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

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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Les Miserables

By Lee Fahnestock, Norman Macafee, Victor Hugo

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.

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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.

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Second Harvest

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

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.

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