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Something to Declare
Julian Barnes
Picador

The Observer, January 6th 2002

Julian Barnes's most celebrated novels - Flaubert's Parrot and The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters - are not really novels; they are stylised essays in which Barnes excels at smoothing the world into knowing aphorism and smart generalisation. A little bit of art criticism, some literary biography, a couple of pages of history, the odd self-revealing nugget or two - it's all there in Barnes. But he isn't at his best as a writer of fiction, at making things up: his intelligence is too controlling, his tone too often superior, he has little gift for character or narrative, no real vision of contemporary crisis. There's something anodyne about even his best work; it has the cerebral coldness of a crossword or mathematical puzzle.

You don't read Barnes to be transported into imaginary realms, or to encounter the struggle and pathos of humanity. You read him, rather, for that superior tone and for his voice; in many ways, his novels are all voice - amused, languorous, insouciant and arch. You read him for his hauteur, his gift of cultivated digression and for his riffs and anecdotes. Above all, you read him as an essayist, one of our best.

Nowadays, any newspaper columnist who can sustain an argument of more than 1,000 words is recognised as an essayist, but the popularity of the column or 'piece' is no more than an example of the cheap popularisation of the essay in a degraded culture. Dr Johnson called the essay an 'irregular, undigested piece'. That is right. The column is too regular, too finished; it's an easily digested piece. But the essay, as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb and E. B. White, strives for literary permanence. It concerns the search for a personal voice, of the kind that animates the most successful offerings in Barnes's new book of essays about France.

Barnes first visited France in the summer of 1959. He was 13, on holiday with his parents, and was enchanted; he has been returning, at irregular intervals, ever since. France, it seems, is the idealised Other against which he measures all other countries, including England, and finds them, by contrast, a disappointment. He accepts many of the stereotypes about the French: that they are Cassanovan in sex and Machiavellian in politics; that they are 'relaxed about pleasure', and treat the arts 'as central to life, rather than some add-on, like a set of alloy wheels'.

He approvingly recalls the story of how, after British Airways had refused to fly Salman Rushdie because of the fatwa, Air France announced that it respected the French custom regarding the rights of man, 'which means that we transport passengers without discrimination. If Mr Rushdie wished to travel with Air France, he would not be refused'. To Barnes, that act of generosity signified the difference between French idealism and British pragmatism. 'In public life,' he concludes, 'the French are just as hypocritical as we are the difference would seem to be that their hypocrisy pays lip-service to idealism, whereas ours pays lip-service to pragmatism.'

Yet there's little, for instance, that has been idealistic about French foreign policy in recent years. The cynical cultivation of Robert Mugabe; the disastrous, wrong-headed interventions in Rwanda, which contributed in no small part to the genocide of 1994; the stubborn insistence on carrying out nuclear tests in what is left of the old Francophone Pacific island colonies; the refusal to import British beef: France, more than any other European liberal democracy, seems to have acquired the knack of international self-disgrace. But the France of this disgrace and, more generally, of the Vichy collaboration, of constant capitulation to the Germans, of the war of independence in Algeria, of the ridiculous Academie Francaise and of persistent, low-level paranoid suspicion of les anglo-saxons isn't the France of Barnes's imagination. It's not the gentle, refined land he encountered in adolescence and has been wooing every since.

Small wonder, then, that the French 'revere Julian Barnes ', as Joanna Trollope reminds us on the cover of this book: he shows them an image of themselves that they want to see. So his France - Mediterranean, sophisticated, urbane, civilised - is as much a product of fantasy as the Britain he portrayed in his Booker-short-listed novel England, England (1998), which was set in an indeterminate future, when the British Union had collapsed and Old England, as it was known, was reduced to a condition of frayed antiquarianism, a vast heritage centre and a leaking vessel of mass depopulation.

Barnes has reached that happy stage in his life when almost anything he writes - reviews, prefaces, magazine profiles, shopping lists - is deemed worthy of collection between hard covers. 'Any new book from Julian Barnes ,' his publishers tell us, 'is a major event.' But this unsatisfactory offering is about as much of an event as a Worthington Cup semi-final, not because the writing quality isn't high - Barnes is incapable of writing a clumsy sentence - but because recycled journalism too often carries a taint of vanity publishing. This book is no exception.

If Barnes has a failing, it lies in his knowingness of tone. 'Of course,' he writes in an essay on Richard Cobb, 'history is by its nature an act of hindsight, of understanding, or understanding better, what was understood less well at the time, or of understanding again what has been temporarily forgotten.' That 'of course' is a familiar tick, a kind of verbal wink intended to signify that he knows more than you.

The most readable essay here, first published in the New Yorker, is about the Tour de France, what the American Lance Armstrong, double-winner of the Tour, has called 'a contest in purposeless suffering'. The Tour is the icon of the French nation, the greatest and most venerated of all sporting endurance events. During his research, Barnes visits an old bicycle shop in Wales, full of curiosities, and later ascends the wind-blighted moonscape of Mount Ventoux (by car, alas, not bike), the highest of the Provencal Alps and where a monument was built to the British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died from a heart attack while climbing the mountain in 1967 during the thirteenth stage of the Tour.

Barnes is very good on the boisterous democracy of the Tour, which is free to watch, and contrasts this with the vulgar spectacle of commerce that is the modern mass sporting event, with its 'professional exploitation of the fan's emotions'. Add to this some first-class reportage (Barnes is a fine reporter, as demonstrated by his investigation into Lloyd's of London), an amusing reflection on Petrarch, who climbed Mont Ventoux in 1336, and what you have is a model essay, a mini-masterpiece of wit, precision and elegant poise. Would that he left his desk more often.


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