The Identity of France, Volume One

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Shortly after the reader plunges into this book, two questions are raised: Since this volume is a posthumous publication, did the editor feel hesitant to cut sections? And does Braudel’s style read better in his native French? As the book has been published, it is extremely difficult to read; one can only hope that this was not Braudel’s intention.

The breadth of research is impressive; practically every other sentence is footnoted. Braudel’s scholarship and his reputation as a first-rank historian are underlined throughout this volume. The reader is also struck by Braudel’s love of France. At best, HISTORY AND ENVIRONMENT read like a travel diary, and Braudel is the knowledgeable, witty tour guide. He discusses the countryside in great detail and with much affection, quoting Stendhal and other French writers at length, for example, on their experiences traveling in France. Braudel thus gives the reader and immediate sense of France’s extraordinarily rich history; one can readily visualize the pothole-ridden roads, hear the creaking of the coach and the horses’ hooves, and smell the dirt and dust. In his explanation of the differences between southern and northern France, Braudel’s examples are humorous and enlightening.

There is no question that Braudel has unusual descriptive powers; however, they are used at the expense of his thesis. His rambling digressions increase the difficulty of understanding his point. For example, Braudel explains for five pages why he did not choose two towns to illustrate the point he wishes to make. By the end of this explanation, the reader is completely disoriented, unable to reconstruct the discussion of which these two towns are not good examples. Furthermore, although he includes an eclectic variety of diagrams and maps, they are usually not well explained and have baffling symbols accompanied by numbers that lack a context. In addition, these maps are often placed many pages away from the text where they are discussed.

At worst--and too often--HISTORY AND ENVIRONMENT reads like a series of index cards, each filled with notes to be used to write a book, but, one would hope, not to be used as the book itself. Although the book is undoubtedly of value to the academician, it is not recommended for the layperson.