Recently I had the pleasure of reading what is now one of my favorite books, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It is a book about the hidden side of France- outside Paris and outside your history textbooks. It is a whimsical book filled with curious stories, not something you typically associate with non-fiction histories. And that is what makes it so delightful. Robb does an amazing job of weaving narratives together and giving you a more full picture of the country we call France but all too often just equate with Paris. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you want to have an adventure with a new culture from the comfort of your living room, give this a read. Below is my unedited interview with Mr. Robb, with special thanks to Claire Aasen and Cara Jones for helping me to arrange it and Mr. Robb for being so generous with his time:
1. In your book, you mention that in 1880, only about 20% of France spoke French comfortably (pg. 52). This was an exciting but astonishing figure to me. Today obviously the situation has changed considerably. What do you think are the prospects for reviving non-French languages and “patois” in France?
The spectacular example of Wales shows that `minority’ languages which seemed moribund can be revived, though for this to happen, the language must be standardized to some extent (which is what the French Academy did to what we now call French). Nostalgic or political campaigns in certain French regions seem to have had little effect, though the extent to which dialects are spoken is probably underestimated. One commonly hears forms of Breton, Alsatian and Languedocian spoken in France today, as well as some dialects which their speakers do not consider to be dialects. However, new forms of French are forming all the time, especially in the big conurbations.
2. Local culture is a theme of your book. How does understanding France outside of Paris change your perspective on the country?
It suggests that Paris is still a nation in its own right, and that the relation of the regions to Paris is in some respects that of provinces to an imperial capital.
3. As you biked around France, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the country and why?
Simply that, apart from specialist studies, certain guide books and self-consciously quaint `celebrations’ of `rural’ France, there was very little information on a vast proportion of the country. Most general histories of France are still almost exclusively histories of Paris.
4. In your book, you mention that the start of World War I was the first event whose news reached the whole country in one day. The idea that this didn’t happen until last century astonishes me. What changed in France to make this more rapid communication possible? And why didn’t it happen until the 20th century?
Relatively rapid communication already existed (telegraph, post, railways), but there was not necessarily a corresponding appetite for instant information. Also, this was a very simple piece of information (France was at war and there was mass conscription). Even today, with newspapers, radio, tv and the Internet, the comprehension of certain events of national importance in certain regions owes a great deal to rumour. (I was in a small town in Savoie when 9/11 happened, and a local woman told me and my American wife, `They’ve blown up Manhattan’.)
5. You talk a lot about the historic divide between Langues d’oc and Langues d’oïl – in what ways do we still see this divide in France culturally, linguistically, politically, or otherwise?
I’m afraid that’s too big a question – even for a whole book!
6. What do people outside of France most misunderstand about the country? And what do people who are French most misunderstand about their own country?
I was struck, when I talked about the book in the United States, by the number of people who were pleased to learn that the French had not always been `sophisticated’… The French are often the first to say that no one (especially Parisians) knows France.
7. Even though modern communication, war, and movement of people have changed the local cultures of France, are you optimistic about the survival of local traditions and culture?
As soon as a local tradition becomes conscious of itself as `local’, it no longer exists in the same way. France is fortunate in having a large immigrant population (including expatriate British!) which can bring new life to regions which were stagnating. A big problem in many parts of France is the continuing rise of industrial-scale agriculture and the depopulation of small towns and villages.
8. I’ve now read The Discovery of France and am working on Parisians. Do you have any thoughts about which book of yours I should read next?
You could try my biography of Rimbaud (same publishers). There’s quite a lot about Paris and the provinces. Rimbaud came from near the Franco-Belgian border and, unlike almost every other successful French writer, never became a proper Parisian!
9. Your most recent book is The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. Any ideas for your next project? As an American francophile, can I convince you to bike around Quebec?
That’s a tempting idea! I’m writing a book which I hope will be published in 2017. The subject is British, but it may have some resonance in Quebec.
Graham Robb is a former Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (since 1998) and a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The Mayor of Paris awarded him the Grande Médaille de la Ville de Paris in 2012 after the publication of the French translation of Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris.
His three biographies (Balzac, Victor Hugo, Rimbaud) were New York Times `Best Books of the Year’. Victor Hugo won the Whitbread Biography Prize and the Heinemann Award, and Rimbaud was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
The Discovery of France (Ondaatje Prize, Duff Cooper Prize, Lire magazine `History Book of the Year’) was inspired by several thousand miles of velocipedal research. The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe opened up new ways of understanding the world of the Celts and made several important technical and historical contributions to the study of cartography.