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Book Review: France In The World - A New Global History

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

This review took longer than expected - and for that I am truly sorry - but this is an historic tome, not just some paperback that can be quickly read, commented on, and forgotten soon after. France In The World is a book that you live with - and that's a good thing. Spanning the course of over 1300 pages, and more than 130 individual essays by a variety of authors, it seeks to explore the ever-changing role of France within the context of the world; and to take a closer look at how recent events, as well as those of the distant past, are reflected in the world today. As a result, it encompasses everything from pandemics to plantations, and football to Foucault. To say its scope is expansive would be an understatement.

Patrick Boucheron, a French historian and broadcaster who is now a professor of history at the College de France, was the editor of the original 2017 French edition. He was supported by a team of historians and co-editors - Nicolas Delalande, Florian Mazel, Yann Pottin (who wrote some of my favourite entries), and Pierre Singaravelou - each of whom contributed at least one essay to the text; and the English-language edition (published last month by Gallic Books) was edited by Stephane Gerson, a cultural historian, and director of NYU's Institute of French Studies (a place I would dearly love to visit). Although Gerson did not contribute an essay to the original text, he has written a generous and insightful preface to this edition, which frames the work in its proper light.

In describing the role of the book and its contributors, he says:

France In The World opens up the historian's workshop, drawing attention to craft and sources, to doubts and choices and the debates that advance knowledge. The editors also urged the contributors to embrace a free, welcoming language, to avail themselves of "all the resources of storytelling, of analysis, contextualisation, exemplification." Patrick Boucheron has long pushed his fellow historians toward "audacity and creativity and perhaps also greater confidence in the powers of language." Literary, even poetic, historical writing opens up common language by unsettling what seems familiar and breathing new life into "the textures of the past." And so, the essays in France In The World take different forms: narrative descriptions, direct addresses to the reader, slightly ironic glosses, politic asides on the past and the present."

Of course, responsibility for the work does not reside solely with the authors, and Gerson goes on to explain the role of the reader in this process:

“I want to emphasise the plural - resources, powers, contours of language - for the editors grant us - the readers - as much freedom and, therefore, as much trust and responsibility as they do the contributors. They encourage us to trace our own itineraries across the past, to read diagonally through time and the conventional periods that govern our vision of history. Begin at the beginning, or in the middle if you prefer, and see where you end up. By neglecting key dates (say, the 1916 Battle of Verdun) and adding others that may seem inconsequential, by granting the same number of words to Coco Chanel as to Charlemagne, they are telling us that all planes of history are equally revealing, that all historical actors deserve attention. Hierarchies exist, of course, but do not expect to find one ready-made in this book. It falls upon us, as attentive readers and critical thinkers, to create meaning out of the apparent chaos of history."

For me, this was something I took into account going in, and I found myself underlining various passages (including the ones listed above) as I went along. The fact I've been doing this more and more of late is evidence of both a change in my reading habits and the quality of the material I consume, but it's also an outflow of that attentive reading and critical thinking which Gerson encourages. Most of the essays tend to run between eight to ten pages, but in that economy of length there is some wonderfully rich prose. The authors have managed to engage me with various aspects of history I wasn't previously interested in - as well as clarifying topics I wanted to learn more about - because they know how to make it come alive; and in that, Boucheron's push toward creativity and the powers of language has paid off.

In the pages of his own introduction - or overture, as he chooses to call it - Boucheron goes on to further outline their goal:

“As a matter of principle, the history we set forth refuses to surrender the "History of France" to knee-jerk reactionaries or to concede them any narrative monopoly. By approaching the subject from the open sea (so to speak), by catching the élan of a historiography driven by strong, fresh winds, it seeks to recover the diversity of France. This is why this venture has taken the form of a collective editorial project. France In The World gives voice to a group of historians, male and female, working in concert toward a history that is both committed (engagée) and scholarly. This book is a joyous polyphony, not by happenstance (how could anyone today presume to write a full history of France single-handed?), but by choice."

I must admit, I still haven't read it all - that would be overwhelming - but as an overarching narrative that encourages readers to dip in and pay repeat visits, France In The World has done its job. Aside from a list of references that might encourage further reading, each author provides a list of related articles within the book, so readers can cross-reference. I've already had to go back and read various articles again as newer entries brought other details to light or added clarity to something I'd previously read. Boucheron acknowledges this when he says, “... a historian can show how the past is forever made and unmade by the changing frames of history. History does not speak for itself, in the clear light of the evidence; we can only view it through the prism of our knowledge ... Such then is our project. It is neither linear nor aimed at a particular target, and it has no beginning, no end."

I will continue to wrestle with this book over the coming months - putting it down for a while, then picking it back up when something else inspires further reading. I've already learned more about the complex relationship between France and Algeria (which I touched on briefly in my review of Lucas Belvaux's Des Hommes) courtesy of entries by Claire Fredj, Sylvie Thénault, and Emmanuelle Loyer; and I find it interesting that these heavier topics are often tackled by the female historians. There's some great writing by women on display throughout the book, including Sylvie Chaperon's piece on Simone de Beauvoir - which I read while still preparing to tackle her lost classic, The Inseparables, that was recently translated by Lauren Elkin.

France In The World: A New Global History was translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Jane Kuntz, Alexis Pernsteiner, Anthony Roberts, and Willard Wood, and can be purchased direct from the publisher or through your favourite independent book stockist.

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