It is one of the most magical moments in the history of the Tour de France. In a relatively easy descent towards the Gap in 2003, the Basque climber Joseba Beloki crashed hard. Classification leader Lance Armstrong, riding his wheel, narrowly avoids it, runs off the road, thunders down the rocky slope, jumps his bike over a drain pipe and finds a turn further back on the tarmac. “I can’t believe my eyes,” said the French commentator.
Graham Robb is a cycling historian. On one of his trips he passes a crude sign by the side of the road: ‘Chute Beloki’ – this is where Beloki fell. This initiates a thought process typical of the working method of this great master of French history. Robb looks through old maps and finds that Beloki’s fall was exactly where the road no longer follows an ancient Roman route, but takes a bend that was only built in the 1950s. Beloki was catapulted from ancient times to the present, the historian concludes. Stranger still, the leaping Armstrong followed exactly the route and cuts of the ancient Romans.
Martyrs, the Robb Tour riders call it. With Armstrong as the ultimate evil. Typical of Robb is that he likes to look the other way. With him, the maligned Armstrong also becomes the man who, like few others, was able to convey the feeling of the Tour as ‘a self-effacing tribute to France’.
It often happens that the most thorough historians are outsiders. They don’t have the biases and narrowed eyes that can come from being part of your subject for a lifetime. France has such a one in Robb, as before The Discovery of France (2007) and Parisians (2010) wrote books that every lover of France should have on their shelf.
France – An Adventure Story is in a sense the completion of a trilogy. Again, Robb chooses seemingly whimsical subjects that seem to be mainly inspired by the desire to tell stories that people want to read. Behind that capriciousness lie the broad lines that Robb wants to draw.
Robb’s history writing is physical and often even tangible. In the first chapter, for example, it is about the hedges that Caesar encountered during his conquest through Gaul. Those hedges were a phenomenon unfamiliar to the Roman commander, he didn’t quite know how to deal with the vegetal obstacles he encountered in what is now northern France. Thus it could happen that Caesar had no idea that his army was awaited on the banks of the river by 60,000 Gallic warriors. That battle at Subis – nowadays the Samber – did not get more than a small supporting role in the history books. Robb found no traces or memories, also because the Gauls rarely built stone houses or fortresses. What he saw: the traces of the hedges they built to defend themselves can still be found in the landscape.
Triple jump through history
Robb goes through two thousand years of French history in a triple jump. He describes the magnificent palaces built during the late Roman period in Gaul and helps find the treasure that the Cathars are said to have left in a cave. In vain, of course, although it gives him room to adjust the image of the Cathars. Everything promoted to tourists as a ‘Cathar castle’ has nothing to do with the Cathars, who by the way did not call themselves Cathars but ‘good Christians’ and practiced harsh rituals to keep each other on track.
The chapter on the tree in the center of France is fascinating. Robb discovered that a large tree was drawn on a 1624 map intended to depict the dioceses. The tree seems to appear more often, also on older maps, and usually near Aubusson or Bourges. Reason for Robb to get on his bike, as always with his wife Margaret by his side. They find the elm, for Robb one of the first signs of an awakening sense of national unity.
Another story is about Parisian Jacques-Louis Ménétra, a glass and lead craftsman who kept a diary of his wanderings for six years in the mid-1700s. He has been pushed to the edge by historians because he writes extensively and with few scruples about the women he conquers. Robb takes his diary seriously, if only because it is one of the few surviving writings of a craftsman. With the help of Ménetra, he tells of the enormous distance that gaped between Paris and the rest of the country.
Through Napoleon’s practical advice, a search for the lady who was the model for Madame Bovary and the irresistible Mont Aiguille in Vercors, we reach the present, where Jaune’s vest, the yellow vests, is characterized as a movement of the inhabitants of the suburbs, the people who have never rebelled before, just as the revolution started with a march of ordinary Parisians who never protested. A lesson that now also comes in handy in the Netherlands.
The French are fighting with minorities that were the result of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan, treats Robb in typical fashion. He talks about the woman who, not long after the attacks on the beach in Nice, is reprimanded by four police officers for wearing too many clothes. He reflects the attitude of these authority figures Charlie Hebdo, who ridicules a student leader for the scarf she wears: ‘The mask of irony has been taken off.’ It is Robb as a whole who never takes history as it has been laid out according to communis opinio.
Graham Robb: France – An Adventure Story. Picador; 554 pages; €21.50.