The best books on why the French seem to be in denial about their own history

Who am I?

I have lived almost all my adult life in France, and have spent that whole time wondering what makes the French so French. One of the answers is their attitude to their own history. The French have got a lot of upheaval to process: at least five revolutions since 1789, and two World Wars fought on their soil, including a Nazi occupation that they still haven’t digested. I didn’t start writing about the French until I’d been living in France for about 10 years – I didn’t want to write like a tourist, and it took me that long to unweave the first strands of their DNA. I’ve never stopped writing about them since, half a dozen Merde novels and as many non-fiction books later.


I wrote...

The Spy Who Inspired Me

By Stephen Clarke,

Book cover of The Spy Who Inspired Me

What is my book about?

Occupied France, April 1944: a young female secret agent goes into Normandy to find out why communications with the Resistance have been cut. Unexpectedly, she is lumbered with a sidekick – the snooty, deskbound naval commander Ian Lemming (no, definitely not Ian Fleming). The unlikely team sneak their way through Nazi-held territory, helped and hindered along the way by a selection of French people whose loyalties vary from outright collaboration to active resistance, via passive resignation. The not-at-all Bond-like realities of spying behind the lines in the run-up to D-Day.

The books I picked & why

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Arthur Young's Travels in France: During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789

By Arthur Young,

Book cover of Arthur Young's Travels in France: During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789

Why this book?

Young was an English agriculturalist who took time out from farming to analyse life and developments in the countryside. He toured Britain, then Ireland, and finally France. Here, he lucked in. He wandered the fields, lanes, and city streets of France as the Revolution was brewing and then erupting. Although not an aristo himself, he frequented nobility and royalty, and was amazed at the blissful indifference of the idle rich about what was going on around them. He saw the extreme poverty of the peasants, who were being worked and starved to death by their absentee landlords. He witnessed the actual events of the Revolution and had to talk himself out of getting lynched as a potential aristo spy. It’s a book to browse rather than consume whole, and contains whole pages about crop yields and diseases, but at times it is the most measured first-hand view of the Revolution that I’ve ever read, and much more convincing than any analysis I’ve come across by a French writer.

Arthur Young's Travels in France: During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789

By Arthur Young,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Arthur Young's Travels in France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Arthur Young (1741-1820) was an English writer on agriculture, economics and social statistics. At the age of seventeen, he published a pamphlet On the War in North America, and in 1761 went to London and started a periodical, entitled The Universal Museum. He also wrote four novels, and Reflections on the Present State of Affairs at Home and Abroad in 1759. Young produced around 25 books and pamphlets on agriculture and 15 books on political economy, as well as many articles. He was famous for the views he expressed, as an agricultural improver, political economist and social observer. Amongst his…


1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry

By Andrew Bridgeford,

Book cover of 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry

Why this book?

For me, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most glorious works in the whole of Western art. Seventy metres of embroidery (not actual tapestry) describing the conquest of Britain by William and co. Every time I go to see it, it takes my breath away. But as I began to read around the subject for the opening chapter of my book 1000 Years of Annoying the French, I started to doubt the “official” version of the story told by the museum’s audio guide, which is basically a justification of the Norman duke’s claim to the throne of England. Andrew Bridgeford’s book examines both the story being told in the main narrative of the tapestry, as well as the hidden undercurrent of anti-William propaganda there. It turns out that, contrary to French legend, this was not just a visual record of the Conquest commissioned by William and executed by his wife, Queen Mathilde, and her seamstresses. An intriguing and convincing piece of historical detective work.

1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry

By Andrew Bridgeford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 1066 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliant new reading of the Bayeux Tapestry that radically alters our understanding of the events of 1066 and reveals the astonishing story of the survival of early medieval Europe's greatest treasure.

The Bayeux Tapestry was embroidered (it's not really a tapestry) in the late eleventh century. As an artefact, it is priceless, incomparable - nothing of it's delicacy and texture, let alone wit, survives from the period. As a pictorial story it is delightful: the first feature-length cartoon. As history it is essential: it represents the moment of Britain's last conquest by a foreign army and celebrates the Norman…


Les Miserables

By Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock (translator), Norman Macafee (translator)

Book cover of Les Miserables

Why this book?

