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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

“France and the French: A Modern History”, by Rod Kedward

712 pages, The Overlook Press, ISBN-13: 978-1585677337

Be warned: France and the French: A Modern History by Rod Kedward is a book for those who are already reasonably familiar with the outlines of French history in the 20th Century. For these benighted folks (I kid, of course) Kedward’s formidable research – the bibliography of Selected Further Reading runs to 26 pages – will provide a mass of detail not easily found elsewhere…

…but it seems to me that he takes quite a lot of previous knowledge for granted (one tiny example out of very many: he assumes that readers know what the Schlieffen Plan was), and even for those who do have a good general knowledge, the book is quite densely written and, in places, rather stodgy (in Chapter 7 almost impenetrably so). Kedward’s ambition is to be thoroughly comprehensive – a tall order even for 650 pages of text. The result is that often the book is studded with the names of everybody who was anybody in France and, in places, it reads a bit like a catalogue (in Chapter 6, for example, every artist of significance is given about a sentence or two, which serves as a reminder to those who know something of their work, but cannot really bring it to life for those who do not). The arrangement of the book is chronological, but social and economic history – worthy, but sometimes, I fear, very dull – take up much more space than political history; character sketches of leading politicians are extremely compressed (just the odd adjective or two) and so are accounts of French foreign policy, though all the main events are featured. It all makes for rather dry reading.

The overall problem with Kedward’s book is too much information, too little thesis. The reader is confronted with a river of facts, but most of the analysis is at the level of freshman musings of a Guardian-reading sociologist. Take the section on May 1968: one skeptical reading is that May 1968 was a load of student narcissism, but Kedward clearly thinks that it was a big and substantive deal – even after listing the only concrete grievance of the students as lack of access to the girls’ dorms. The best I could make out was that I should see the riots and what not as a manifestation of the Zeitgeist, but this is implied more than stated, with talk about a post-modern society (while I more-or-less know what a post-modern building or painting is, I can’t say the same about a post-modern society). My quest for a book on modern French history continues. Though easily organized, this is the driest tome that could possibly be penned on the subject, prized more as a reference work than a tome of knowledge.

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