, Slate Best Book, and Booklist Editor's Choice.
France is often regarded as the center of elegant civilization, so it's surprising to find that as late as 1890, most of the population was far from civilized outside the confines of sophisticated Paris, as noted biographer Robb explains in his riveting exploration of France's historical geography, great swathes of countryside were terra incognita: dark places inhabited by illiterate tribes professing pre-Christian beliefs and lethally hostile to outsiders. They spoke not French but regional dialects; much of the country had not been accurately mapped; and many in the rural areas lacked surnames. The author himself embarked on a 14,000-mile bicycle tour of the France passed over in tourist guides. The result is a curious, engrossing mix of personal observation, scholarly diligence and historical narrative as Robb discusses the formation of both the French character and the French state. Robb's biographies of Victor Hugo, Rimbaud and Balzac were all selected by the New York Times as among the best books of the year, an accolade that assures a select readership will be eager to pack his newest alongside their Michelin guides. 8 pages of b&w illus, maps.