From the Publisher
“An exceptionally accomplished and ingenious stylist.” The New York Review of Books
“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
Dazzling, clever and immensely knowledgeable, Barnes is best known for his novels, including the highly inventive Flaubert's Parrot. The author's latest book documents his long love affair with France, collecting twenty years of essays on French subjects. Barnes discusses the songs of Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens; the history of and controversy surrounding the Tour de France; the films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard; and the literary lives of Charles Baudelaíre, Stéphane Mallarmé, Georges Simenon and George Sand. Many of the essays are devoted to Gustav Flaubert, whom Barnes considers "the writer's writer par excellence, the saint and martyr of literaturethe creator of the modern novel with Madame Bovary." These pieces on the great nineteenth-century novelist offer ample rewards for the curious and interested. In fact, the final essay, an exquisite and precise analysis of a minor character in Madame Bovary, is one of the most engaging and useful literary pieces I've ever read. In his nonfiction as in his novels, Barnes is always a masterful host and performer, a writer with a lively mind who can be skeptical yet appreciative.
Dazzling, clever and immensely knowledgeable, Barnes is best known for his novels, including the highly inventive Flaubert's Parrot . The author's latest book documents his long love affair with France, collecting twenty years of essays on French subjects. Barnes discusses the songs of Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens; the history of and controversy surrounding the Tour de France; the films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard; and the literary lives of Charles Baudelaíre, Stéphane Mallarmé, Georges Simenon and George Sand. Many of the essays are devoted to Gustav Flaubert, whom Barnes considers "the writer's writer par excellence, the saint and martyr of literature—the creator of the modern novel with Madame Bovary ." These pieces on the great nineteenth-century novelist offer ample rewards for the curious and interested. In fact, the final essay, an exquisite and precise analysis of a minor character in Madame Bovary , is one of the most engaging and useful literary pieces I've ever read. In his nonfiction as in his novels, Barnes is always a masterful host and performer, a writer with a lively mind who can be skeptical yet appreciative. —James Schiff
Novelist Barnes's latest collection of haute musings on France and things French is rather like a ride in a creaky Citro n: at first, it kicks and gurgles in a scattered path, but once it gets started, it's a charming and nostalgic way to view la belle France. Barnes, author of nine novels (Love, Etc., etc.), a book of stories and a collection of essays, offers here an amalgamation of pieces, many previously published in the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. The collection begins with meandering yet tellingly accurate critiques of popular culture phenomena, such as the Tour de France, the films of Truffaut and Godard, and singer Jacques Brel. Barnes's assessment of culinary writer Elizabeth David's thoughts on nouvelle cuisine (it means "lighter food, less of it, costing more") are at once witty and dead-on. After sharing these lighter, whimsical thoughts, Barnes shifts into a higher gear and delves into a study of the French and Francophile literary establishment, from Edith Wharton and Ford Madox Ford to Henry James and George Sand. He saves many of the book's later chapters for his favorite subject, Gustave Flaubert. Throughout, Barnes integrates his commentary with detailed, intriguing bits of history. Devotees of Madame Bovary will thrill to read his ruminations on the masterpiece (e.g., what if it had been written for the screen rather than as a book?). Serious yet self-deprecating, Barnes's prose is perfectly tuned to its subject. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct. 7) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
What do you get when you combine a passion for France, a rapier wit, and an immense writing vocabulary? You get Barnes, a one-time lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, a declared Francophile, and a much-published writer of nonfiction and fiction (e.g., Staring at the Sun). This collection of essays on France includes some of Barnes's best work published in the United States (the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker) and England (Times Literary Supplement) between 1982 and 2000. A fascinating essay on the Tour de Franc, for example, includes a detailed portrait of Lance Armstrong's 2000 victory and gives insight into how the Tour has changed over time. Edith Wharton and Henry James figure prominently in an essay on travel in France at the turn of the century. Flaubert appears in several essays, reflecting Barnes's lifelong involvement in Flaubertiana: we meet his colleagues Turgenev, Baudelaire, Mallarm , and, of course, his mistress Louise Colet. Going beyond the literary, Barnes includes essays on cooking, contemporary film, and pop singers. All in all, this eclectic commentary on all things French is a very satisfying read-just keep your unabridged dictionary nearby! Definitely recommended for larger collections on French culture, civilization, and travel.-Olga B. Wise, Hewlett-Packard, Austin, TX Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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 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. 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 and always 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-consciousness that'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' throats with 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.