In lieu of a proper review: please go read this book. I read it a few weeks ago, and it’s been quietly haunting me ever since. At one level, it’s a book about the weirdness of France when you dig just below the surface. At another level, it’s about the weirdness lurking under the surface of the entire modern world. We live in a world that has been, in some sense, normalized and channeled in non-weird directions. Come to any place like Boston or Paris, and the weirdness is hidden from you; tourists are directed to completely normal tourist attractions, which present a rather bland and unsurprising face to the world. In the specific case of France, the face that we see is the face of Paris: even the vaunted “French cuisine” is really Parisian cuisine. Consider the provinces:
For tourists who ventured beyond Paris, the true taste of France was stale bread. The degree of staleness reflected the availability of fuel. A manual of rural architecture published in Toulouse in 1820 stated that the public oven should be large enough to allow the week’s bread to be baked in a single twenty-four-hour period. In the Alps, enough bread was produced in a single batch for a year and sometimes two or three years. It was baked, at least once, then hung above a smoky fire or dried in the sun. Sometimes, the ‘loaf’ was just a thin barley and bean-flour biscuit. To make it edible and to improve the colour, it was softened in buttermilk or whey. Rich people used white wine.
As I copy down that passage, the final sentence reminds me of something else I love about this book: the economy of a dry observation. A lesser writer could have elaborated that “Even the wealthy ate no better than this; rich people used white wine.” Robb lets the observation stand on its own, and moves on.
What initially drew me to this book (when my friend Chris directed me) was an absolutely insane passage about babies being carted off to Paris from the provinces, stuffed into bicycle panniers. It’s not just that the pre-industrial era is not far behind us; and it’s not just that the provinces were backwards until quite recently; it’s that our entire way of looking at the world has been canalized into a particularly boring 21st-century mode, and that the world is a phenomenally strange place.
There are many other levels to this book. The only other one I’ll point out is the mutual incomprehensibility in which even adjoining villages often lived. The “French language” is a construct, enforced by the Académie Française, hammered out of the thousands of dialects that filled the countryside. Again, the picture that we moderns — maybe especially Americans — have of the world around us is a world of nations with well-defined borders, governed by strong central governments, speaking basically one (or at most a few) language, with the language and the government spanning roughly the same territory. Graham Robb’s book puts us back in a world where the governments, the languages, and the cultures are all fluid and unnamed.
I recommend it without reservation. And I want to read more books like this one, which give us the historical imagination to return to a just-barely-buried world.