“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: