France: An Adventure History, by Graham Robb, Picador, 527 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1529007640
Where to start with Graham Robb? Maybe not at the beginning, but with one of the many stories he tells, selected arbitrarily.
On January 2nd, 1876, the day after his thirty-second birthday, Narcisse Pelletier returned to his Atlantic hometown of Saint-Gilles in the Vendée, which he had left twenty years earlier to become a cabin boy, or mousse, on a merchant ship. In 1857 he was a member of the crew of the Saint-Paul, which, after bringing wine from Marseille to Bombay, sailed on to Hong Kong to collect three hundred and seventeen “coolies” to work in the gold fields of New South Wales.
Rations ran low as the ship neared the northeast coast of Australia: Captain Pinard risked a shortcut, and wrecked his ship. Escaping attack by a band of presumed cannibals, and leaving the coolies to their fate, he and most of his crew, including Narcisse, took to a longboat and eventually came to the desolate Cape York peninsula. An exhausted Narcisse fell asleep. When he awoke, he was alone, but not for long – he was found by local women. However, after winning goodwill by giving two men with bows and arrows his handkerchief and tin cup, he was cared for by the local Uutallnganu people, and instantly adopted by a local man, Maademan. He spent the next seventeen years living among and as a member of the people, fishing with spears, using the serrated edges of shells to cut wood. His nose and right ear were pierced to allow him to wear a cylindrical shell and a hollow stick of wood. Decorative scars were incised on his chest and arm. He was called Amglo.
In the files of the Ministère de la Marine, Narcisse Pelletier was recorded as “shipwrecked and disappeared” and “believed dead”. His parents, a shoemaker and his wife, wrote several letters to the French consul in Sydney, who had no news of their son. But then in 1875 the John Bell, a British lugger employed in the pearling industry, stopped at Cape York to pick up fresh water and to trade a little with the local “savages”, who particularly prized tobacco, knives, and biscuits. The amazed crew saw a white man among those who came to meet them. Amglo was lured on board the John Bell and then held captive as it sailed away, with muskets being fired over the heads of those trying to save him. On arrival in Somerset on the Torres Strait he was tethered to prevent his escape.
He spoke no known language – but he suddenly reacted on hearing the word “Frenchman”. Sent on to Sydney by steamer, he was befriended by a British army officer who had studied in Paris, who began to tease out the few scraps of French which floated to the surface of Amglo’s mind. In Sydney, the consul wondered if by any chance this could be the lost boy about whom his parents had repeatedly enquired. For a month, Amglo’s hidden memory of how to speak, and then to write, French was revived in intensive sessions with the consul. He became Narcisse Pelletier once again and was sent back to the France he barely remembered. Arriving at Toulon on December 13th, 1875, he was met by his brother. In Paris, he was interviewed by a reporter, who concluded that “his long sojourn with the savages has in no way harmed his intelligence”. However, an anthropologist and expert on craniometry, Arthur Chervin, found him “rather pathetic … very suspicious, sly and probably mendacious …not very intelligent”. But his return home to Saint-Gilles was happy: he was embraced by his parents and a towering bonfire lit.
Pelletier quickly resumed a quite normal life. After a short spell as a lighthouse keeper, he transferred as a clerk to the harbour office of the port of Saint-Nazaire. He married a local seamstress in 1880. A retired surgeon interviewed him at length and wrote an account of his Dix-sept ans chez les sauvages. Journalists would occasionally write about him. One from the Figaro got no reply to the question of whether he had tasted human flesh and remarked that his “laugh is no longer quite that of a civilised man … there is something abnormal and savage about it”.
Pelletier died, aged fifty, in 1894. He is remembered in Saint-Gilles, now a modest seaside resort, on one of twenty-eight historical information posts set along the road by the shore. Also commemorated near him are a beached whale, a local sailor enslaved in Morocco, and a chimpanzee preserved in a barrel of brandy which washed up in 1908.
The adventures of Narcisse Pelletier fit within a genre of tales of encounter, particularly popular in the great age of exploration, between wild and tame, civilised and savage, memory and oblivion, the known and the unknown. What would become of a human being outside his tribe, or even his species? What was nature and what nurture? Newspaper stories about Pelletier inevitably referred to Robinson Crusoe. In the 1820s, Germany was intrigued by the enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a youth who appeared near Nuremberg barely able to walk or talk (he was the subject of a Werner Herzog film in 1974). James O’Connell, from Dublin, was another shipwrecked sailor, whose long stay with South Pacific islanders in the 1820s and ’30s left him with a heavily tattooed body, something quite unknown in Europe at the time. As “the tattooed Irishman” he wrote a best-selling autobiography and became a star attraction at PT Barnum’s museum in New York (the recent RTÉ radio documentary is recommended).
But, intriguing though the story of Narcisse Pelletier is, how has it made it into a 500-page history of France from Julius Caesar to Emmanuel Macron? It is told in a chapter, “The Savage Coast”, in which it is interwoven with the adventure novels of Jules Verne, born in Nantes on an island in the Loire; the burgeoning interest in the Atlantic coast as a place for affluent city dwellers to restore themselves by sea-bathing and walking, with bathing stations and hotels being developed to meet their needs; and the role of the new study of anthropology in the definition and ordering of racial categories. This study was not confined to far-off places. In the Vendée, “men in top hats and black frock coats were seen staring at local people and making unflattering sketches of them on a drawing pad”. They collected stories of shipwreck, piracy and superstition, and studied local costumes and occupations. The geologist and naturalist Anatole Roujou, who introduced the work of Darwin to France, studied the “residues of very primitive races” to be found in France itself, in places like the Auvergne and Brittany, and who could be found drunkenly beating each other senseless with holly sticks as their near-naked children ran away. Their skulls resembled “Australoid” types. But such types could also be found in the slums of Paris.
This was, Graham Robb observes, an important foundation of a new enthusiasm for dividing up populations by various criteria – race, physiology, colour, language, educational attainment. This “scientific” approach was “an early sign of the great flowering of theorized prejudice that would curse the twentieth century”. It helped justify fear of and prejudice against groups seen as undermining social order – like “the low-browed, prognathous-jawed” communards – or the purity of the race. A fortnight after Pelletier’s death Alfred Dreyfus, who coincidentally lived close to the new museum of ethnography at the Trocadéro, was falsely accused of spying for Germany. His Jewishness was seen by many as a significant indicator of treasonous propensities. Pseudo-science joined Christian myth and popular prejudice in multiplying and magnifying Jewish numbers and presumed occult influence. Dreyfus was first incarcerated on the Île de Ré, at the southern end of the Côte Sauvage, and then transported to French Guiana on the steamship Ville de Saint-Nazaire, which Narcisse Pelletier would have seen many times.
Graham Robb is a former Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and now a professional writer. In his earlier career as a literary scholar he wrote about Baudelaire, Balzac, Hugo, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. His Discovery of France, published in 2007, won great acclaim for its investigation of how between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries modern France was essentially created through the centralising forces of education, language, commerce and popular culture. He has also written about the history of Paris through the lense of multiple lives lived there over centuries.
The chapter in which Narcisse Pelletier stars is one of eighteen in France: An Adventure History. While they are in chronological order, they in no way make up an ordered history of France on which a student could rely. Indeed they require a reasonable prior knowledge of France and its past to be fully appreciated. That said, they are so beautifully written, and so full of fascinating detail, unexpected connections, and sometimes provocative conclusions that they could easily stand as separate essays, to be dipped into at random.
Robb’s credo is set out at the start of the book:
The marshalling of historical data is unthinkable without conventions and some recognizable uniformity, but it is a sad adventure that offers no hope of getting lost. Sooner or later, the data takes on the characteristics of its uniform. In this rigid state, it can serve as the raw material of propaganda or a politician’s speech. Scholarship provides the authors of general histories with well-made roads to the past. It also reveals the unfathomable voids on either side of the carriageway and conveys that thrilling sense of ignorance which gives exploration its raison d’être.
Robb believes in the specific and the local. His method is always to begin with telling details and work out from there. He is a brilliant storyteller, who often breaches the fourth wall by describing his own journeys, literal or metaphorical.
He does not eschew generalisations, which indeed can at times be rather loftily vague, but he patently distrusts unified grand theories. History is mostly not about ideas but about experiences – experiences which may fit within the framework of a theory, but which have their own integrity and indeed dignity. Those experiences include his own, as a cyclist, a hitchhiker, a teacher in a lycée, or in conversation with academic colleagues. But they also include stories revealed through patient scholarship, his own and others’.
It is an adventure history because it tells unexpected stories, the ends of which cannot be inferred from their beginnings, but also because unearthing those stories has itself required a sense of adventure and curiosity, either in roaming the countryside or in pursuing clues in archives.
Some of the great figures of French history naturally appear in the book. As well as Caesar they include Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. But they are usually approached obliquely and with an eye to illuminating detail.
The construction of Versailles by Louis XIV involved colossal expense and disruption, and continuing inconvenience for its occupants, many of whom fell ill: “for historical verisimilitude, the monotonously manicured expanse is best seen at its worst, when earth-moving machines are churning up the flower-beds of a deteriorated sector”.
The chapter on Napoleon draws on the closely observed diary of his longest-serving secretary, Baron Agathon Fain, as presented in translation by a modern American publisher as a “business school textbook for the modern executive” entitled Napoleon: How He Did It (an unlikely precursor of The Art of the Deal?). It also includes reminiscences of Napoleon on St Helena by Betsy Balcombe, a thirteen-year-old English girl in whose parents’ summer house he lodged for a while. Boney and Betsy became friends: the former emperor played blind man’s buff, mimicked the savage howl of a Cossack soldier to frighten another little girl and had his servants harness four mice to a tiny carriage. But Napoleon the brilliant and opportunistic general, workaholic lawgiver and administrator, and gambler with people’s lives, is also given his full due.
Many of Robb’s characters – for that is what they feel like – are known mainly to scholars. Thus we meet the fifth century Roman diplomat and courtier Sidonius Apollinaris, later a bishop and eventually a saint, who wrote evocatively to a friend of his delightful lakeside villa – which careful research and exploration by Robb suggests was less luxurious and more cheaply built than implied. Another cleric is Gerbert, a boy shepherd from Aurillac turned scholar, astronomer, mathematician and the inventor of a remarkable steam organ in the cathedral of Reims, of which he was archbishop before being elected the first French pope in 999 – thanks to the support not of the French king but of the Emperor Otto III. Then, from the eighteenth century, there is Pierre Ménetra, an apprentice glazier from Paris who wrote a unique account of his picaresque six-year “tour de France”, picking up work here and there, including restoration of the stained-glass windows of Auch cathedral, drinking copious amounts of wine, and seducing many women, married and single.
Robb also describes the hinterland of the industrialising mid-nineteenth century city of Rouen, focusing on a small-town doctor, Eugène Delamare, who struggled with money and whose advanced political opinions were not popular with his fellow town councillors. Delamare’s second wife, Delphine, poisoned herself with arsenic: she was seen by some in the neighbourhood as flighty and extravagant, and there were unproven allegations of adultery. This obscure, unhappy tale (and another involving a Mlle de Bovery who may have had an affair with a chemist accused of murdering his wife, also with arsenic) achieved a sort of immortality through the fictional employment of its elements by the son of another, much more successful, doctor of the region, who befriended the young Delamare, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert.
At the centre of some of Robb’s tales are not people, but things or places. He describes his long hunt, first in the archives and then through travel, for “the tree at the centre of France”, an elm, which he first saw in a 1624 ecclesiastical map of France. He eventually locates it, or at least its withered descendant, on the historic route from Paris to Toulouse, along which moved the armies of the Hundred Years War.
The Mont Aiguille in the Vercors region, a towering limestone mesa, like a great molar, surrounded by steep cliffs, was described as an inaccessible mountain by the twelfth century collector of folk tales Gervase de Tilbury. It was first climbed in 1492, on the orders of King Charles VIII, by a party led by the king’s chamberlain and including the king’s roofer, a master stonemason, a master carpenter, the chamberlain’s valet and two priests. It was not conquered again until 1835, including by a group of seven local men who played boules with stones and sang the Marseillaise. Robb’s focus is, however, not on the picturesque or mythic, but on the Vercors as a central bastion of the Resistance in World War II. He explains how its inaccessibility made it seem like a secure fortress, but later prevented many members of the resistance from escaping the bombers, flamethrowers, and machine guns of the Germans and their French accomplices. He economically describes the extreme violence of the period, when the killing of German soldiers or officials would lead to horrific reprisals against the civilian population. Elsewhere he notes in passing that 60,000 French people were killed by Allied bombing during 1944 – more than the number of British victims of the Blitz. After the Liberation at least ten thousand so-called collaborators of all kinds were killed on the orders of the unregulated courts of the communist resistance (those Stalinists who had tacitly supported Pétain until Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union were excepted, of course). When de Gaulle visited Grenoble in November 1944 his car was attacked by communists.
Robb’s France is not one of either urban chic or rural idyll. He describes the grinding poverty of most French lives, contrasting the texture of everyday existence in the Hurepoix region south of Paris with the ambitions of Louis XIV for Versailles. There are several descriptions of extreme violence in addition to that of the Second World War, including the effective genocide of the Nervii by Caesar, slaughters during medieval wars, and the still unimaginable scale of death in the First World War. He describes the little-remembered battle of Rossignol, on August 22nd, 1914, in which more French soldiers died in one day than in any other battle in history: 27,000, or about half the total number of Americans killed in Vietnam, in twelve hours. The French commander-in-chief, Joffre, had ordered attaque à outrance – attack at any cost. The Germans, with 19,000 men lost, won, but were then stopped at the Marne shortly afterwards. Robb has a brilliant magpie eye for detail: the celebrated taxis which drove soldiers to the front from Paris had their meters running, and the red poppies which have come to symbolise the Western front came from a commercial crop, extensively grown in northeastern France to produce cooking oil and soap.
The French Revolution is initially approached through the history of revolt and counter-revolt in Provence – a place which Robb and his wife have experienced not as the rustic paradise of A Year in Provence but as unwelcoming, suspicious and racist, a stronghold of the National Front and its successors. While some of the Revolution’s achievements are acknowledged, Robb highlights the extent of the repression of opponents of the Jacobin minority in Paris in particular, and the Jacobins’ reign of terror against them. The scale of state violence in the Vendée – 100,000 dead in one year – is well-known, but vast numbers were also killed, some by execution, in cities and towns including Nantes, Lyon, Marseille and Toulon. Robb compares this to a war of colonial conquest directed from the capital.
Robb and his wife, Margaret, are enthusiastic and enterprising cyclists, and he conveys the sense of immersive exploration at a human pace which cycle touring can engender (I fondly remember long journeys through Normandy and Brittany). Many of the chapters involve some cycling – some euphoric, some grinding, some humdrum. In Provence Margaret is nearly run over by an aggressive man in a black car. Cycling up a hill in Hautmont, a suburb of the town of Maubeuge, near Belgium, gives Robb a sense of the topography of the site where Caesar won his decisive victory over the Nervii. Notwithstanding the modern hedges of privet and conifer and an ArcelorMittal steel plant on flat ground near the river Sambre (Caesar’s Sabis), “I was surprised to see how swiftly the modern scene could fade when confronted with the muscular evidence of the original topography”.
Maubeuge appears twice elsewhere in the book: 1,971 years later it endured two weeks of German bombardment during the first month of the Great War; and it was Emperor Napoleon III, much more accomplished as an historian and antiquarian than as a soldier or administrator, who confirmed it as the site of Caesar’s battle.
There is, naturally, a chapter on the Tour de France, treated by Robb less as a sporting event than as a vehicle for national mythmaking on a great scale. The grandiloquent language in which the victories and defeats of the great pioneer cyclists were described; passionate support for a succession of gallant losers, many French, and distrust of overwhelming champions, mostly foreign; the commemoration of deaths or spectacular crashes; the contrasts between the often beautiful landscapes and patrimonial wonders, shown to great effect on television, and the evident suffering of the riders; the pilgrim-like flocking of supporters to key mountain passes; how otherwise nondescript and unknown towns and villages get their few seconds of fame as the peloton whizzes through: Robb conveys all of these. But he remains grounded in striking detail. Himself cycling calmly downhill in the mountains, at a seemingly straightforward curve where the leader, Joseba Beloki, skidded and fell in 2003, his own bicycle “hesitated and shimmied like a startled horse”. Beloki’s closest pursuer, Lance Armstrong, had cut the corner to avoid the faller, and briefly left the road before rejoining it across a small field. Robb’s later cartographical research showed that the bend on which Beloki fell had only been added to the historic Roman road in the 1950s; Armstrong had followed the direct route of the old road, which was perfectly moulded to the contours of the mountain.
Robb’s last two chapters bring us up to the present. One is on religion, race, gender and identity, and encompasses the debates on laïcité and Islam. Robb is sympathetic towards young Muslim women whom he sees as the targets of intolerance on both sides and is sceptical about the deliberate offensiveness of Charlie Hebdo (he is not much of a fan of the soixante-huitards in general).
With a baroque flourish, he describes how recent presidents have uttered the sacred words “Vive la France! Et vive la République!” at the end of their formal speeches. Sarkozy rushed through them without a pause “like a paperwork-shy despot scribbling his signature on a death warrant”. François Hollande tried a “more convivial lilt” and once cheekily added “Et vive Eurodisney”. In his address at the start of the first Covid lockdown, Emmanuel Macron “performed his interpretation of the consecrated phrase like a head waiter delivering an exquisite example of a basic French dish … Vive la République! had the martial ring of a macho Liberty on the barricades in full combat gear … Et vive la France! came with a softer, almost wistful [evocation of] the sacred France of sweet meadows and hidden hamlets, the eternal mourning motherland, threatened now by a new enemy.” There is a link back here to the novelists, such as Charles Péguy and Alain-Fournier, who wrote hymns to the depths of the French countryside and were killed in the Great War,
The final chapter is mostly on the revolt of the gilets jaunes. Robb again begins with geography; the world of “peri-urban” villages beyond the ring roads of nearby towns, with their prefabricated retail outlets, cheap hotels, small housing estates, chain restaurants, and, above all, their roundabouts (France, having started to build them only in the 1970s, now has more of these than any other country in Europe). The roundabouts were where many protesters gathered week after week to display their placards and, at times, block the roads. Robb writes sympathetically about the snobbish condescension expressed by many of the metropolitan élite about these places and their inhabitants, and makes comparisons with the prettified and ossified “Plus Beaux Villages de France”. Few of the gilets jaunes were racists or anarchists: they often came from groups not traditionally associated with protest or politics – clerical workers, single mothers, carers, tradesmen, private tenants. But they genuinely loathed Macron and the elitist France for which they believed him to stand, which advocated one form of modernity but could not understand their experience of its consequences.
There are, obviously, huge gaps in a book of this kind. For example, there is little about literature (apart from some apposite quotations, mostly from Baudelaire), and almost nothing about music, art, cinema, or television. There is also very little about the development of Paris or the postwar economic boom. But that is to miss the point. Robb is not trying to be balanced or comprehensive. He tells stories which are engrossing in themselves, and which in one way or another illuminate a part of their times. At least in this book he is more interested in the rest of France than in Paris, and more sympathetic to ordinary people, seen not as the masses but as diverse groups of individuals, than to those set above them. But he does not idealise them. Likewise, he successfully avoids a teleological version of history in which everything successfully leads to the present (or, in France’s case, maybe to about 1975). He seeks to reclaim from the past both what seems a little familiar and what is completely strange. Everything changes and passes away, as even we ourselves and our own beliefs and preoccupations will. But for as long as echoes of the past intrigue us, reading books like Robb’s will be engrossing – and highly entertaining.
Rory Montgomery is a former Irish ambassador to France and was recently appointed an officier de l’ordre nationale de la Légion d’Honneur.