“As the eighteenth-century map-makers knew from painful experience, discovering is not the same as knowing.” This difference–too often elided by explorers and scholars alike–is scrupulously observed by Graham Robb in his most ambitious book to date, The Discovery of France. The book is Robb’s ninth. Its predecessors include celebrated biographies of Honoré de Balzac (1994), Victor Hugo (1997) and Arthur Rimbaud (2000). Ambition, in this context, is truly formidable. And yet Robb’s opening is the most modest I remember reading in years: “Ten years ago, I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority.” Whereas he has previously mapped lives–sensitively but unsentimentally delineating the intellectual and historical contours against which some of France’s greatest literature has taken shape–Robb now has the nation itself in his sights. Not the nation as it is familiarly known, domestically or abroad: Paris-centered, patriotic, sophisticated and grand. Nor the nation of stately historical narrative that builds from one intense period of transformation to the next: the reign of the Sun King, the coming of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s rise to power. Instead, the nation that preoccupies Robb is decentered, disaggregated and wildly divergent; off the map metaphorically, historically and literally; France as no one has seen it before.

“This book is the result of fourteen thousand miles in the saddle and four years in the library,” Robb explains, and no reviewer could match his elegant summary. It is important to pause and notice the simply stated effort that has gone into realizing the book’s enormous ambition. “A bicycle unrolls a 360-degree panorama of the land, allows the rider to register its gradual changes in gear ratios and muscle tension, and makes it hard to miss a single inch of it, from the tyre-lacerating suburbs of Paris to the Mistral-blasted plains of Provence.” Robb has savored the lay of the land at peddling pace, mindful of Victor Hugo’s regret that he missed so much traveling in a nineteenth-century diligence. “A hundred and fifty leagues in thirty-six hours and what have I seen?” Hugo grumbled in 1843. “I’ve seen Étampes, Orléans, Blois, Tours, Poitiers and Angoulême…. That’s what France is when you see it from the mail coach. What will it be like when it’s seen from the railway?” Or when it is a blur beyond the TGV window? Or reduced to the soft-focus graphics of Google Earth? Real knowledge is hard won (a point Robb makes by example rather than insistence) and predicated on the discovery born of effortful exploration. Sedentary painstaking archive research might be less appealing than reconnaissance conducted from a bicycle saddle, but the two are complementary in The Discovery of France.

When he was cycling, Robb approached each journey as “a complex puzzle in four dimensions. I wanted to know what I was missing and what I would have seen a century or two before.” His book is structured to reflect this pattern of inquiry: the reader is carried forward by the beautiful writing amid a swirl of intricate detail. The narrative is unpredictable: swerving, detouring, taking liberties with chronology. If you stop to plot the route, or start analyzing the compelling prose, you feel dizzy and about to fall off. Because this is such a distinctively personal as well as a deliberately innovative book, it seems sensible to explore Robb’s suggestions for reading it. He offers three: “It can be read as a social and geographical history, as a collection of tales and tableaux, or as a complement to a guidebook.”

France has not lacked historians. As an intellectual pursuing his research in the form of elaborate travel writing, Robb might be compared to Alexis de Tocqueville. Since 1789 the distinctions between different types of French history (political, social, cultural, economic and geographical, to name a few) have been strongly marked by the need to understand the Revolution: its origins, development and consequences. Tocqueville, born in Paris in 1805, belonged to the first generation to have no memory of the furies that ripped through the land of his ancestors in pursuit of liberté, egalité, fraternité. His history of the Old Regime, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), traces the development of political and administrative centralization, which was destined to be both furthered and disrupted by the Revolution. Looking into the future of France (and America), Tocqueville foresaw centralized power–dangerous but inevitable–at the heart of modern democratic regimes. He noted:

Centralization, a democratic instinct; instinct of a society which has succeeded in extricating itself from the individualistic system of the Middle Ages. Preparation for despotism. Why is centralization dear to the habits of democracy? Great question to delve into in the third volume of my work…. A major question.

