Book review / France through a glass, lightly; The End of the Line by Richard Cobb, John Murray, pounds 20

Euan Cameron salutes the historian who found magic in the back streets

In the Endpaper to this posthumously published third book of his memoirs, the late Richard Cobb - former Professor of Modern History at Oxford and author of some 15 books - suggests that he was not the sort of person to engender a cult. How wrong he was. To francophiles, and to many former pupils and friends, for whom he was the finest interpreter of France to Britain of his age, there was no one quite like him.

Nobody could convey the mood of prewar Third Republic France, of Brassai and Rene Clair, quite as he did, because nobody else had his expertise in the recondite corners of the French language, its patois and its slang. And nobody else shared his fascination with the minutiae of local history, his delight in melancholic decay, in "faded gentility" or "baffling diversity".

"L'etonnant Cobb", as Le Monde once alluded to him, was a rebel at heart, a man of strong enthusiasms and dislikes. In his travels, in his memoirs and in his approach to history, he never took the conventional route. Instead, he opted for "the sidelines, the banks of urban canals, the estaminets near railway stations, the tavernes, the narrow streets". For Cobb, it was people and individuals who illuminated history.

Not for him the theories or methodology. Instead, as he showed in his studies of the French Revolution as well as in his "promenades" through the eccentric byways of French literature and culture, it was human relationships that mattered - the ordinary people (his beloved petits gens) with whom he was happiest drinking calvados or a gros rouge in a backstreet cafe in Paris, Rouen or Marseilles.

As in his two earlier memoirs Still Life and A Classical Education, there is little pattern or chronology to Cobb's adventures. An early chapter discloses the formative influences in his "European education": the Baltic coins that first instilled the lure of foreign parts, and the history master at Shrewsbury who introduced him to film-makers such as Pabst or Jean Vigo, and thus to Weimar Berlin and Paris of the 1920s. Next, we see him in between Oxford terms, posing in Paris cafes, puffing at Celtiques and reading L'Oeuvre. The long path that would lead "le Cobb" to writing and publishing three volumes of Revolutionary history in French and which would culminate in the ruban rouge of the Legion d'Honneur had its beginnings in such cafes.

A journey to Austria evokes the pleasures of travel by train across 1930s Europe. However, Vienna, where as a student he stayed at the forbidding home of Felix Salten, creator of Bambi, was definitely not to his liking. The frontiers of "the wrong Europe" were being drawn at an early age. What a strange figure he cut, this self-conscious young man in his long overcoat! He wandered the streets of the Hapsburg capital, distributed political pamphlets, did part-time work for a Miss Cadbury, who ran the Quaker mission, and was arrested in ludicrous circumstances for trespassing in the Ostbahnhof, with its collection of disused railway carriages, before being expelled from the country.

A later adventure takes Cobb to Sofia in pursuit of an alluring Bulgarian woman, with hilarious consequences. There is also a charming essay on the joys of English hotels in wartime.

But the greater part of The End of the Line is an evocation of France - the prewar France that conditioned him and which he loved. Cobb's prose can be mesmeric - as in his soliloquy to Rouen and its communes. Equally, he can be discursive and maddeningly obscure. To enjoy Cobb, however, you have to share his partialities: Flaubert and Simenon, pre-1950s Paris, Pont l'Eveque cheese and calvados. Those who care for Victor Hugo, Vienna, the Tour Montparnasse or La Defense, for instance, may feel excluded.

As the final chapter draws to its moving conclusion (Cobb was ill and knew he had little time left), the author bids adieux to his wife, his friends and readers. We are left with the privileged sense that we have just attended this remarkable man's final lecture.

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