Feb 06 2006

Premature Evaluation: On the Brink: The Trouble with France

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, the market for reviews of revised editions of books on France originally published in 1998 is bound to be small. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.

On the Brink: The Trouble with France, by Jonathan Fenby, is meant to be an exploration of France’s uniqueness, and its importance for Europe. As he writes in the preface, “Without a healthy France, there is no Europe.” What I actually found in the first several chapters, though, was a description of the specifically French versions of common European tropes.

Attachment to the land? Check. (Everywhere I’ve ever been.) Pride in a long and improbable history? Check. (Again.) Distinctive regions? Check. (Even Latvia has regions.) Harkening back to a glorious golden age? Check. (Remember the great Moravian empire? The Moravians do.) Possibly exaggerated sense of its role in world history? Check. (The Estonians, with a population barely bigger than metropolitan Munich, think they took down the USSR.) Distaste for its political class? Long struggle to separate church from state? Declining rural populations? Demographic worries? Far right parties regularly drawing about 15 percent of votes? Check, to one and all. And so on and so forth.

It’s nice to learn more about how these general characteristics manifest themselves in France — since I know far too little about the place — but the implied argument is that they make France different, whereas I saw them as illustrating how much France resembles other European countries.

Don’t get me wrong, the specifics are important; indeed, they are much of what Europe is about. And chapter 9 makes some of the contrasts specific by comparing France with England. On the other hand, given how England differs from much of the rest of the continent, there may not be too much gained for readers from other countries.

I’m interested in the stories Fenby tells, in the details he marshals and in the overall portrait that he paints. I’m just not convinced that he’s showing how France is either different or important. I’ve got another 150 pages to go, and this is a premature evaluation.

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