Robb is obviously not in conflict or competition with Tocqueville (who is not directly mentioned in The Discovery of France). Instead he offers a vivid sense of what centralization in France was up against before, during and after the Revolution. Robb is interested in tracking the lives of common people who were, in Tocqueville’s portrait of the premodern political world, “consigned to a kind of darkness, outside the pale of political life.” Yet despite their different focuses and overarching purposes–Tocqueville’s essentially political, Robb’s overtly social and geographical–there are many points of convergence. Tocqueville’s pronouncement that the old parishes of France enjoyed “the most extreme democracy” and reminded him of the rural communities in America, is echoed by Robb, who describes the neat and tidy village of Salency in 1789:

The children were never sent away to become servants and they were not allowed to marry outside the parish. There were six hundred people with only three surnames between them. All were considered equal, and everyone worked the land, using spades instead of ploughs. As a result, their harvests were abundant, their children–even the girls–were taught to read and write by a salaried schoolmaster and his wife, and everyone was healthy, peaceful and attractive.

This, Robb explains, is drawn from a typical contemporary account of a self-governing village. When the Revolution came, tiny places like Salency were happy to declare themselves independent, but “their aim was not to develop the local economy and become part of a larger society.” Robb redefines the word pays–pronounced pay-ee and often mistranslated as “country”–as “the area in which everything was familiar: the sound of the human voice, the orchestra of birds and insects, the choreography of winds and the mysterious configurations of trees, rocks and magic wells.” He emphasizes the extent to which France was, and in part remains, a nation of a thousand pays, where it is still possible to get lost. From personal experience, cycling around the approximate limits of one pays after another, Robb derives a new method for determining the indeterminate borders: “The area in which a church bell can be heard more distinctly than those of other villages in the region is likely to be an area whose inhabitants had the same customs and language, the same memories and fears and the same local saint.” A map of France composed of circles of sound centered on aggregates of church bells is an imaginatively charming solution to the problem of knowing where one pays ends and another begins.

Arras was known in the eighteenth century as “the city of a hundred steeples” because visitors approaching across the surrounding fields, or on the fine gravel road from the nearby town of Béthune, saw and heard from afar the tall spires of Arras’s Gothic bell tower, the cathedral, the abbey, eleven parish churches, more than twenty monasteries and convents, numerous hospices, chapels and charitable institutions. The city was relatively privileged and wealthy, some of its buildings dating back to the time before Flanders was annexed by France. Even after 1738–when finance minister Philibert Orry and future director of ponts et chaussées (bridges and highways) Daniel Trudaine launched a serious attempt to create an integrated network of roads–many parts of France remained unconnected and inaccessible. Arras, meanwhile, was within reach of good roads and less than twenty-four hours from Paris by courier. Maximilien Robespierre was born there in 1758. In the Revolution, Robespierre would make his career championing the rights of the poor and, earlier than almost any of his contemporaries, evoking the principles of modern democracy. But little sense of the day-to-day lives of the laboring poor can be found in his long speeches. What were the impoverished lives like that inspired Robespierre to campaign so hard, first as a lawyer, later as a revolutionary?

Robb explains that the fields of Flanders were deserted for much of the year. Where did all the agricultural laborers disappear to? In Arras and the surrounding towns of Flanders, up to a third of the population lived in underground cities carved into medieval quarries (later used as shelters in World War I). Very little is written or known about these subterranean dwellers, but Robb quotes from an 1807 report:

The vital air is constantly contaminated by the breath of eight to ten individuals who are piled up there in a tiny dwelling for twelve to fifteen hours a day with only one air-hole between them.

Robb argues that the author of the report–whose own working life was not dominated by the seasons–misunderstood the attractions of living underground: staying warm in winter and cool in summer. When the workers of nearby Lille were moved from their “unhygienic” cellars by nineteenth-century philanthropic reformers, they might have found the long trek up six flights of stairs to their attics “as depressing as the descent to a dungeon.” The clearest evidence of human hibernation comes from an official report on the Nièvre, a département in the wine-making region of central France, in 1844. After the harvest was in and the vine stocks burned, and after “making the necessary repairs to their tools, these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately.”

