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Always True to France

Paris and Elsewhere

by Richard Cobb, edited and introduced by David Gilmour, by (Distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square)
London: John Murray, 276 pp., $45.00

Last year I was on a walking holiday in the Vercors, south of Grenoble. On a perfect May morning, two of us were traversing a high upland plateau just below the snowline. Turf impeccable enough to re-lay fairways at the Augusta Masters was crossed by thin, pure streams; here, in boastful profusion—Nature showing what it can do when left alone—were a billion gentians, edelweiss, dwarf narcissi, buttercups, and orchids; once or twice, against the melting snow, we glimpsed what was probably a small fox, depending on how big marmots grow. A padlocked shack denoted a seasonal human presence in what was otherwise a swathe of changeless France. In the late afternoon we descended into a small village, some forty buildings jammed between two hills. As the grass track gave way to semi-asphalt, we encountered another item from changeless France: a peasant pasturing his goats on the public hedgeside. He was ancient, rubicund, and toothless, accompanied by an automatically hostile dog of mixed ancestry, and as he told us the long story of his rheumatism he would, as punctuation, give the nearest goat a thwack with his stick.

The village was as you might expect: a church, a desiccated water fountain, a former school still bearing a faded RF on its forehead, a boulangerie open one hour a day, an auberge, two walkers’ hostels. Some of the houses had been freshly made over, with parchment stone and custard mortar; others were in restauro. Over dinner we asked Madame how many indigènes still lived in the village. Just the one, she replied: the peasant whom we had met. He may look eighty, she said, but was only about sixty—“Et pourtant il vit une vie très bio, très écolo.” We agreed that you could have too much bio and écolo in your life. Was drink the cause of his seeming dilapidation? No, it was his cousin, the village’s penultimate peasant, who used to drink. Or at least he did until the day he went down the mountain to vote, and someone in a café told him he didn’t look too well. They took him to the hospital for observation, he didn’t drink for eight days, and promptly died.

The surviving Ultimate Peasant followed a rigidly structured life: he rose at five, and went up the mountain to collect dead wood for a fire he would ritually light at five in the evening, every day, regardless of season or weather. He lived with and off his goats; he had a certain amount of money, but didn’t spend anything. He had never married. “I suppose he could get a Russian,” said Madame. There is still a bachelors’ fête not too far away, where women would traditionally come for husbands. In the old days they were Portuguese or Spanish; now they are Polish or Russian. But this solution is improbable. In the meantime, everyone in the village does errands for the Ultimate One (“It took him fifteen years to say Thank You”). He doesn’t drive and—according to the incomers—couldn’t live through the winter without their help. At some point he, the last indigène, will die, and then this village, which seemed on first acquaintance so authentic, will become completely false—or, if you prefer, will finish reinventing itself for the modern world. It will be sustained by tourism rather than agriculture; be reliant on cars and out-of-town shopping; and be virtually uninhabited in winter. A seasonal village, repeating from time to time a few of the communal acts which its originators and their successors performed out of necessity and belief and habit.

La France profonde has disappeared within our century; or at least is now graspable only in tainted form. Edith Wharton, in 1908, saw this about to happen. “The demands of motoring,” she wrote, “are introducing modern plumbing and Maple furniture into the uttermost parts of France.” Those romantic old inns, where it was “charming to breakfast, if precarious to sleep,” were doomed; with them, that “independence and simplicity of living,” that “thriftily compact traditional life” formed over centuries by the landscape’s inhabitants. “The trivial motorist” (a class in which she included herself) was to prove the forerunner of other destructive agents: war, peace, communications technology, mass tourism, the unfettered free market, Americanization, Eurification, greed, short-termism, smug ahistoricism.

The old nation-states of Europe are being homogenized into herdable groups of international consumers separated only by language. (Hence the political enthusiasm for bombing Serbia: We are not just about economics! Look, we have moral values too!) Is this a fair—or, at least, the only—price to pay for the avoidance of those recidivist spasms of continent-wide warfare which marked our previous history? Perhaps. Would the Ultimate Peasant prefer to start his life now, with an easier workload, social benefits, subventions from Brussels, satellite porn, and an off-road vehicle? Perhaps. But both the lowering of ambition among the European leadership and the lowering of distinctiveness among the European population have to be noted. We give character to our own particular region of dullness by certain totemic cults and, where necessary, by the invention of tradition. The French are as good at this as anybody; and the Francophile’s dismay at such permitted dilution of the Gallic essence is the greater because the French have always made the largest claims, both for themselves and for Europe.

The historian Richard Cobb first went to France in 1935, to a Paris which still contained Edith Wharton, though it was popular life rather than literary pilgrimage which fascinated him: the street vendors and flame-swallowers, the strolling musicians and prostitutes, the manacled strong men enjoying “droit de pavé on the immensely wide pavement”; the world of obscure bars and tiny, four-table restaurants; the exuberance, volubility, and cheerful anarchy of the daily scene; that enviable ease with pleasure which so attracts the repressed English. He delighted in the pungent Métro and the convivial plateforme d’autobus (a Cobb leitmotif, along with leprous Utrillo walls and the faux manoir normand), while asserting, and proving, that a city could only be truly known if explored on foot.

