The History of Modern France –
From The Revolution to the Present Day
By Jonathan Fenby
Simon & Schuster – £25.00
Having covered France for the best part of half a century – during which time Jonathan Fenby was not only Paris bureau chief for both Reuters and The Economist, but also edited The Observer and The South China Morning Post – it might go without saying he knows a thing or deux about this most alluring and perplexing paradox of a nation.
He has after all, written eighteen books, among them, the mighty acclaimed On The Brink:The Trouble with France and The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved, the latter of which has been hailed by The New York Times as ”magnificent, learned, incisive and gripping.” So when it came to my attention he’d written an all round, comprehensive history of France, I was immediately inspired to sit up, take note, and fully embrace what can only be described as one of the most engaging books on the country I’ve ever read.
Reason being, The History of Modern France – From The Revolution to the Present Day is so unquestionably all-inclusive.
In other words, Fenby refuses to write from any single premise. He assuredly writes from within and without the exceedingly didactic parameters of a simultaneous history.
And this is just one of the high-octane facets of Fenby’s literary approach, which he instantaneously alerts the reader to in the very first chapter of this most readable of books (‘The Lasting Legacy of the Revolution’): ”Despite all the vicissitudes and upheavals of two centuries, this book will argue that common themes run through France’s modern history, the main one being that a nation which takes its revolutionary and republican legacy as constituting its core values has never, in fact, fully digested that heritage because it has never wanted to shed its other, more conservative character […]. The past is a constant element in the present especially for a country as aware of its history as France and which so prides itself on its exceptionalism. But bringing the two into harmony is a problem hardly any easier at the start of the twenty-first century than it was at the end of the eighteenth.”
Might this be because ”the Hexagon between the Alps and the Atlantic, the Channel and the Mediterranean, Flanders and the Pyrenees saw – and sees – itself as home of the ideas and ideals with a global message to all those who seek liberty, equality and fraternity?” Or, might this be because as Sudir Hazareesingh succinctly states in the equally excellent How The French Think (Allen Lane) which I’m currently in the midst of reading/reviewing: ”More than any nation, France is haunted by a yearning towards universality?”
To be sure, Fenby actually quotes Hazareesignh in the final chapter, ‘The Weight of History,’ where he asks if ”French democracy” remains ”unfinished.”
Either way, there’s a great deal to be said for the simple dictum that ”when the French fight for mankind, they are wonderful. When they fight for themselves, they are nothing.” Just as there’s a great deal to be made of these twenty-four chapters. All of which truly resonate with a pristine knowledge that will be very hard to match, let alone surpass, for a long, long time to come.