Je veux lire de l'histoire française
November 4, 2013 9:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the middle of In Search of Lost Time. It's interesting me in French history. It's better to learn about it from non-fiction, though, since Proust mixes real figures and facts with ones he made up. What good books are there about any period of French history between 1789 and, say, 1939? Popular or academic books are fine, and they don't have to concern themselves with wars, arms races, and treaties, either. Cultural histories are good.
posted by Rustic Etruscan to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I quite liked "1000 years of annoying the french" ( although it obviously covers a longer period.

It's perhaps a little biased (I wouldn't like to comment for certain), but definitely entertaining.

I'm very slowly trying to work my way through "The Discovery of France" ( but I keep getting bored.
posted by curious_yellow at 9:47 AM on November 4, 2013

I'd point you towards René Rémond, but it seems only his fairly technical The Right Wing in France: From 1815 to De Gaulle is available in English. Karl Marx's writings about the revolution of 1848 and Napoleon III are interesting and entertaining.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:38 AM on November 4, 2013

Best answer: Slighltly off topic but under the general heading of making Proust's references and light fictionalizations more transparent to the modern, non-French reader: Paintings in Proust illustrates and discusses many of the paintings referred to in the text (and boy does he refer to a lot).
posted by shothotbot at 10:39 AM on November 4, 2013

A couple older authors to consider: Alfred Cobban, for a basic narrative history, and Theodore Zeldin, for his five-volume History of French Passions. More recently, John Merriman has written Police Stories on the early 19th-century French state, and The Dynamite Club, on fin-de-siècle terrorism. Colin Jones has written a fine book on Paris; my former colleague Charles Rearick has written on Paris as seen through the eyes of its visitors, as well as The French in Love and War on French culture between WWI and WWII.

I'm an early modernist, not a modern historian, so I can't offer a lot more off the top of my head. I haven't read Robert Gildea's Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914, but it looks at least like a broad treatment! Alice Conklin has a recent book on France and its Empire since 1870. D. L. L. Parry and Pierre Girard's France since 1800: Squaring the Hexagon might also be of interest.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:59 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might find Janet Flanner's reportage of interest. She lived in Paris and wrote for the New Yorker from the 1920s through the 1970s, with a little time away during the war. Paris Was Yesterday is her pre-war reporting, which is more about arts and culture; her post-war reporting is all bound together as one big volume and focuses much more on politics and economics. She was, IMO, a relatively liberal person but not of the left - she has far more sympathy with De Gaulle than is necessary or helpful. Her early reporting contains some sadly-typical-for-the-times descriptions of black artists and musicians who were performing in Paris - ie, not viciously/hatefully racist, but stereotyping in not so great ways.

She was a lesbian and in with the whole rich-expatriate-lesbian scene (Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, for instance) as well as just rich French lesbian scene generally (Natalie Barney) which of course she did not write directly about but which lurks in the background in her pieces on Stein, Toklas and others.

What about reading about Haiti or some of the writing by Algerians or citizens of the colonies? I really think it's hard to understand early modern French history without knowing some of the history of Haiti, for instance, since how to deal with Haiti was a subject of great debate during the revolution. The canonical book there is of course The Black Jacobins.
posted by Frowner at 11:44 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hunh, I was just coming in here to make the unorthodox suggestion of Janet Flanner, and I find Frowner has beaten me to it. I will add that if you have a New Yorker subscription I believe you should be able to read her stuff in their archives.
posted by Diablevert at 12:25 PM on November 4, 2013

There's a lot of history about the revolution, empire, and French colonialism in the biography of Josephine Bonaparte by Andrea Stuart called The Rose of Martinique.
posted by Mallenroh at 12:51 PM on November 4, 2013

Heartily recommend Children of the Revolution: The French 1789-1914 by Robert Gildea
posted by Dolukhanova at 1:47 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

"The Age of Napoleon" by Will and Ariel Durant.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:25 PM on November 4, 2013

In general I would recommend Pierre Nora Les Lieux de mémoire (there is a translation of it in English but that's still the title).
posted by citron at 2:59 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nora's edited volumes are good, and well translated by the able Art Goldhammer. The English title, though, is Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:39 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ah, right, the earlier Chicago edition was published as Rethinking France: Les lieux de mémoire. But I would recommend Goldhammer's translation.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:40 PM on November 4, 2013

Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 does a great job of explaining how the Third Republic helped make France into the centralized country that it is today.

You should look at something related to the Dreyfus Affair. I see Ruth Harris (a well-respected historian of France) has a book out that looks like it's pitched to a more general readership.

I can personally recommend Martha Hanna's Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War, which weaves together the personal correspondance of a WWI soldier and his wife and the historical transformations that France underwent in the early 20th Century.
posted by dhens at 4:37 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: French history (especially the modern stuff) is not my specialty, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt for anything but a fairly pop level. I have a higher tolerance for drier writing than a lot of people, too, particularly if the subject is interesting.

I'll second The Dynamite Club, which I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown. And he's not exactly a historian--more of literature/art guy--but I quite liked Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism for cultural/art history in the nineteenth century.
posted by immlass at 5:10 PM on November 4, 2013

Do you read French? My French coworker recommended Robert Merle's series on the Huguenots. I don't think it's ever been translated and in fact may not be very readable unless you're fluent but he insisted it's good.
posted by fiercekitten at 5:57 PM on November 4, 2013

But those take place quite a bit further back than you wanted. Never mind...
posted by fiercekitten at 5:59 PM on November 4, 2013

@fiercekitten: Robert Merle's books are novels. They're historical novels, but they aren't nonfiction, which is the OP's interest in this question. If the OP wants recommendations on French history, c. 1500-1789, I can provide them in spades.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:25 PM on November 4, 2013

I quite liked Twelve Who Ruled, a sort of collective biography of the men who formed the Committee for Public Safety. It's a good introduction to the French Revolution with a focus on character.

Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity is a good and fairly unbiased biography of Robespierre.

I'm in the middle of The Perilous Crown: France Between Revolutions 1814-1848, which seems good so far. If you've read, or plan to read, Hugo's Les Misérables, it's a good adjunct.

There's a new translation of Les Misérables itself due out soon. Although it is primarily a novel, there are entire chapters of nonfiction (rather poetic nonfiction, but still): one on the Battle of Waterloo; one on thieves' slang in the underworld of Paris; one on the Parisian sewer system; and a whole lot of political philosophy about what was going on in the 1820s-1830s, when Hugo himself was politically active in Paris.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:36 AM on November 5, 2013

Best answer: Herman Lebovics has written some good books and articles about contemporary French culture and political culture, like True France: The Wars over Cultural Identity 1900-1945.
About French colonial history, Alice Conklin's A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 is something of a classic.
posted by elgilito at 6:14 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Waiting on my to-read shelf is Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. Eugen Weber (author of Peasants Into Frenchmen and lecturer on the telecourse The Western Tradition) reviewed it for the New York Times and said "All in all, it is an intelligent book for intelligent readers that is also a delight to read."

I'll also recommend the later volumes of The Story of Civilization, which I find immensely readable and engaging. (Here's an old comment of mine with an example.)
posted by kristi at 10:24 AM on November 6, 2013

The Discovery of France is great; I found it gripping, not boring!
posted by threeants at 11:05 PM on November 13, 2013

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