France: An Adventure History revisits his historical heartlands in an 18-chapter tour of the 'Hexagone'...It spans a vast terrain, from Brittany to the Alps, Flanders to Languedoc...Meanwhile, Robb traverses two millennia of change from Julius Caesar’s genocidal conquest of the Gauls to the 50,000 protesters, mainly women, who marched against sexual violence in November 2018, dreaming of 'a revolution beyond the settled storyline of History'...If not quite as original as 'The Discovery of France'—his (literally) path-finding account of the forging of a unified nation after the Revolution—this book offers a bulging cyclist’s pannier of insight and revelation...New companions on his rambling journeys could happily start here...They will find, as he writes after a quest to locate a legendary elm tree in the dead center of France, 'history in the raw... unembalmed by heritage committees'...From Joan of Arc to Napoleon, 'Madame Bovary' to Notre-Dame, we meet familiar icons along the way—but always spotted from an unexpected angle...With its quirky, irregular shape and enjoyably offbeat style, France: An Adventure History never pretends to offer a linear trip into the nation’s past...Still, it furnishes a meticulous chronology and 16 thought-provoking maps...Indeed, you could read the book as a bid to redraw the conventional map of France through time to depict the eccentricity of actual experience, rather than 'a simplified wall chart of regional produce'... Enhanced only by the heft of his learning, the keenness of his eye and the muscle of his prose, Mr. Robb’s own collaborations with the land have yielded another champion performance...Long may his wheels turn.
Beginning with the invasion of Caesar and ending on the eve of the pandemic, Robb ranges freely through time...In the meantime, Robb remains fascinated by the nuances of French language and culture...In this idiosyncratic and deeply personal history of France, Robb proudly distances himself from more conventional historians past and present...Let them assemble their 'unstoppable baggage train of documents labelled with their correct address in time,' if that is what they want to do...He prefers 'the darkening roads that stretch out before and behind us in the here and now.'
Robb’s France: An Adventure History is a rich and vibrant narrative that ranges from the Gauls to the gilets jaunes...His clear-eyed but imaginative storytelling scrutinises the more idiosyncratic features of France’s historical landscape, beginning with what he calls an 'obscure act of genocide on a summer’s day in the late iron age' — Julius Caesar’s massacre of the Nervii in northern Gaul...The account is based on Caesar’s own writing but infused with Robb’s infectious love of geography and nature...He begins with a detailed description of the saepes, the impenetrable hedges that once offered the Gaulish tribes a 'cloak of invisibility' against the enemy...Embedded in this chapter is the long view that the only history worth writing is that which seeks to read the traces we humans leave on these lands that we pass through so briefly...Thus, Robb’s research only partly took place in libraries; much of it was done criss-crossing the country for more than 30 years on a bicycle...There is, inevitably, a touch of nostalgia attached to most historical writing...Robb’s is for a rural France free of high-speed trains and themed roundabouts...Nostalgia is excusable when the chosen subject is fuelled by affection — and a love of France does radiate from both these books...But when it comes to narrative history, love can no longer be blind...Since the digital revolution, the battle for control of 'national narratives' has become more crucial than ever and as we watch the horrors unfold in Ukraine, any tendency to airbrush or glorify the past feels fraught with hazard.
