Richard Cobb
Richard Cobb; drawing by David Levine

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.

It is at street level, too, that Cobb seeks his historical personnel. The proclaimers of Revolution interest him less than the zealous butcher, skeptical baker, and befuddled candlestick-maker at the other end of the chain of command. In a key statement of intent, Cobb distinguishes his line of approach to revolutionary elites from that of Albert Soboul:

He does name the militants, but he does not give them the benefit of a personality. The result is that we can see how they operated, but we gain virtually no impression of what they were like, whether they were sincere or time-wasters, whether they were out for publicity or for the fruits of office, whether they had sound sense or were crackpots. We just have to accept that they were militants and that something, whether ambition or sincerity, distinguished them from the general mass of their neighbours.

Cobb appreciates that many individuals join movements for mixed motives, but that the movements themselves like to pretend, as they sup from their Stalin plates, that motives are, or at least should be, pure; he also knows that individuals will retrospectively purify their motives if and when a movement becomes successful. Cobb is against complete motive—an individual with a complete motive is probably a “crackpot” of one sort or another (not that such crackpots do not have their influence on history)—just as he is against complete solutions: whether a revolution is examined from the ground up, or from theory down, there will always be “mystery and accident” at or close to the heart of it. He is also—as a Maigretian—a believer in “routine, assumption, banality.” To study the moment of revolutionary violence is necessary; but Cobb never forgets that such a moment is rare in a human life, as it is rare in human history. The fear, the anticipation, and the memory of violence may be pervasive, but the moment itself is surrounded and given context by a lifetime of work, love, mourning, illness, shopping, play, boredom, and so on.

Cobb’s ground-up individualism and tireless archive-truffling help protect him from the sin of hindsight. Of course, history is by its nature an act of hindsight, of understanding, or understanding better, what was understood less well at the time, or of understanding again what has been temporarily forgotten. But the writing of history is always vulnerable to the contaminated now, to the knowledge of what has occurred between there and here. The Commune knew the Revolution but the Revolution couldn’t imagine the Commune. This is obvious but temptingly forgettable. Further, the Revolution may by its example and declarations have been partly responsible for a subsequent society in which the poor and disadvantaged were treated less badly; but the historian must discover and insist that during the Revolution it-self the poor lived as poorly as they ever had, while the repressive Royal-ist legislation aimed at controlling them was not only not repealed, but vigorously enforced by their new masters. All that the common people got from the Revolution, in Cobb’s view, was a brief glimpse of power—power never again experienced, for all the plausible hypocrisies of later forms of government.

Cobb’s history is archival, anecdotal, undogmatic, imaginatively sympathetic, incomplete, and sometimes chaotic. The historian as novelist? Up to a point. In Paris and Elsewhere Cobb proposes “the framework of a novel that has not been written and that I will not be likely to write.” It is set in Ixelles, one of the independent municipalities of Greater Brussels, between the mid-Forties and mid-Fifties. Cobb evokes with care and vigor the townscape and its socially stratified populace; he describes the inhabitants’ various itineraries and jots down decorative street scenes; he remembers the changing quality of the light; he hints at death and murder and transformation. But he’s right: he wouldn’t have written this novel. The historian, especially of the Cobbian kind, is a sort of novelist, but one who instead of inventing plot and character is obliged to discover them; who instead of setting characters in motion against one another with foreknowledge of their natures and destinies tries to guess at what sometimes incoherent characters were up to amid a distraction of lies and suppressions. This may well be the harder kind of work, especially when the sought plot proves nugatory, thin, fragmented, trampled into indetectability by previous searchers; or, when found, is unpleasing to the reader or even to the historian himself.

David Gilmour sees Cobb’s career in terms of a curve, beginning with a long obscurity, as the provincial academic explored and relished his second identity. He attained general recognition only in the mid-Seventies, following his appointment as Professor of Modern History at Oxford. During this period France gave him the Légion d’honneur; literary editors sought his prose, and the radio his voice; one year he was a “controversial” chairman, according to Gilmour, of the Booker Prize. (He was controversial mainly for remarking in his judicial speech that he’d never read Proust, an admission some thought a joke, and others deliberately pseudo-philistine. In fact, Proust wasn’t his period, and Proust’s personnel hardly petites gens. It is the typical, the conventional, the popular novelist, the scourer and celebrator of the streets, who is of most use and appeal to such a historian. Cobb’s taste was thus for Simenon, Pagnol, Cendrars, Queneau, René Fallet, Sue, MacOrlan, and Restif de la Bretonne.) Then, from the mid-Eighties, the curve descended, in a return to comparative obscurity, this time accompanied by illness and unhappiness. By the time of Cobb’s death in 1996 only one of his historical works remained in print in English, and that, ironically, a translation: The People’s Armies, originally written in French.

This is sad, but not entirely a surprise. Cobb never wrote a big, popular book, not least because he never lowered his sights or tour-guided his terrain. He sought to convey his fascination, but never tried to ingratiate himself with the casual reader:

First of all, then, we have to deal with the sans-culotte as such—that is to say, with a person not as he was, let us say, in 1792, or as he would have become in 1795 or in 1796, but as he was for a brief period from 1793 to 1794. For the life and death of the sans-culotte can be circumscribed within a period running more or less from April 1793 to April 1794, allowing for a possible overlap up to Thermidor year II or even to Brumaire year III. It would be stretching the species too far to describe, as a Norwegian historian has done… [etc.]

