MOST HISTORY falls into two broad categories: "narrative history" and "problem history." The reading public prefers the former, the professional historian the latter. Theodore Zeldin's 2000-page history of France since 1848 is a problem history, but with a special twist. He does not have a single problem to solve, an argument to prove or a hypothesis to test; he does not even have a clear "development" to trace. Instead, he attempts to dissect a very complex culture by approaching it from many directions, from above, from below, and above all from inside the skulls of ordinary French men and women, to the degree this is possible given the kind of evidence the "average person" leaves behind.

Zeldin accepts none of the generalizations one usually makes about modern French society and proceeds to explode one myth after another. Human behavior cannot be explained by simple formulas; too much of history consists of the unexpected results of human action and of conflicting pressures that often cancel each other out. Furthermore, in the case of France, Zeldin believes her philosophers, novelists, and moralists, are particularly prone to rhetorical flourish and a "philosophical style" that too often papers over a very complex and ambiguous reality.

France has not been bifurcated into Left and Right or dominated by struggle between religion and atheism since 1789; Marianne's partie is not, alas, the land of equality - not even of equal opportunity - her July 14th speeches notwithstanding; she is not composed uniformly of bourgeois landlords and shopkeepers out of Balzac; she is not "Cartesian," whatever that woolly word means; she is not the uniform, centralized state her prefectoral reports would have us believe. Ambiguity reigns supreme. France was the world leader in scientific research in the early 19th century, but the popularization of science at the hands of moralists and positivists gave the wider public a distorted view about the application of science and even provoked a kind of social withdrawal on the part of the scientists themselves.

The French consumer - one group among many that Zeldin claims deserve much more study - is a curious breed, at least by "Anglo-Saxon" standards. Housing seems less important than food; hygiene has only recently been taken very seriously; workers have been known to refuse a chance to move to new housing developments in the suburbs because it would deprive them of the "human spectacle" of the boulevards and public parks in the city's center. (Americans might have cause to envy them these alternatives.)

As for the role of the Catholic Church, Zeldin makes a clear distinction between the unfortunate political alliances of the clerical hierarchy and the resilience and personal courage of many Catholic priests and teachers, writers and moralists. If France lacked a healthy muliplicity of Protestant sects, she did not lack a complete spectrum of Catholics. Even would-be "positivists" like Ernest Renan were brimming over with religious sentiment so that ambiguity penetrated to the very core of the individual, as Zeldin's career profiles make abundantly clear. In France, one can be both Catholic and anti-clerical without too much strain of conscience, or at least without lack of good company.

Zeldin has abandoned most of the old categories - politics, diplomacy, economics, "great ideas" - for a new litany of topics - love, ambition, taste, anxiety, intellect - which emerge on the chapter level as a series of duets: logic and verbalism, privilege and culture, conformity and superstition, happiness and humour, worry and hysteria, eating and drinking, technocracy and gerontocracy, and so on. While the substance of Zeldin's hefty chapters is not always contained by these imaginative but elusive rubrics, the digressions are worth the voyage for any lover of things French. Zeldin has ransacked an arsenal of unlikely sources ranging from career manuals and etiquette books to medical reports and school texts. He combines the latest survey data gleaned from public opinion polls with a sensitive reading of scholarly biographies as well as countless unpublished monographs written on both sides of the Channel. In short, his unorthodoxy includes sources, organizations, and interpretation.

The chapters on education are especially rewarding. Zeldin begins with buildings, textbooks, and teachers, moves on to teaching methods and stated goals, and concludes with an effort to weigh the total impact of the entire pedagogical system on the successive generations of French school children. Far from creating single-minded disciples of a unified French culture, the system sends out conflicting signals which, combined with countervailing pressures in the culture (or cultures) at large, only accentuate ambivalence in values and attitudes. Not least affected are the school teacher themselves. "For all their obsession with never having enough money, they [the teachers] were ultimately not materialists. That is why they were simultaneously a challenge to and a pillar of a society that never lived up to its ideals." Village teacher and parish priest had much more in common than the literary tradition suggests.

More discouraging is the revelation that French secondary schooling became less open to workers and peasants as the 19th century progressed. In fact, until the 1920s less than 3 per cent of all French boys aged between 11 and 17 went to the lycees and still only 14 per cent attended in 1960! As late as 1967 only about 24 per cent of these lycee students passed the baccalaureat, the examination that is the gateway to higher education, the professions, and the civil service. Although well-meaning liberals convinced themselves that as long as examinations were competitive, merit would be rewarded and democracy honored, there could be no doubt that only a very small number of French families could afford to send their boys to secondary school or keep them there long enough to pass the baccalaureat. In a later chapter, Zeldin discusses this and other roots of neurasthenia and melancholy in the society at large.

Happier are the conclusions drawn about freedom of expression, at least for the small elite that had overcome the formidable obstacles to a higher education. By 1880, no central bureaurcary, however pervasive, could keep French critics and moralists from speaking their minds. "The press reported almost exactly what it liked between 1881 and 1940 and prosecutions were rare," despite an apparently inhibiting libel law. The French have had a great variety of nationally circulating newspapers, some of them, like Le Monde and Le Figaro, of outstanding quality. But Zeldin is most interested in the readership, and he concludes that newspapers were "a predominantly urban and masculine interest." As elsewhere in the world, newspapers probably reinforced existing opinions, rather than changing them, though Zeldin blames the French press for sharpening and even creating political animosities, thus keeping old stereotypes alive too long.

Zeldin's effort to uncover the "complex reality behind appearances" leads him inevitably to popular culture. Although he eschews both symbolic anthropology and linguistic analysis, he gives the reader an enormous feast of "thick description." We learn as much about peasant cooking as Parisian haute cuisine, about vaudeville as the Comedie Francaise, and about Maurice Chevalier as Auguste Comte. Nor would an English author like Zeldin miss pure eccentricity: Joseph Pujol, the virtuoso of farting, who drew larger audiences than Sarah Bernhardt, or the third generation of du Joncherays who claimed to have massacred 1,373 stags in a lifetime dedicated to la chasse. Zeldin risks resurrecting at least one stereotype about the French - their "individualism," a certain anarchic impulse.

One is tempted to sum up Zeldin's rabelaisian study of French society over the last century by evoking Chalres de Gaulle's quip about the problems of governing a people who make over 150 kinds of cheese. But this would be too simple and unfair to a work of this dimension. On one level of discourse, Zeldin has pursued Tocqueville's thesis of a nation" fragmented" rather than "unified" by centralization; a "cellular society," not a "stalemate society," to use Stanley Hoffmann's expression, emerges from Zeldin's century of French history. On another level, Zeldin is making a plea for a less orderly, less lean, and less abstract form of history writing. "If they are viewed from a sufficient distance, all individuals can be made to fit general patterns. But . . . the history of the individual in the face of the forces that surround him has not been treated at a general level . . . There is on one hand the world of molecules, where combinations of atoms follow regular patterns, and the world of electrons, where apparent chaos rules," Theodore Zeldin would have us explore the relationship between the "patterns" and the "chaos." Here indeed is a "new history."