In a life that encompassed a traditional season of sloth there were obvious advantages to dwelling underground. To the economically minded, the waste of human productivity was appalling. But, once again, Robb is at pains to point out that improvements in living conditions were not at the forefront of most minds. As a Pyrenean peasant explained in the 1880s: “They had hardly any spirit of enterprise and were loath to make life more complicated when it was already hard enough to bear.” In such circumstances Robb is right to remind us that “the very idea that it might be possible to alter the conditions of life was a revolution in itself.” The announcement in 1789 of the forthcoming Estates General (France’s largest representative body, which had not met since 1614) and the invitation to towns and parishes to list their grievances meant that “for the first time, suffering seemed to have an audience and literacy had a point.” Robespierre was one of the many lawyers up and down the country who helped the illiterate draft their complaints.

As a work of social and geographical history, The Discovery of France acknowledges the precedent and influence of Eugen Weber’s seminal study, Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (1976). There are, however, two major differences: Robb encompasses a broader time frame, reaching back before the Revolution, even as far as Julius Caesar managing to cross most of Gaul without being noticed; Robb’s is also the more open-ended of the two accounts, eschewing Weber’s Part 3: “Change and Assimilation.” Robb’s book has just two parts, the first covering what there was (and remains) to be discovered, the second focusing on methods or means of exploration: maps, roads, canals, travel, etc. His conclusion, in stark contrast to Weber’s view that by the end of the nineteenth century “popular and elite culture had come together again,” is that “in the 21st century, many parts of France remain to be discovered,” and that is before we get onto the more complex task of knowing them. At the time Robb was writing, cars were burning in the bleak Parisian suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois, Aubervilliers and Seine-Saint-Denis, and a law passed during the colonial war in Algeria in 1955 had been evoked to impose a state of emergency: in France, terra incognita still lies for some at the end of a Paris Métro line.

I suspect that it is as “a collection of tales and tableaux” that The Discovery of France will secure its widest audience. Overwhelmed by the richness and quantity of anecdotal detail Robb sets before the reader, a number of reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic have resorted to characterizing his book as “a cabinet of curiosities.” This is fair enough: Robb does present a parade of striking, sometimes freakish, people and artifacts to illustrate the sociological diversity he has discovered in contemporary and historic France. There are, for example, the disturbingly persecuted people known as cagots:

At communion, they received the host on the end of a stick. They were forbidden to walk barefoot in public and to touch the parapet of a bridge with their bare hands. Until the seventeenth century, they paid no taxes because their money was considered unclean and they were excused military service because they were not allowed to carry arms.

Robb notes that the real “mystery of the cagot” is that they had no distinguishing features at all. Today the only traces of them survive in place names, stone carvings “and in tiny doors and fonts in about sixty churches from Biarritz to the western side of the Col de Peyresourde.” The earliest record of them dates from the year 1000, and for 900 years they were found in small communities throughout the west of France. Perhaps they were descended from the Visigoths defeated by King Clovis in the sixth century, but after eight centuries of persecution, the only real difference between them and other denizens of France was that “they tended to be more skilful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America.”

More individuated examples include Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. Robb’s account of her vision is sympathetic but wry:

As she was removing her stockings to cross the canal, Bernadette heard a sudden gust of wind coming from the cave. Looking up, a few feet above the entrance, she saw a tiny figure dressed in white. It was no taller than herself (four foot seven inches). It wore a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot. She later described it as “u pétito damisèla” (in French, une petite demoiselle). The figure reminded her of a twelve-year-old girl she knew who often wore a white dress. As usual when a Virgin appeared, there was great excitement in the region.

