Something to Declare: Essays on Franceby Julian Barnes
"Julian Barnes's long and passionate relationship with la belle France began more than forty years ago, and in these essays on the country and the culture he combines a keen appreciation, a seemingly infinite sphere of reference, and prose as stylish as classic haute couture." "Barnes's vision of France - "The Land Without Brussels Sprouts" - embraces its vanishing… See more details below
"Julian Barnes's long and passionate relationship with la belle France began more than forty years ago, and in these essays on the country and the culture he combines a keen appreciation, a seemingly infinite sphere of reference, and prose as stylish as classic haute couture." "Barnes's vision of France - "The Land Without Brussels Sprouts" - embraces its vanishing peasantry; its vanished hyper-literate pop singers, Georges Brassens, Boris Vian, and Jacques Brel ("[he] sang at the world as if it ... could be saved from its follies and brutalities by his vocal embrace"); and the gleeful iconoclasm of its nouvelle vague cinema ("'The Underpass in Modern French Film' is a thesis waiting to be written"). He describes the elegant tour of France that Henry James and Edith Wharton made in 1907, and the orgy of drugs and suffering of the Tour de France in our own time. An unparalleled connoisseur of French writing and writers, Barnes gives us his thoughts on the prolific and priapic Simenon, on Sand, Baudelaire, and Mallarme ("If literature is a spectrum, and Hugo hogs the rainbow, then Mallarme is working in ultra-voilet")." "In several excursions into the prickly genius of Flaubert, Barnes discusses his letters; his lover Louise Colet; and his biographers (Sartre's The Family Idiot, "an intense, unfinished, three-volume growl at Flaubert, is mad, of course"). He delves into Flaubert's friendship with Turgenev; looks at the "faithful betrayal" of Claude Chabrol's film version of Madame Bovary; and reveals the importance of the pharmacist's assistant, the most major minor character in Flaubert's great novel: "If Madame Bovary were a mansion, Justin would be the handle to the back door; but great architects have the design of door-furniture in mind even as they lay out the west wing."" For lovers of France and all things French - and of Julian Barnes's singular wit and intelligence - Something to Declare is an unadulterated joy to read.
“France and England square off on almost every issue, from cuisine...to currency, but Barnes inhabits both worlds with ease. As a journalistic subject, France is best approached from an oblique angle, and this collection accomplishes that brilliantly.... Barnes remains entertaining and insightful. This is a rich journey for the tourist, and a welcome antidote to Mayle for the French.” Don Gilmour, The Globe and Mail
“[Barnes is] an indefatigable sleuth...and a superlative reporter, not just of what he’s meant to watch, but also, like a dog picking up bat-hums in the ether, of the mental processes of reporting, whether about the Tour de France, a painting, or Flaubert’s letters.... He is brilliant on the writer’s craft and the experience of writing.... Barnes is a devotee of the absolutely accurate description.” National Post
“As an essayist...he is the most congenial of hosts. Even when his subjects are grand, his way with them is entertaining: he can be pungently amusing, iconoclastic, wry or tender, but he is always rewarding.” Financial Times (UK)
“These essays are an expansive, astute and increasingly magisterial salute to French sophistication in all departments, from cinema to cycling, singing and writing above all.” Daily Telegraph
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 AMER ED
- Product dimensions:
- 5.12(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.14(d)
Read an Excerpt
I first went to France in the summer of 1959 at the age of thirteen. My pre-adolescence had been car-free and island-bound; now there stood in front of our house a gun-metal-grey Triumph Mayflower, bought secondhand, suddenly affordable thanks to a £200 grant from Great Aunt Edie. It struck me thenas any car would have doneas 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. Registration plate RTW1, red leather upholstery, walnut dashboard, no radio, and a blue metal RAC badge on the front. (The RAC man, portly and moustachioed, with heavy patched boots and a subservient manner, had arrived to enrol us. His first, preposterous question to my father'Now, sir, how many cars have you got?'passed into quiet family myth.) That cars were intended not just for safe commuting but also for perilous voyage was endorsed by the Triumph's subtitle, and further by its illustrative hubcaps: at their centre was an emblematic boss depicting, in blue and red enamel, a Mercator projection of the globe.