He acquired what he called a “second identity,” didn’t mind not being wholly English any more, and loved being asked if he was Belgian (though this is normally a somewhat poisoned compliment from the French to the Francophone). He had either one French wife (if you believe the index to Paris and Elsewhere) or two (if you follow the logic of his widely divergent descriptions of what might theoretically be the same woman), and then an English one; children, too, it seems. Before, and perhaps in between (David Gilmour’s two introductions are scant help with chronology or the personal life), there seems to have been a great taste for, and knowledge of, prostitution: “Most Paris brothels tended to look like public lavatories—English ones, not French ones.” Cobb’s life became so French that French things happened to him: he used to visit Gaby la Landaise, a prostitute from Dax, on payday every month for a year (I think we are in the late Forties or early Fifties), until the Friday he learned that she had just put a revolver in her mouth and shot herself, “in one of the sparse bedrooms on the fifth floor, No. 78.” Another small case for Maigret. Meanwhile, Cobb’s history became so French that not only was it all about France, specifically the Revolution, specifically its later stages, but it was written and published in French; his first book in English didn’t appear until he was fifty-two.

Cobb’s France is not that of the traditional English Francophile, who tends to prefer the South, the countryside, the sun, the deceptively original village; who likes things as different from England as possible. Cobb preferred cities (indeed, he scarcely seems to notice the pastoral); he loved the North, which included Belgium; when he went south at all, it was to great centers like Lyon or Marseilles. He was addicted to walking, but walking in cities; it’s not clear whether he ever drove (his alcohol intake, even if probably no greater than that of the average Frenchman of the period, makes one hope he didn’t); certainly he favored public transport, with its opportunities for eavesdropping and casual observation. He was in no way a snob—a spell in the British army, he claimed, divested him of class—except in the sense that he tended not to give the middle and upper classes the benefit of the doubt. (History, you could say, had already given them that.) He preferred les petites gens both in his life and in his writing: small tradespeople, working folk, servants, laundresses, wigmakers’ assistants, cardsharps, water-carriers, prostitutes, idlers, semi-criminals; his closest French friend was both a deserter and a thief.

Though a democrat in his social tastes, he saw enough of the French Communist Party to distrust generalized belief systems; he had no appetite for eating off comradely plates which revealed, as the food disappeared from them, Picasso’s benign icon of Stalin. He was, by his own description, “a very lonely person”; he was also, by his own evidence, social and convivial, a welcoming fellow drinker. A paradoxical man, then, a solitary with frequent companions; and in some ways a paradoxical historian, since in his life he clearly liked order and ritual, feared chaos and brutality, yet spent his career with one of the most disorderly and violent periods in France’s history.

Cobb’s social writing is personal and impressionistic, while his history is archival and fanatically detailed. Yet both spring from the same principles and focus: a very English taste for the particular and the local, and a disregard for theory, scheme, and overarching structure, for generalization and “models.” In the middle of a characteristically enormous sentence about the problem, after five years of Revolutionary upheaval, of establishing anyone’s true identity, especially at the lowest levels of society, Cobb refers to “the historian like the police and other repressive authorities before him.” Cobb was fond of this comparison in its benign form: the historian as a detective who takes his time, never rushes to conclusions, learns the geography of the crime, walks the streets, takes a pastis, sniffs the air, asks seemingly irrelevant questions. And the trope is reversible: thus Maigret, for Cobb, is “a historian of habit, of the déjà vu…a historian of the unpredictable…a historian of class”; he may be limitingly unaware of change but is vividly alert to “habit, routine, assumption, banality, everydayness, seasonability, popular conservatism.” This is the historian/detective as virtuous investigator; but Cobb’s seemingly throwaway allusion to “other repressive authorities” (the slight looseness of the grammar allows for ambiguity) alerts us also to the dangers of the historian’s profession: the ordering and ordering-about of humanity, the rigid classification, the distant decision-making, the unpersoning, the disappearing, the oubliette.

Cobb was a “historian of individuality” in both senses of the phrase. For him, history “has never been an intellectual debate”; it doesn’t start from an argument or a theory. With a robust and deliberately offensive pragmatism, he insisted that “I do not know what history is about, nor what social function it serves. I have never given the matter a thought.” He prefers to begin at the opposite end, with a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. Having pounded the streets himself, Cobb was imaginatively alive to the effect of urban geography on the possibilities of historical event: how the river brings news as well as logs; how bridges funnel a population across a city, making identity checks, arrest, and even murder that much more feasible. His exposition of the effect of geography and administrative boundary on the development of Lyon—its buildings taller, its streets darker, its society more perpendicular, its network of passageways more conducive to crime and escape—is Cobb at his most masterly.

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