From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Le Tour de la France—Introduction

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Le Tour de la France par deux enfants (A Journey Around France Undertaken by Two Children) is a little 119-chapter book about French geography and culture. Written in 1877 by Augustine Fouillée (under the pseudonym G. Bruno), it was geared toward primary school students in their fourth and fifth years (cours moyen).  It has been read by generations of French students, and has played a small but important role in the development of a French national imagination.
[a] La France    RF
This is the book that launched the Tour de France. I jest only (very) slightly. In 1903, a small automobile magazine (L'Auto) thought to create a celebration of France (and auto-journeying) by creating a long bike race around the country. This was a fascinating time of change in continental Europe (and, indeed, the world over—from Tokyo to San Francisco to Rotterdam). Everywhere, a kind of national (and nationalistic) spirit seemed to be growing.

Flash back thirty-two years to 1871, and think about how they got to this point ("let's have a big bike race to celebrate the nation"). If you think it through, you will start to get a sense of the period that set Le Tour in motion. In 1871, the Third Republic was just beginning to contemplate the implications of a grave military loss to Prussia, along with a growing sense that La France was more than a cluster of separate regions with Paris as its distant, shining star.

It was also the beginning of a riveting period in which Western countries began to reflect upon their places in a much wider world. The Chicago World's Fair took place in 1893, and let us not forget the colonial activities of just about all of the major European powers. The world was fascinated with the rest of the world at this point. Japan borrowed freely from European and American institutions, Chinese writers translated hundreds of European novels, and European powers had political, economic, and military "interests" all over the globe. Much of this was sinister—please don't misunderstand me—but change was in the air.

[b] L'affaire    RF
Add to this the events in France in the mid-1890s. They were a peculiar set of historical contingencies (as we say in the history biz) that made everything seem much, much more complicated, and terribly fraught with emotion. The Dreyfus Affair (L'Affaire Dreyfus) rocked France in ways that can still be felt over a century later. It often pitted family members against each other in a vast and troubling net of allegations, accusations, and pronouncements. Emile Zola. J'accuse. Look it up.

And then the great bike race began. In 1903, a handful of riders set out on an ill-informed and not-well-planned journey on two narrow wheels...around France. It was meant to be a grande boucle, a vast circuit through diverse territories. It became a kind of introduction to the country for people who were used to thinking about particular regions as their homelands, and for whom the concept of patrie or motherland was barely understandable.

I had been thinking about the development of "national" senses of identity for some time when I came across a number of good books on the development of the French sense of patrie or country. This was a new concept for the nineteenth century French, and the leading marker of it is one of the best historical books I have ever read—in any language, at any time. It is Eugene Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen, and it articulates a profound set of changes that began to link provinces (which were once almost "foreign" to each other) into an idea of a nation.

Weber's reference was also first time I had ever heard of Le Tour de la France par deux enfants (The Journey Around France Undertaken by Two Children). The narrative takes two boys—André and Julien—out of the war-torn (and German-occupied) city of Phalsbourg and around France in a long and looping boucle (buckle, tour, loop) in search of their uncle. I won't say why they journey around France, since I will be translating and posting the entire book on Round and Square. Just start reading. 
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[c] Starting out   RF

Down the road, I envision a full (published) translation, along with a long introductory essay on the role of the little book in understanding Le Tour, and as a document of interest to historians and anthropologists (not to mention those who just like stories). Along with the translation, then, I will be posting a number of thoughts about the book that will eventually appear in the introductory essay.  I would like to have the full book ready for future Tours de France, and am in the process of "marketing" the idea. Toward this end, I will be—in "proper" Round and Square form—re-posting the segments of the growing book on a linked website. That will be up-and-running by mid-summer.

So, as we anticipate the opening stages of the Tour de France in July, let us follow the story of two boys traveling around a very big country in a great period of transition. We will watch André and Julien travel some of the same roads that Le Tour covers to this day, and see them grow in knowledge of, and love for, their country in a time when there was (at least in the rhetoric of the book) no irony whatsoever in speaking of civic duty and love of country.

As little Julien says often, and with the sincere enthusiasm and lack of pretension possessed only by cherubic seven year-olds, 

J'aime la France!

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