Our first expedition was from suburban Middlesex to provincial France. At Newhaven we watched nervously as the Mayflower was slung by crane with routine insouciance over our heads and down into the ferry's hold. The metal RAC badge at the front was now matched by a metal GB plate at the rear. My mother drove; my father map-read and performed emergency hand-signals; my brother and I sat in the back and worried. Over the next few summers we would loop our way through different regions of France, mostly avoiding large cities andalways avoiding Paris. We would visit châteaux and churches, grottoes and museums, inducing in me a lifelong phobia for the guided tour. I was the official photographer, first in black-and-white (home processed), later in colour transparency. My parents tended to feature only when the viewfinder's vista seemed dull; then, remembering the dictates of Amateur Photographer, I would summon them to provide 'foreground interest'. We picnicked at lunchtime and towards five o'clock would start looking for a small hotel; the red Michelin was our missal. In those days, as soon as you left the Channel ports behind, the roads were empty of non-French cars; when you saw another GB coming in your direction, you would wave (though never, in our family, hoot).
That first, monstrous expedition into the exotic was a gentle tour of Normady. From Dieppe we drove to Cany-Barville, of which I remember only two things: a vast and watery soup pullulating with some non-British grain or pulse; and being sent out on my first foreign morning for the newspaper. Which one did they want? Oh, just get the local one, my father replied unhelpfully. I had the normal adolescent's self-consciousnessthat's to say, one that weighs like a stone-filled rucksack and feels of a different order to everyone else's. It was a heroic journey across the street and towards the shop, imperilled at every step by garlic-chewing low-lifes who drank red wine for breakfast and cut their bread - and youngsters' throatswith pocket knives. 'Le journal de la région,' I repeated mantrically to myself, 'Le journal de la région, le journal de la région.' I no longer remember if I even uttered the words, or just flung my coins at some nicotined child-molester with a cry of 'Keep the change.' All I remember is the purity of my fear, the absoluteness of my embarrassment, and the lack of vivid praise from my parents on my safe return.
From Cany-Barville to Thury-Harcourt: did all French villages have such solemn hyphenation? None of that Something-upon-Whatsit, Thingummy-in-the-Tum-Tum. Cany-Barville, Thury-Harcourt: this was different, grave. Thereafter, my memories become slighter, more banal; perhaps not even memories, but half-forgotten impressions revived by photographs. A brown-beamed coaching inn, a rough-fleeced donkey in a rough-grassed park, my first squat French château with pepperpot towers (Combourg), my first soaring ditto (Josselin). Then first viewings of Chartres, the Bayeux Tapestry and Chateaubriand’s aqueous tomb. On the tranquil roads we mingled with traffic of lustrous oddity. French cars were very unMayflowery: curved in the weirdest places, coloured according toa different palette, and often formidably eccentric — witness the Panhard. They had corrugated butchers’ vans, Deux Chevaux with canvas stacker seats, Maigret Citroëns, and later the otherworldly DS, whose initials punned on divinity.
And then there was the formidable eccentricity of the food. Their butter was wanly unsalted, blood came out of their meat, and they would put anything, absolutely anything, into soup. They grew perfectly edible tomatoes and then doused them in foul vinaigrette; ditto lettuce, ditto carrots, ditto beetroot. Normally you could detect that foul vinaigrette had been slimed over the salad; but sometimes they fooled you by slurping it into the bottom of the bowl, so that when with hopeful heart you lifted a leaf from the top... Bread was good (but see butter); chips were good (but see meat); vegetables were unpredictable. What were those things that weren’t proper runner beans but round, fat, overcooked, and — cold! There was pâté: forget it, anything could have gone into that; though not as anything as the anything that went into their gristly, warty saucissons, assembled from the disposings of an axe murderer. There was cheese. No, there were thousands of cheese, and I would eat only one of them — Gruyère. Fruit was reliable — not much they could do to ruin that; indeed, they grew very large and juicy red apples you could positively look forward to. They liked onions far too much. They brushed their teeth with garlic paste. They camouflaged quite edible meat and fish with sauces of dubious origin and name. Then there was wine, which bore a close resemblance to vinaigrette; and coffee, which I hated. Occasionally there would be a noxious, unassessable dish which explained all too well what you found and smelt behind the teak-stained door of les waters, where gigantic feet in knobbed porcelain awaited you, followed by a gigantic flush which drenched your turn-ups.
From the Hardcover edition.
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