As Graham Robb points out, the ‘discovery’ of France – by politicians, bureaucrats, map-makers, statisticians, engineers, folklorists, tourists and, until fairly recently, the country’s inhabitants on the rare occasions when they ventured outside their own patch – almost invariably involved the swapping of one set of illusions or prejudices for another. Robb, who has written fine biographies of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud, is most at home in the 19th century, but he doesn’t subscribe to that century’s certainties about progress, or to the Paris-centred vision of those who, like Baudelaire, opposed the period’s shibboleths. At times, The Discovery of France resembles a thought experiment in which you try to imagine what the country would be like if Paris hadn’t existed.
France is a comparatively modern invention, argues Graham Robb, the award-winning biographer of Hugo, Balzac and Rimbaud. For his latest book he cycled some 14000 miles around his adopted country, in search of the traces of the completely foreign country that was rural France, and that disappeared not much more than a century ago. Whether writing about the Cagots, reputed to be the descendants of Saracen invaders and who were persecuted until the 20th century, or the prodigious stilt-walking shepherds of Landes, who could cover up to 75 miles in a single day, Robb is a compelling and hugely knowledgeable guide to a country that we only thought we knew.