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Friday, July 25, 2014

“La Belle France: A Short History”, by Alistair Horne


512 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-1400041404

For anyone seeking a model of how a good historical narrative should be done, go no farther than Horne’s La Belle France: A Short History: THIS is how it’s done: humorous, informative, an agreeable pace without burdening the reader with a nuisance ideological overflow. The breadth of knowledge and use of quality sources is impressive, but the highlight is the subtle and sometimes not so subtle one and two line zingers. It is clear that Horne has had a lifelong love affair with France; throughout the book, he interjects personal experiences from having traveled and lived in France. His approach to the topic should appeal both to the novice student and the advanced Francophile. He provides an especially lucid chronological overview of the major periods of French history and civilization, alluding to significant books and authors in the unparalleled contributions in French literature.

Horne’s tracing of the reigns of the French monarchs is impressive: not only do readers gain insight into the contributions and personal lives of the kings and queens, but the enormous suffering of the peasants under the yoke of the Ancien Régime is thoughtfully considered by the author. Clearly, Horne’s eye is always on the big picture of the development of France through the centuries. I especially admired the personal commentary and humor interjected by Horne throughout the book; for instance, in his description of Louis XIV, the author references a contemporary satirical “prayer” that was highly critical of the Sun King: “Our Father who art in Versailles, thy name is no longer hallowed; thy kingdom is diminished; thy will is no longer done on earth or on the waves” (p. 168). Following the nearly endless reign of Louis XIV, Horne argues convincingly that Versailles became a melancholy place. He then analyzes the lackluster regimes of Louis XV and Louis XVI leading to the French Revolution.

Another strong section of the book is the chapter on the 19th Century. With a long string of revolutions, constantly changing political regimes, and stunning artistic movements, Horne’s analysis is a model of compression and economy. He provides especially effective analysis of the Dreyfus affair.

A weakness of the book is a surprising carelessness with facts. One major lapse came when Horne hopelessly confused a state visit to Paris by the son of King George V of England with the son of Queen Victoria, identified inaccurately by Horne as “the future Edward VII” (p. 306). He should have said that the Prince of Wales, son of George V and the future Edward VIII, visited Paris in 1912. Another gaffe was Horne’s criticism of French authors for advancing their careers with lucrative book publications during the French Occupation of the 1940s. Horne should have realized that many of these authors were writing subversive, allegorical works that were part of the Resistance movement. Even the examples cited by Horne (Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches and Huis Clos) were plays that captured the claustrophobic climate of the era.

Still, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses in this lively history of France. Above all, Horne has a knack for writing engaging biographical profiles with unforgettable short portraits of Henri IV, Napoleon, Charles de Gaulle, and François Mitterrand, among others. With Horne’s insights, based on a lifetime of study, the book pays great rewards for those who share his passion for La Belle France (FYI, a very basic understanding of French would be helpful when reading La Belle France, being that some basic phrases are not translated. I thought this untranslated statement from a woman harassed for dating a German during the occupation was both sad and quite funny: Mon cul est international, mais mon coeur es toujour français!)

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