The Discovery of France

Michael Sheringham writes:

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.

(LRB 31 July 2008)

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