Robb continues to remind us that this was 1858, and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had been proclaimed four years earlier by Pope Pius IX and promulgated in Lourdes in 1855. Was it all baloney? Probably. But no need, he implies, to disrespect the people who believed (or believe) in Bernadette’s vision.

Then there was Cassini III (from the line of distinguished cartographers numbered for convenience like kings), whose career began on a field in Flanders in 1746, where the French and Austrian armies were “laying waste the land” while he, in the family tradition, was recording it on “beautiful maps of camps and battlefields.”

The man who was born at the intersection of the meridian and the west-east line knew the country better than anyone else. No one had undertaken such long journeys across the land, following the invisible line of geometrical truth rather than the rivers and roads; no one had surveyed the land from so many vantage points. From scaffolding erected in forests and plains, Cassini had seen views that no one else had seen. He had heard dialects unknown to lexicographers, and he had an unrivalled knowledge of cheese from the Auvergne (unwholesome) to the Jura (delicious).

César-François Cassini, patently, is one of Robb’s heroes.

The Discovery of France is intended as “a book in which the inhabitants [are] not airlifted from the land for statistical processing, in which ‘France’ and ‘the French’…mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals, and in which the past [is] not a refuge from the present but a means of understanding and enjoying it.” The book consolidates Robb’s earlier work on literary grandees by providing a framework within which the lives of Hugo, Balzac, Rimbaud and others can be grounded and loosely connected to one another and, more important, to everyday life. Of the daily passenger boat from Nogent-sur-Seine that reached Paris in a day and a night, we learn: “This was the service on which the fifteen-year-old Napoleon first arrived in Paris and on which Frédéric Moreau leaves the city at the start of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale.” The boats and canals, once seen as harbingers of civilization, became associated with sluggishness and constraint by the end of the nineteenth century; hence the drunken boat of Rimbaud’s 1871 poem “Le Bateau ivre,” whose adventures begin only when it reaches the sea. Throughout, Robb argues that grandees and “a few powerful individuals” do not exhaust historical interest.

Few men and even fewer women had the means or the desire to write a book on “How I failed to overcome my humble origins.” Apart from the countless rags-to-riches tales written by aristocrats, almost all the lives that we know about follow the same untypical upward trend: the farmer’s son Restif de la Bretonne, the cutler’s son Diderot, the watchmaker’s son Rousseau, the Corsican cadet Napoleon Buonaparte.

Literary biography is a special opportunity to broaden the historical cast list. Balzac became famous, but he wrote about the boredom at the heart of countless obscure lives. Flaubert’s most recognized novel, Madame Bovary, is set in a small market town that lies along its little river “like a cowherd taking a siesta.” Racine wrote grand classical French but visiting his uncle in Uzès “found himself four branches away from French. He was in the realm of Occitan, in the area dominated by Provençal–specifically, Rhodanian (Rhône) Provençal, comprising five main dialects, one of which was the dialect spoken in Uzès.” The Discovery of France shows us the nation’s great writers traveling literally and imaginatively through terra incognita. The achievement of this new book is prefigured in Robb’s earlier books (in the portrait of Charleville in his biography of Rimbaud, for example). It is often lighthearted and companionable, as when quoting at enjoyable length from the traveler’s phrase book written by Mme. de Genlis, a Revolutionary-era educator and satirist:

Postilion, I do not wish to leave the main road. I am absolutely set against it….
 Postilion, stop; the brakes must be attached….
 Please ensure that the trunk is properly attached and that nothing has come undone.
 I believe the wheels are on fire. Look and see.

But underscoring all the fun Robb has had cycling 14,000 miles in France is his serious intellectual and historical purpose. When discussing the empty landscapes of the Landes (now known only through the late-nineteenth-century photographs of Félix Arnaudin), he remarks, “Nostalgia always has its own tale to tell.”

Like all real romantics, Robb is strict with himself, and his nostalgia for vanished or vanishing parts of France is tempered always by his steely realism. This is, above all, a careful and tolerant book: impossible to think of better qualities in a traveling companion.