History as recalled with port and cigars

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
France: A History: From Gaul to de Gaulle. John Julius Norwich. Hachette.

The second Viscount Norwich, to give JJN his formal title, is more au fait with France than most historians - his father was once His Majesty's ambassador in France.

The entree that being former Churchillian Cabinet minister Duff Cooper's son gave the young John Julius to the internal workings of the French political system is apparent throughout this knockabout history of England's near neighbour and close rival.

Also as befits Duff Cooper's son, Norwich is well-informed about the gossip - France: A History is liberally interspersed with lively asides about the amorous liaisons of the country's rulers down the ages.

Anyone looking for an in-depth political and social investigation of what makes the French who they are today, apply elsewhere.

Norwich is upfront right from the start that this is to be an old-fashioned history of rulers, dates and battles, designed to provide a bare lines chronology of French history for those who are ignorant of it.

That gives France: A History a "1066 And All That" kind of feel - it's all the history you can remember, or at least all the history Norwich feels you ought to remember.

There are a few more than two genuine dates and many more than five bad kings: like countless British politicians, Norwich battles to find a good word to say about those in charge across the ditch.

At times the book feels annoyingly anaemic, vast tracts of fascinating history are skipped through in a few chapters.

At other times it is frustratingly Paris-centric, as political intrigue in the capital dominates the narrative and what is happening in the remaining departments is overlooked.

As a result, rather as it did for the Bourbons, the French Revolution sneaks up and almost catches the reader by surprise.

From here on, however, Norwich gets a little more in-depth, and for the revolution he calls upon Christopher Hibbert as his inspiration, a good choice as Hibbert's rollicking narrative history lends itself well to Norwich's own style.

Subsequent seismic events such as the Industrial Revolution, the Franco-Prussian war and the world wars are also explored more fully, and in the case of World War 2 with anecdotes only someone who dined at his father's table would know.

This is a book with self-imposed faults, but one that never pretends to be anything other than it is: a popular and entertaining precis of French history.

As such it depends on the elan of Norwich's pen, and here the veteran historian does not disappoint.

Always a lively and entertaining writer, Norwich's passion for his subject is set out in his preface and his prose carries that verve throughout.

If it seems a touch self-indulgent at times, so much the better, this is a master of the art of writing on a much-loved subject, demanding his reader share his enthusiasm.

 - Mike Houlahan is an ODT reporter

Win a copy

The Weekend Mix has two copies of France: A History: From Gaul To De Gaulle, by John Julius Norwich, courtesy of Hachette, to give away.

For your chance to win a copy, email playtime@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘France’’ in the subject line, by Tuesday, May 15.

LAST WEEK’S WINNERS Winners of copies of Feverish: A Memoir, by Gigi Fenster, courtesy of Victoria University Press, were: Jean Sims, of Oturehua, and Grant Findlay and Wayne Mclachlan, of Dunedin.

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