They say you should write about what you know and Frederick Brown certainly knows France–he wrote biographies of both Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert. In his new book, For The Soul of France, Brown plumbs the depths of the country’s psyche.
Here is the saga of France’s sojourn from monarchy to a republic. The French Revolution may have begun in 1789 but it was fought well into the twentieth century–the author shows us the whole convoluted, tortured trip. It’s a miracle the Third Republic survived with attacks from left and right, economic disasters, and revolving door Premiers.
This book reveals frightening similarities to the first ten years of the 21st century. The book contains all the lies, finger-pointing, invented evidence we’ve seen since 2000. There’s a lion’s share of yellow journalism. Fear was the weapon of choice. Sadly, it was all accepted by those who were taught to think, but didn’t.
While this is not a beach book–you’ll trip over fifty-dollar words–it’s certainly the quickest, most readable history I’ve seen in years. Mr. Brown gives us all the puzzle pieces we need but he’s not giving anything away. Be prepared to think and to reason, because this book is not about the Soul of France, it’s about the search for it. Get out your dictionaries, sharpen up your French and Latin, and let your brain run through this forest of facts. Getting lost is half the fun.
As France struggled, she constantly searched for a scapegoat. The Catholic Church and the Germans took their fair share of hits, but the Jews bore the brunt of the attack. It’s astonishing to see the anti-Semitic (a term newly coined in this period) vitriol–worse still to see the popularity–of newspapers such as La Libre Parole.
There will always be those who refuse to give up the past, praying for the return of a monarch, an emperor, insisting on France for the French. Luckily there were also those who challenged the old ways and the old religion and fought for free, secular education. One of the results of the law for compulsory education was that France learned how to read. And after reading, they argued and expounded. The author writes: ‘France’s malady is the need to speechify.’
Adolphe Thiers, Georges Clemenceau and Emile Zola fought to build the Republic. The conservatives and royalists reawakened the symbol of Joan of Arc. Eiffel’s tower sits in juxtaposition to Sacre Coeur–on one side, the growth of technology and scientific thought. On the hill in Montmartre sits France’s penance for the sins heaped upon her by the church.
Louise Leetch divides her time between Chicago and Wisconsin. Both houses are just crammed with books. She collects her reviews on her GoodReads page.