- - Sunday, January 27, 2019


By John Julius Norwich

Atlantic Monthly Press, $30, 400 pages

If your primary knowledge of Cardinal Richelieu comes from the tales of Dumas, if you associate terror with the name Robespierre but can’t say quite why, if you could intelligibly insert “J’accuse” into conversation without raising an eyebrow but can’t explain its exact historical origin, John Julius Norwich’s “A History Of France” is the book for you.

A lengthy but light survey of France’s political history, Mr. Norwich’s book spans the history of France “From Gaul to de Gaulle.” This book, Mr. Norwich reassures us, is not for professional historians. It is for the general English-speaking reader who, Mr. Norwich asserts, has “remarkably little knowledge of French history.”

With six years of secondary-education French enabling me to find all the best (well, closest) libraries and beaches, I am inclined to agree. I am the perfect general reader Mr. Norwich targets, having a broad literary and cultural understanding of France, and exactly zero knowledge of its political history whatsoever.

Well, “zero” is perhaps unfair. It might be better to think of France’s history as being on the very edge of my historical knowledge “bubble.” As explained by Seth Stevenson on Slate, Bubble Vocabulary words are the terms that you know how to use, more or less, but don’t really know with transparent certainty. They’re the shaky words on the very edge of your vocabulary bubble.

Many events in the history of France, even for relatively knowledgeably readers, lie right on the edge of their Bubble History. You can understand a reference to Charlemagne, sure. But who exactly was this Charlemagne fellow anyway?

Mr. Norwich takes us on his knee through two centuries of actions and politics, emperors, kings, artillery a la mode, and a ridiculous number of deaths involving tennis. Presented in a conversational manner, Mr. Norwich embroiders this tapestry of rulers with anecdotes that may finally enable the reader to differentiate between all those Louis. Perhaps this mastery of Who’s Who will not linger long after the covers close. But having it all at once, all in order, will help general readers to make sense of any more in-depth study of the history of France.

Of course, the downside to a political history is that it leaves out so much that American students of French, in particular, will recognize. Racine, Moliere, the Duc de Saint Simon, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, Jean Cocteau many names familiar to Francophiles get little more than a passing mention in Mr. Norwich’s text. We can’t fault him for it: This is a political history after all. But there are so many ways to tell the history of a country, and telling the history of kings is, in itself, a statement about what the author thinks it means to be a country.

And, naturally, Mr. Norwich does have his own biases as well. Replacing literature-fueled subconscious prejudices with new, more sophisticated Norwich-approved slants is fine, if you know what you’re getting. He does acknowledge his own “shameless oversimplifications,” cuing the reader in to the fact that this is not all there is to tell.

Even so, when Mr. Norwich informs us that the Huns were “barbarians through and through,” we might wonder what precisely is being implied with that wording to general readers, historically accurate and acceptable though it may be, and whether or not there are more questions to be asked here.

Sadly, John Julius Norwich passed away on June 1, 2018, and “The History of France” was to be, as he predicted, his last book. He left behind a legacy of well-regarded popular history, including his three-volume “History of Byzantium,” “Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History” and “A History of Venice.”

The son of Duff Cooper, the former British ambassador to France, and Lady Diana Cooper, Mr. Norwich started his French education young and had a lifelong love for the country. His personal recollections in the book are kept to a minimum, but the ones that make it through are delightful.

There is a certain level of history that is, in terms of factual content, exactly one step above reading the Wikipedia article. The level of history presented by Mr. Norwich, spanning so many years, could not possibly hope to remain readable in much more detail than that. There is no earth-shattering argument presented, no shocking revelations.

When juicy gossip is included, it is well-known and amusing. Mr. Norwich’s anecdotes serve to keep the reader engaged, not to shake the very foundation of history itself. But as the author warned us, this book isn’t for readers who are delving deep. It is for Bubble Historians, like me, just trying to put it all in order for the first time.

So yes, you could go to Wikipedia. But spending time with Mr. Norwich in a country he loves is, inarguably, a lot more fun.

Tara Wilson Redd is the author of “The Museum of Us” (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018).

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