Friday, November 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A History of France by John Julius Norwich

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve read a couple of John Julius Norwich’s histories and although the style is rather old-fashioned, focusing on great men/great events, I’ve found them to be very useful for providing broad, sweeping, big-picture narratives.

Norwich died in June, but managed to complete his final work, a labor of love: A History of France (which is also published, I think, as France: A History: From Gaul to deGaulle.)

In just 400 pages, Norwich races through the history of France up to WWII. It’s a book for those who want to know about France but need a place to start. He works his way chronologically through the major leaders in the pre-king stage, then through the kings, then through the Napoleons, and finally through the Republics. He writes in a chatty way, interrupting himself with entertaining anecdotes (often mildly racy and essentially the only place where women enter the picture, except, of course, for Joan of Arc.) In this way, he succeeds in delivering a vast amount of information painlessly.

The Netgalley version, unfortunately, did not contain the illustrations or the bibliography, so I can’t comment on those. The bibliography would have been interesting, since Norwich doesn’t cite references as he goes and seems to be relying more on his memory than on specific sources. In fact, part of what makes the book so entertaining is that some of the unsourced anecdotes are a little vague and he admits he may not have the story exactly right. It’s like listening to an accomplished storyteller at a dinner party after a few glasses of wine, one who has most of his facts right or, at least, close enough.

The history is straightforward and surely oversimplified. This is Norwich’s interpretation after having synthesized a good deal of material over many years. He tells us who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, leaving out the nuance and controversy in order to give the reader a framework to build upon. And this framework is something I sorely need since my "big-picture" history knowledge is sadly lacking.

If you’re curious about how France came to be France, this is a great place to start.

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