Les Lieux de mémoire is perhaps one of the most profound historical documents on the history and culture of the French nation. Assembled by Pierre Nora during the Mitterand years, this multivolume series has been hailed as "a magnificent achievement" (The New Republic) and "the grandest, most ambitious effort to dissect, interpret and celebrate the French fascination with their own past" (The Los Angeles Times). Written during a time when French national identity was undergoing a pivotal change and the nation was struggling to define itself, this unprecedented series consists of essays by prominent historians and cultural commentators which take, as their points of departure, a lieu de mémoire: a site of memory used to order, concentrate, and secure notions of France's past.
The first volume in the Chicago translation, Rethinking France, brings together works addressing the omnipresent role of the state in French life. As in the other volumes, the lieux de mémoire serve as entries into the French past, whether they are actual sites, political traditions, rituals, or even national pastimes and textbooks. Volume I: The State offers a sophisticated and engaging view of the French and their past through widely diverse essays on, for example, the château of Versailles and the French history of absolutism; the Code civil and its ordering of French life; memoirs written by French statesmen; and Charlemagne and his place in French history. Nora's authors constitute a who's who of French academia, yet they wear their erudition lightly. Taken as a whole, this extraordinary series documents how the French have come to see themselves and why.
Hervé Le Bras