Hugo was a huge fan of Napoleon and devotes 19 (short) chapters of his masterpiece to weirdly fascinating passages explaining how the French won the Battle of Waterloo while losing it. Very French historical doublethink. (Basically: they were the underdogs and won a moral victory when the Gardes refused to surrender). But amidst all the pro-Napoleon propaganda, there are some superb battle descriptions. Hugo really gets into the soul of the French soldiers and seems to die with them in the mud and smoke. He also gives wonderfully scornful French quotes like: “Waterloo was a battle of the first order won by a captain of the second.” (Take that Wellington, you Anglais upstart!) Hugo visited the battle site at a time when there were still souvenirs to be had, and finished his epic novel there. He felt Waterloo almost as a personal tragedy, which led him to write brilliantly, but often deludedly, about it.

Les Miserables

By Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock (translator), Norman Macafee (translator)

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Les Miserables as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOW A SIX-PART MINISERIES ON MASTERPIECE ON PBS

The only completely unabridged paperback edition of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece—a sweeping tale of love, loss, valor, and passion.

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose.

Within his dramatic story…


The Belly of Paris

By Emile Zola, Brian Nelson,

Book cover of The Belly of Paris

Why this book?

At last, a Frenchman who did understand, and document, French history with great insight, mainly because he was living it. Via the stomach, Zola gets straight to the heart of France. It’s an outrageously well-stocked French food market in book form. Zola describes life in and around (and under) Paris’s Les Halles markets, which were the true beating heart of the city until the old glass buildings were demolished one summer in the early 1970s when Parisians were away on holiday and couldn’t protest. Food, glorious food spills off every page, but there is a deeply serious side to the writing, too. Zola was taking a swipe at the overfed middle classes keeping their wealth – and all their delicious food – to themselves. The novel was published just after the Commune, when an uprising in Paris was brutally repressed, thousands were massacred by their own countrymen, and thousands more were shipped off to concentration camps in the tropics. Here, Florent, an escaped prisoner, returns to Paris and tries to rebuild his life. Even so, there’s some denial going on here: the plot is set in the 1850s, but readers would have understood all too well the more contemporary references.

The Belly of Paris

By Emile Zola, Brian Nelson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Belly of Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Respectable people... What bastards!'

Unjustly deported to Devil's Island following Louis-Napoleon's coup-d'etat in December 1851, Florent Quenu escapes and returns to Paris. He finds the city changed beyond recognition. The old Marche des Innocents has been knocked down as part of Haussmann's grand programme of urban reconstruction to make way for Les Halles, the spectacular new food markets. Disgusted by a bourgeois society whose devotion to food is inseparable from its devotion to the Government, Florent
attempts an insurrection. Les Halles, apocalyptic and destructive, play an active role in Zola's picture of a world in which food and the injustice…


Second Harvest

By Geoffrey Myers, Henri Fluchere, Jean Giono, Louis William Graux

Book cover of Second Harvest

Why this book?

A bit of a cheat, this one. It’s probably my favourite French novel, precisely because it is timeless and seems to ignore everything about French history. I don’t think there’s one mention or symptom of the Revolution, no scar of the First World War, no French over-intellectualizing. It’s just nature and humankind going head-to-head in a brutally realistic, but starkly beautiful, Provençal landscape. By the way, I don’t like the English title – Regain means regrowth, the first signs of recovery. Personally, I’d prefer a title like Signs of Life. And this novel is all about a tiny hamlet in southern France that is on the verge of death. Only one man of working age remains amongst the ruined houses; the fields are fallow; there are no women. Then a tinker comes through, dragging his unwilling, abused femme with him. She catches the lone male peasant’s eye, cosmic chemistry occurs, and from then on everything is an explosion of primeval forces: hormones, sprouting seeds, bodily fluids, cruel nature harnessed by a man and woman determined to forge a new existence. And it’s all told in a subdued, sparse, non-intellectual way that is a bit like a baguette – flour, water, salt and yeast are all you really need for a tasty, satisfying loaf.

Second Harvest

By Geoffrey Myers, Henri Fluchere, Jean Giono, Louis William Graux

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Second Harvest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Aubignane is a village in Provence; or, rather, it was, for it has long been dying. The only inhabitants remaining are the old blacksmith, the well-digger s widow and Panturle, the hunter. Now the blacksmith and the widow abandon the village, the latter promising she will find Panturle a wife. He is not made for solitude and gradually he becomes morose almost to the point of madness. Then a woman comes to the village as if by some supernatural path. She is all it takes for Panturle to start digging the land again and planting wheat, a second harvest. The…


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