Cobb knew that the truth lay in the detail, and the detail meant complication, elaboration, doubt. He would never have made a TV don. As a reviewer he was famous in literary editors’ offices for the unanswered telephone and the unguessable delivery date: copy, typewritten to the very edge of innumerable small index cards, would arrive when it did arrive—always brilliant, always vastly over length, always uncuttable. The wise editor would sit tight, knowing that when the elusive text did finally turn up it would surely make a lead review. In a way, Cobb’s semipublic years were the untypical ones. He was the sort of historian who inspired other historians, who taught by example, who was a quiet cult. Becoming a foppish opinion-monger, goosing the tabloid readers of Middle England, hoovering up the three-book advance: this was never his world. He would rather have another 3 AM calvados and watch the Rouen fishmongresses gut the night’s catch by kerosene lamp.

There is a line of disenchantment and melancholy running through Cobb’s life and work. But it is not about himself; it is about France. It may be that other countries, like politicians, are there to disappoint us; and that those who take a second identity are more vulnerable to such disappointment. Your alter country is all that your first was not; commitment to it involves idealism, love, sentimentality, and a certain selective vision. Over the years, however, you may discover that the alluring differences conceal grinding similarities with your own country (the snootiness of elites, the complacency of the bourgeoisie, the conservatism of the proletariat); you may also start noticing aspects of that otherness which you dislike, or which seem aimed at destroying what you did like about the country. Where now are the idling Rouen trolleybus with its pole unhooked, the jolly shop-window mime artists, the companionable sadsacks in all-night bars? Items of old France are still there, in places; the four-table family restaurant can yet be found, though with greater difficulty. But your love has become vulnerable, nostalgia threatens to become corrosive, and a moment of terminal fracture beckons. All of this happened to Cobb.

He was always a good hater, of course. His France—urban, northern, provincial, pedestrian, noisy, unpuritanical, festive—was in contrast to, and predicated upon, another France: bureaucratic, official, suburban, safe, rule-crazy, scared. Cobb had bright scorn for: the Bordelais, the police, bossy women behind guichets, Victor Hugo (“France’s National Bore”), Sartre, Le Corbusier (“the Swiss démolomane,” “the implacable Helvetian”), Jean-Luc Godard (another implacable Helvetian), Baron Haussmann (“the Alsatian Attila”), the Boulevard Saint-Michel—indeed, the whole of the Latin Quarter—Georges Pompidou (a “visionary vandal” worse than Haussmann), pedestrian precincts, and the scrubbed petrification of buildings restored for people to look at rather than live in.

Just as he was a historian of individuality, Cobb was a believer in the individualistic city, one marked by variousness and the human scale: different people leading different lives in different yet neighboring streets. In his lifetime he saw the heart of Brussels wrecked, and parts of Paris go, especially the Marais and the Sixième. He watched the capital become increasingly a single-class city, in a process of social cleansing promoted by money, municipal vanity, and museumification.

This may seem exaggerated. Paris has probably suffered less than many other Western European cities; while the lover of rural France may have seen even starker transformations than the lover of urban France. But each later generation draws a new base line, and finds it hard to imagine what has already been lost. The defining France Cobb first encountered in 1935 would have been closer to Edith Wharton’s France of thirty years earlier than to De Gaulle’s and Pompidou’s of thirty years later. The Fifth Republic was at least as effective (being more sly, and acting with more general consent) as Louis XIV or the Revolution had been in the continued attempt to centralize, standardize, and domesticate the nation. This smug postwar expansionism provoked one of Cobb’s most splenetic denunciations. He describes how, in 1968,

A “revolutionary situation” suddenly emerged, after ten years of Gaullist paternalism and political anaesthesia and exclusive concern for the material comforts of an unquestioning and vulgar pursuit of the new car, the TV, holidays in more and more exotic surroundings, early marriage, a family of manageable size, and the youthful climb up the technocratic ladder, as people, on the road to material success and managerial position, moved further and further out of the city, to live in pseudo-rural “neighbourhood” estates: riding, swimming-pool, tennis, park, children’s playground, patio, whisky, invitations to young married colleagues in the same income group, a limited infidelity (in the same income group), talk of the next car and the next holiday, rapid trips abroad for the firm (discreet infidelity, limited to the Common Market zone), masculinity and violence expressed in terms of horsepower and speed of driving.

It all got worse (it always does); indeed, it reached a poignant climax in 1989, when Cobb was so disgusted by the Bicentennial celebrations that the Revolution’s great historian resolved never to write about France again. This was a sad, love-lost, and possibly naive decision. Renan said that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation,” and a nation rarely gets its history as wrong as when congratulating itself on a famous yet intensely contradictory event. Cobb might have known this. But it is a measure of the largeness and precision of his love for the country that it could in the end so disappoint him.

This Issue

August 12, 1999