- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

Julian Barnes uses the occasion of a walking tour in the Vercors, south of Grenoble, to recall the life and career of the British historian Richard Cobb (died 1996) who first went to France and a Paris that still boasted Edith Wharton in 1935. Cobb was, like so many people who have caught Mr. Barnes' fancy over many years of cross-Channel travel and reading, somewhat out of the ordinary. He preferred the cities of the north to the sunnier south and was attracted to "popular life rather than the literary pilgrimage."
Cobb acquired, Mr. Barnes writes, "a 'second identity,' didn't regret the partial loss of Englishness, and loved being asked if he was Belgian (though this is normally a somewhat poisoned compliment from the French to the Francophone)." The trade-off will seem reasonable to anyone lucky enough to have a foot in two cultures, but there is something special in the fusing of Englishness and Frenchness, qualities of two countries seemingly created to be foil to each other.
Mr. Barnes, who was a child in post-World War II England and experienced the scarcities there, was first taken to France in 1959 at age 13. The family had acquired their first car, a secondhand Triumph Mayflower. "It struck me then as any car would have done as deeply handsome, if perhaps a little too boxy and sharp-edged for true elegance; last year, in a poll of British autophiles, it was voted one of the ten ugliest cars ever built."
The Barneses drove down through Normandy on that first trip and there is a photograph of the Mayflower, looking quintessentially Fifties-ish, with the lofty mass and soaring spire of Mont-Saint-Michel in the background. It was the first of many such family excursions through France, enough to make young Julian rebel against his Francophile parents and go off matters French until the attempt to study philosophy at university didn't work and he returned, at first reluctantly, to the study of French.
By the early '60s, he was a teaching assistant (lecteur anglais) in Rennes, and being asked by a spectacularly unworldly father superior, "Do you have dogs in England?" Thus began the life in Anglo-French letters that has brought Mr. Barnes a Prix Femina and membership in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His dozen books over the years have crisscrossed English and French life (my favorites are his "Flaubert's Parrot" and "Cross Channel," a collection of short stories).
The focus of Mr. Barnes' love for France lies not so much in Paris or any of the fashionable towns but what he calls the "quiet working villages." These are fast disappearing, as evidenced by one place visited during that walking tour in the Vercors, where there was one last peasant "indigene" remaining, aged 60 but looking 80 and living off his goats. The rest of the village's residents were more up-to-date sorts from elsewhere, living in their renovated homes. Edith Wharton in her day saw all this coming.
Culturally, Mr. Barnes' favored period is 1850 to 1925, "from the culmination of Realism to the fission of Modernism …" The writer's reach and erudition in matters French during these years is very great, as a large and usually gratified readership already knows. There is a center point, though, and it is the life and work of Gustave Flaubert the Barnes parrot is the one from the short story "Un Coeur Simple" and Flaubert's career is consistent with his admirer's penchant for period. Mr. Barnes, always good for a laugh on himself, reports this one:
"'I wish he'd shut up about Flaubert,' Kingsley Amis, with pop-eyed truculence, once complained to a friend of mine. Fat chance: Flaubert, the writer's writer par excellence, the saint and martyr of literature, the perfector of realism, the creator of the modern novel with Madame Bovary, and then, a quarter of a century later, the assistant creator of the modernist novel with Bouvard et Pecuchet."
It is no surprise, then, that there is plenty concerning Flaubert in "Something to Declare," this collection of 17 essays written over an approximately 15-year period from the mid-'80s forward and originally published on one side of the Atlantic or the other. Some look like reviews, such as the pages on the letters between Flaubert and his great friends Ivan Turgenev and George Sand, new volumes of both correspondences having been published during the past two decades. The same goes for the Flaubert's "Correspondence," which Mr. Barnes reckons the best biography of the writer.
There is a fine essay on Flaubert's lover of many years, "Not Drowning But Waving: The Case of Louise Colet." Her novel "Lui" lives on, and Mr. Barnes agrees with Francine du Plessix Gray that Colet had much to do with the creation of Emma Bovary. But the literary tenor of her relations with the writer lacked the quality of those between Flaubert and Turgenev or Sand. Says the essayist, letting down his hair again, "she had the turning circle of a supertanker."
The mystery of who burned her letters to Flaubert was it his niece Caroline? continues to haunt those who would know more of the story, though we know from Guy de Maupassant's report that he and Flaubert sat one evening throwing into the fireplace letters, among which were stored a little dance slipper, a faded rose and a woman's handkerchief. (A similar mystery surrounds the letters lost from Flaubert's quarter of a century liaison with Juliet Herbert, his niece's governess.)
Thinking about Flaubert leads Mr. Barnes into digressions on the careers of Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme ("naming an object destroys three-quarters of the pleasure of poetry") and Gustave Courbet. In more current-day context, a meeting with Claude Chabrol, the filmmaker, provides an opportunity to recall the numerous movie versions of "Madame Bovary" made over the years, including those of Jean Renoir and Vincente Minelli.
But it is the version made by Mr. Chabrol (he previously made a film of Goethe's "Elective Affinities" for German TV) starring Isabelle Huppert that Mr. Barnes finds most faithful to the book. Even where he suspects that he has caught the director out in cutting a Flaubert corner, returning to the novel's pages proves the Englishman mistaken.
The essay is a reminder that Mr. Barnes has done more than dwell on his literary hero, who is of course infinitely engaging, a bourgeois moralist's nightmare who said when Louise Colet died, "I have trampled on so many things, in order to stay alive!" A number of the pieces in the collection are of a more occasional nature. One compares the 1960s in French film, using the contrasting methods of and relations between Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and finding "A Bout de Souffle," directed by Godard and scripted by Truffaut the essence of the movement called "nouvelle vague."
In another essay that looks back on the writer's early years of living in France, Mr. Barnes recalls three celebrated popular singers of the period, Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassen. Of these, I suspect that only Brel will mean much to American readers old enough to remember his wonderfully plaintive voice on the 33-rpm. disc "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris."
Tailor-made for the English reader is the essay appreciation of Elizabeth David, the writer who brought the aromas and other sunny pleasures of Mediterranean food to war-weary and poorly fed Brits. In this comparatively sober piece with its valedictory air, only the title is funny, "The Land Without Brussels Sprouts," based on lines Mrs. David took from Ford Madox Ford's travel book "Provence." The piece is in contrast to the saucier quality of "The Pouncer," touching on the very lengthy and frenetic sex life of the writer Georges Simenon.
Two essays with Tour de France in their titles recall Edith Wharton's motoring "flights" across France, sometimes with Henry James in tow, and the 1967 collapse and death on the fearsome Mont Ventoux, highest of the Provencal Alps, of Tom Simpson, first British rider ever to wear the leader's yellow jersey. Anyone interested in the long history of drug use on the Tour will find this piece of journalism keenly interesting.
In Mr. Barnes' closing pages, there is an essay concerning minor characters in novels in the use of which Charles Dickens is the undisputed master but in this instance concerning young Justin, assistant to the pharmacist Homais in "Madame Bovary." Justin provides a thread essential to Flaubert's purpose in the novel. He makes a dozen brief appearances, gets to open his mouth only twice, and Emma speaks to him but once, when she asks him to lead her to the arsenic jar. It is an apt ending to this beguiling collection.
SOMETHING TO DECLARE: ESSAYS ON FRANCE
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, $25, 295 pages, illlus.


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