|Apr/May 2002 Book Reviews
Picador, Macmillan, (April 2002) 318 pages
ISBN: 0 330 48916 X
Julian Barnes was not always a Francophile. When he first went to France with his parents at the age of thirteen, he found it a "monstrous experience." And French food, as he tells us in the first essay in this book, seemed formidably eccentric: he disliked the unsalted butter, the bloody meat and the "foul" vinaigrette sauces. Only fruit seemed reliable. And the French? They "liked onions far too much" and "brushed their teeth with garlic paste."
This essay is delightful, but it is atypical of the essays and reviews in the rest of the book. Certainly, there are other humorous, light-hearted delights, especially in Barnes's easy, inventive prose, but most of the pieces are more serious, in-depth discussions about French writers, musicians, film-makers and other things French. Most were originally published in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, or The London Review of Books: if you read these publications, you will know the sort of excellence they demand and the sort of long, informed pieces they like to publish.
Barnes is familiar enough with French literature to discuss it with authority, and his work has won him recognition and reverence from the French literary establishment. Yet, I take pleasure in the fact that he presents himself more as the Ultimate Peasant (who figures in a couple of pieces in this book) than as the Modern French Literary Critic. His style is closer to that of Samuel Johnson than to that of Derrida or Lacan. And praise be for that!
There are surprises, too, in this book. There is a wonderfully funny picture of Barnes trying out an Elizabeth David recipe and honouring her special flair as the doyenne of food writing. One essay deals with an English historian, Richard Cobb, who first went to France in 1935, adopted it as his country, became the Revolution's historian and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur. Another with the Tour de France 2000, and with the world of competitive cycling. Edith Warton figures in several of the essays, most particularly as she motor-tours through France in 1906-7 with her husband Teddy and with Henry James as a passenger. And there is an essay which begins by discussing three singers who were popular when Barnes taught "English conversation and English civilization" at a French Catholic school from 1966-7 and which takes flight into reminiscences about some of the Catholic Fathers with whom he worked.
Readers unfamiliar with France and with things French may not share Barnes's enthusiasms and may often find his subject matter, here, too French for their taste, but his writing always reflects a lively, humorous and worldly mind. Readers who share his Francophilia, and especially those who share his taste in French literature, will revel in the fact that most often in these essays Barnes is discussing the lives and work of French writers like Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Sartre and, of course, Flaubert.
Barnes is infatuated with Flaubert: his work, his life, his loves, his hates, his friends and his enemies. "I wish he'd SHUT UP about Flaubert," Kingsley Amies is reported to have said. "Fat chance!" is Barnes's reply, and in much of this book he indulges himself in the "necessary pleasure" of Not Shutting Up About Flaubert.