Anyone who loves France (or just feels strongly about it), or has succumbed to the spell of Julian Barnes’s previous books, will be enraptured by this collection of essays on the country and its culture.
Barnes’s appreciation extends from France’s vanishing peasantry to its hyper-literate pop singers, from the gleeful iconoclasm of nouvelle vague cinema to the orgy of drugs and suffering that is the Tour de France. Above all, Barnes is an unparalleled connoisseur of French writing and writers. Here are the prolific and priapic Simenon, Baudelaire, Sand and Sartre, and several dazzling excursions on the prickly genius of Flaubert. Lively yet discriminating in its enthusiasm, seemingly infinite in its range of reference, and written in prose as stylish as haute couture, Something to Declare is an unadulterated joy.
According to his publisher, Something to Declare reflects Julian Barnes’ "long and passionate relationship with France". This is slightly disingenuous. More than half the book actually reflects his long and passionate relationship with the work of France’s greatest 19th-century novelist, Gustave Flaubert. Barnes, as any reader of Flaubert's Parrot knows, admires the author of Madame Bovary more than any other writer and he has, over the years, reviewed a number of books on his hero. These reviews make up the second half of Something to Declare. Not everybody has Barnes’ professional, indeed scholarly, interest in Flaubert. The prose is as witty and intelligent as always but many readers may find their attention flagging occasionally. Some may even want to echo Kingsley Amis’ comment, quoted in Barnes’ preface--"I wish he’d shut up about Flaubert."
However, the essays in the first half of the book go some way towards fulfilling the publisher’s promise that Barnes "ranges widely" through French life and culture. Memories of his time as an assistant at a school in Brittany link neatly with an admiring assessment of three archetypal French singers--Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens and Boris Vian. An account of Edith Wharton and Henry James making a stately tour of France in 1907 is juxtaposed with an essay on the Tour de France and its importance to the French public. Truffaut is lauded and the ineffable Jean-Luc Godard is enjoyably trashed. Though Barnes is characteristically cool and ironic in these essays, "a passionate relationship with France" does emerge from Something to Declare--and with Flaubert, of course.
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)
“Beautifully written. . . . There is much to amuse and delight in this collection, and reflections of considerable worth.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Offers insight into the political, literary and sporting culture of a nation, with brilliant and engaging results. . . . Barnes displays here his nose for the extraordinary detail and the comic moment of phrasing.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Julian Barnes seems to have done more for Anglo-French relations than anyone since Edward VII.”
–Daily Telegraph (London)
Julian Barnes is the author of nine novels, a book of stories, and a collection of essays. He is the recipient of the Prix Femina, and in 1988 was made an Officer de l'Order des Artes et des Lettres. He lives in London.
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