I read the 5,000-page compendium that tries to explain France

Known to English-speaker as Realms of Memory and Rethinking France, this collection of essays looks like the syllabus of the test for citizenship

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How do you sum up a country as diverse and complex as France?

If you had to make a list of the nation’s defining features, what would you include and what would you consider irrelevant? How much detail would you have to go into?

In the early 1980s, historian Pierre Nora pondered these questions. He wanted to explain France’s identity as fully as possible – but how to choose between all the possible ingredients?

What counted, he decided, was memory. This is not quite the same thing as history but those parts of history that linger in people’s consciousness where they shape the present and influence the future.

As well as being a renowned historian in his own right, Nora also worked for one of France’s most innovative publishers, Gallimard.

In this capacity, he was able to commission a small team of expert writers to create a work of national memory according to his vision.

At first, his ambition was relatively modest – almost a scrapbook of his pet subjects – but the more he thought about it, the more subjects he wanted to cover.

What was originally envisaged as three books grew over eight years into seven volumes comprising 5,000 pages of essays written by more than 100 contributors. Several of the chapters are by Nora himself.

Historical masterpiece

The contents look like the syllabus of the test for citizenship: a compendium of what you need to know in order to be French.

The final volume of Les Lieux de Mémoire appeared in 1992 – and by that time it had become regarded as Nora’s masterpiece, a classic of historical and cultural investigation.

Its popularity spread abroad.

A selection of the essays was eventually published in English (with Nora’s co-operation) in three volumes under the collected title of Realms of Memory.

A second selection, again with Nora’s involvement, was later brought out by the University of Chicago, in four volumes called Rethinking the Past.

It is not a work you will find on every shelf and you will not find many people who have read it all from cover to cover. Perhaps the best way to approach it is first to understand the philosophy behind it and then to cherry-pick topics of interest.

Idea rather than a lieu

Before anything, it is essential to understand what Nora means by lieu (plural lieux). This word translates literally as place or site – but to leave it at that would be misleading. Some of the essays do concern physical places in the geography of France (Verdun, Reims, Versailles), but Nora locates many in objects, people (Prosper Mérimée, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Victor Hugo), items of intangible heritage (La Marseillaise), and ideas (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité).

Nora explains his definition in an introduction: “Alieu de memoire is any significant entity, whether mater-ial or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of a community (in this case, the French community).

“The narrow concept emphasised the site: the goal was to exhume significant sites, to identify the most obvious and crucial centres of national memory, and then to reveal the existence of invisible bonds tying them all together.”

Many of the essays, it has to be admitted, are obscure or even archaic cultural references.

English-speaking readers might not be interested in the 18th and 19th century historians that influenced Nora, or in the entrance exam for a military academy. Far better, perhaps, to stick to subjects of obvious relevance consumed in bite-sized chunks: the colours of the French flag, La Marseillaise, the glory of Gothic cathedrals and village churches. One easy section covers the ‘singularities’ of French life: conversation, gallantry, eating and drinking, and cafes. The more you are interested in France, the more you will get out of the volumes.

There again, you don’t really need to read it at all.

It may be enough to know of its existence and what it is about.

I certainly haven’t read it all and I doubt if I ever will.

I treat the contents, usefully itemised on a Wikipedia page, as a checklist of subjects that I should have at least a superficial knowledge of. Often a reference will spark an interest that will lead to further interest elsewhere.

To give one example, the title of one chapter, Le Mur des Fédérés, hints at a dry subject – what could be so important about a wall? – but Google it and you are thick in the story of the destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871, a defining event in European history.

Les Lieux de Mémoire, however, needs to be read critically.

For one thing, it has been accused of being Paris-centric, with only token mentions of the provinces (the title of one essay, The Centre and the Periphery, says it all).

Regionalism is always a serious problem for people trying to pin down national identity because it militates against any notion of core culture. If people want to speak Breton, Basque or Occitan as their first languages, is it still possible to bang on with confidence about The Genius of the French Language?

Lieux, it has been pointed out, is also concerned with big history rather than the experiences of ordinary people. It was written when the “great man” theory of history (great male historians writing about great historical male characters) still prevailed.

‘Diplomatic’ historical interpretation

A third criticism is that it is undeniably and unashamedly high-brow, with little interest in common culture.

Nevertheless, the book remains a brave attempt to tackle a series of problems around the relevance of history to the modern day, not least that history generates disagreement over interpretation.

Napoleon, for example, is only discussed in the context of moving the emperor’s remains back to France.

The French Empire, and the wars of independence which ended it (particularly in Algeria), are edged around to avoid divisive comment.

The more recently something happened, the more arguments there will be over it. History is generational: Nora’s team of writers were concerned with the factors that had formed them as Frenchmen and women.

This begs an important question: how do we process and judge history when it is part of the lived experience of those alive?

World War Two was still contentious in the 1980s. Accusations were still being aired about who did or didn’t do what during the Occupation.

The people involved were still very much alive. Only Vichy was deemed safe to talk about – the Fall of France and the achievements of the Resistance were still being processed.

Subsequent generations have been able to be much more objective about the shame of the first and the heroism of the second.

By the same token, Nora and his team of writers must have discussed Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Existentialism, and the Nouvelle Vague, but considered them of lesser importance than Augustin Thierry (1795-1856), who has two essays written about him.

Whoever sees shortcomings in Nora’s attempt to sum up France’s collective identity turns the interrogation back towards him or herself.

If we were to bring Les Lieux de Mémoire up to date with an eighth volume, how would we go about it?

What omissions would we address? What new material would we insist on adding?

The most glaring error – judged by modern standards – is the failure to consider the role of women in forming France’s national identity.

Several contributors are female but only Joan of Arc – a woman famous for dressing and acting like a man – gets her own write-up, whereas many of the essays are about men.

An editorial meeting to decide on the contents of the eighth volume would have to consider many difficult subjects.

How would we relate globalisation and technology (particularly the internet) to French identity?

We would have to discuss the breakdown of the old right v left politics and the rise of populism.

Would a chapter on Macronism and the gilets jaunes on the roundabouts seem essential in 2050?

With the decline of reading and the rise of popular online entertainment, wouldn’t we have to write about reality TV stars, stand-up comics and influencers, even if these people don’t fit well into a narrative about Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau and Descartes?

Would it be possible to encapsulate contemporary France without writing about beaches, camping-cars and Amazon fulfilment centres?

History, when we take a broad definition of it, as Nora did, can be located in the most surprising places.

Lieux de mémoire in French and English

The latest edition of Les Lieux de Mémoire is published by Gallimard in three volumes.

The contents can be read online.

There are two selections published in English:

  • Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past (Columbia University Press, 1996-98, three volumes) edited by Pierre Nora and Lawrence D Kritzman, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. It is a more approachable selection of essays than Rethinking the Past.
  • Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Mémoire edited by Pierre Nora and David P Jordan (University of Chicago Press, 1999-2010). Aimed at academics studying French culture.

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