Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Discovery of France

Times Online reports: [edited]

La douce France, land of cafe terraces, of long lunches, of village charcuteries that outshine Fortnums, where trains run on time, roads are pothole free, and even mountain tracks are blazed every few yards with a dab of red paint. A tamed and familiar land, as comfortable as an old espadrille. Or so we think. But this France is not particularly old. Much of its landscape is “younger than the Eiffel Tower”, notes Graham Robb, made by draining malarial marshes and planting trees on ancient heathland and naked mountains – compare the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrenees.

Its “traditional” food is an invention for tourists; “the true taste of France was stale bread”. Nor has its geography long been familiar, even to its inhabitants. Many picturesque place names were thought up by map-makers or promoters of tourism. The spectacular Verdon gorges, Europe’s grand canyon, were known only to a few woodcutters until 1906 – decades after their Colorado counterpart became famous.

The lengthy process of discovering rural France (always incomplete, because so much of the way of life he explores disappeared before the outside world arrived) is Robb’s theme. A distinguished literary historian, and the biographer of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud, he began 10 years ago to explore on his bicycle “the country on which I was supposed to be an authority”.

He has followed in the footsteps of earlier explorers: surveyors, mountaineers, speleologists, ethnographers, administrators, writers and generations of tourists. Among the pioneers was the Cassini dynasty, who risked lethal violence from suspicious locals to make the first complete map of France between the 1740s and 1815 (a member of one of their expeditions was hacked to death by the natives in a remote hamlet in the Massif Central).

Such efforts to explore and possess the country fell short of the immense task. Empress Josephine, following a route chosen by Napoleon using a Cassini map, found that the road was imaginary and her carriage had to be let down a slope on ropes. Soldiers and officials in the rural outback still needed guides and interpreters in the 19th century: even in 1880, only about a fifth of the population was comfortable using standard French.

Tourists had to be tough. Phrase books included “I believe that the wheels are on fire” and “Bring us some sheets, I warn you I shall examine them carefully."

Only in the 20th century were all parts of the country finally pieced together by maps, roads, railways and telegraphs: the first event made known to all of France on the same day was the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914.

Robb has an infectious taste for facts, the more prodigious the better.

Pyrenean shepherds had a language of whistles with a two-mile range. Packs of dogs were trained to smuggle tobacco and alcohol. A pedlar’s pack in 1841 contained 9,800 pins, 6,084 bobbins, 3,888 buttons, 3,000 needles, 18 snuff-boxes, and much besides. In the Landes, postmen in the 1930s made deliveries on stilts.

The book is an elegy to what has disappeared, a retrospective exploration of that lost world. Robb shows vividly that it was a cruel and precarious world – where people went into semi-hibernation during the bleak and hungry winter to conserve food, and where the elderly were expected not to linger once they were useless – but it was also a place of unimaginable variety and ingenuity.

No only did postmen use stilts as a speedy way to get around; so too did shepherds. “The shepherds of the Landes spent whole days on stilts,” says Robb, “using a stick to form a tripod when they wanted to rest. Perched 10ft in the air, they knitted woollen garments and scanned the horizon for stray sheep. People who saw them in the distance compared them to tiny steeples and giant spiders. They could cover up to 75 miles a day at 8mph. When Napoleon’s empress Marie-Louise travelled through the Landes... her carriage was escorted for several miles by shepherds on stilts who could easily have overtaken the horses.”

THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE by Graham Robb, Picador, £18.99, 427pp

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