This is a ceaselessly interesting, knowledgeable and evocative book about France over thousands of years. Is it at all likely to have been produced by a French writer? Though it’s about some deeply serious subjects, it’s very amusing; it makes no attempt to constrain itself within an overarching theoretical framework; it would be impossible to extract from it a grand statement beginning ‘The French are all…’; it is pragmatic, full of enterprising scholarly initiative and a gift for observation without intruding. Most strikingly, it’s a book about France in which the author has profitably spent a good deal of time outside Paris ... In my view, Robb is a national treasure twice over – a British one, and he ought to be a French one too ... not the place to go for a narrative account of the Revolution or the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Instead, what we have are distinct episodes of particular interest ... All this has a much fresher impact than yet another history quoting the memoirs of St-Simon and Lucie de la Tour du Pin. The book benefits from a combination of an unprejudiced eye looking at the site of the action and an interest in ferreting out the good witness, not just the one used by generations of historians to bolster their own conclusions. It gives the French experience of the first world war a new power – which Robb initially approaches in terms of the number of novelists killed in battle ... Robb is, of course, a keen cyclist, and perhaps the highlight of the book is a splendid account of the Tour de France ... This is a wonderfully energetic and illuminating book which, while never claiming to arrive at a single grand truth about the nation, makes the reader effortlessly understand just what it was like to live at one of these moments, however atypical its witness. It is the product of a lifetime of dedication, of thousands of cycled miles as well as years spent in libraries.
With joy, curiosity and more than a dash of ambition, [Robb] brings 2,000 years of French history to life, escorting readers from Gaul all the way to the eve of the pandemic. As a historian, Robb buries himself in national and local archives. As a vacuum cleaner of contemporary detail, he chronicles events by collecting whatever he can find: video footage, politicians’ speeches, press commentary, photographs, travel brochures, caricatures, street graffiti ... Like a demanding bike trip through the back roads of rural France, this is not an adventure for those with faint hearts. You have to love getting lost in Robb’s dense thicket of detail ... Even readers who think they know France will discover the lives and voices of forgotten characters ... Robb’s five-page guide at the end of his book is a perfect how-to for bike enthusiasts who want to duplicate some of his excursions ... I confess that I am not much of a bike rider. Severe nearsightedness, a horrible sense of direction and awkward balance contribute to my desire to either walk, ride a train or be driven around France. But this book is an adventure for all, even those unwilling to risk death on two wheels.
The book’s running fascination with 'events, places and people [that] have never before appeared in a history of France' is not wilfully arcane, but is instead a creative connection of 'backroads' to the familiar boulevards of 'the established curriculum' ... while the book progresses chronologically, its chapters often leap across the ages in productively disarming ways, sometimes within the space of a sentence ... [a] compelling guide.
This unique view, and Robb’s penetrating eye, offer close-up looks at settings most of us know only from photographs or maps. Robb commences his history with Caesar in Gaul, covering in detail domestic scenes in the Auvergne and filling in the gaps leading up to Charlemagne. He parses theological controversies in the Christianization of the Franks and moves on to rivalries between Franks and Celts. The transformation of ancient forests to arable land seems much more ominous in the present era of climate change. The Bourbons’ rise and fall are stripped of the clichés fostered in over-imaginative novels. On the other hand, Robb finds much history reflected in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Robb’s descriptive powers come to the fore in his vivid accounts of the military battles of the two world wars. As a cyclist, Robb cannot resist ruminating on the renowned Tour de France. French history students will find Robb’s perspectives refreshing as well as deeply researched.
Melding memoir, travelogue, and history, British biographer and cultural historian Robb offers a sweeping, spirited, and refreshingly unsentimental portrait of France, from the Bronze Age to the present...Traveling by bicycle, train, and on foot, the author and his wife ventured all over the country, searching for the nation’s social, political, and geographical past and alert to intimations of its future...Robb brings to his travels a 'taste for apparently futile journeys of discovery,' an impressive command of history, and lively curiosity...His well-populated narrative includes Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and de Gaulle but also Ermoldus Nigellus, a poet with a 'cheeky sense of humour' whose chronicles bore witness to ninth-century Brittany...In present-day France, Robb discovered 159 towns with the status of 'Plus Beaux Village,' looking like 'habitats created by committees'...The author examines changes in France’s social and political life as represented by the 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, burkini bans at the beach, and the 2018 protests of the Gilets Jaunes...He appends the volume with a detailed chronology as well as acerbic notes for travelers who may want to emulate his explorations without being killed on their bicycles...Delightful, discerning, and charmingly irreverent.