A couple of years ago, a book giving a potted history of France, with the clever gimmick of using stations of the Paris Métro system for chapter headings, became a best seller here in France. The book was so popular, that it was used for a television series, on France 5, taking advantage of the boyish charm and the air of the adorable scholar of its author, Lorànt Deutsch.
As popular histories go, it has its appeal and its irritations. The appeal to many would seem to be that the focus is on the historical events that gave rise to some of the most belovèd legends in French history, those about the Gaulic warriors, Saint Denis, Saint Geneviève, the many deeds of Louis XIV. It gives a conservative, royalist and Catholic view of French history, which is shared by many French.
Among its irritations are that the use of the Métro stations as links to historical events is quite strained at times, with the connection seeming contrived, and that history is presented as tourism. By this, we do not mean that France's history is written briefly as in a tourist guide, but that it is given as a collection of sites or moments one might visit, not as an effort to get at the truth of and to understand the past. It was a natural for television, as you can see from the spots given below.
You have history as entertainment, but not quite at the level of Shakespeare's history plays. However, Shakespeare played with the truth and so, it would appear does Deutsch. Those who do not share his views have attacked him in the press and called him an ideologue and a "history forger". Grave mistakes in his work, such as that the power of the Byzantine Empire extended to France, have been pointed out, and the book's page on Amazon has in the reviews section a long list of the book's errors. Historians are furious that Deutsch, an actor who studied philosophy and Hungarian language and culture at university, has written a work that is so successful in spite of its errors. They see it as spreading ignorance as people will believe its mistakes to be historical fact. We live in such times, unfortunately. Our own children were shown Hollywood films in their history classes; Charlton Heston instead of a lecture on the Roman Empire, Elizabeth Taylor as the history of Ancient Egypt, Daniel Day Lewis instead of an explanation of the Seven Years' War.
We do not recommend Deutsch's book, but the current tempest about it makes delightful reading.
©2012 Anne Morddel