Book of the week: 'Something to Declare'

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  Dec. 10, 2002 at 1:57 PM
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SANDIEGO, Calif., Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Reading Julian Barnes is like standing on a platform looking over everyone else's head. He reminds me of the tag line of old B.O.A.C. commercials: "Head and shoulders above the rest." His style and his incisive wit make the essays in "Something to Declare: Essays on France" a joy to read.

Barnes first went to France at the age of 13, a most impressionable age, and though it was not a particularly happy experience (he hated the food!), it lay the foundation for what was to become a lifelong love affair.

As he explains in the preface, his love of France and all things French bloomed in his thirties, after he finally got over his teenage filial rebellion. As he says, "their Romantics seemed more romantic than ours, their Decadents more decadent, their Moderns more modern."

Like anyone who passionately loves a country not his own, Barnes chooses what he wants to love and tries to ignore the rest. "Knowing a second country means choosing what you want from it, finding antitheses to your normal, English, urban life."

So through Barnes' eyes, we receive a special, privileged look at France in this series of essays; not a tourist's view, nor a native's, but a special outsider's inside view.

In Barnes' first essay, "An Englishman Abroad," he notes the homogenization of Europe, a collection of countries whose only discernible difference today, at least in the big cities, is their language. Consumerism is making clones out of all of us: Gap, Starbucks, McDonald's, they're everywhere you go.

But the Englishman Barnes is writing about is not himself, it is the historian Richard Cobb, who lived in France, wrote in French, and reveled in "les petits gens" of the cities. Not for him the Provence of Peter Mayle's books; he preferred the north. Cobb became disenchanted as the watched the Paris he loved disappear with the renovation of the Marais and other distinctive neighborhoods.

He could hate as passionately as he had loved, and he resolved, in 1989, after a love affair that had lasted more than 50 years, never to write about France again. As Barnes points out: "But it is the measure of the largeness and precision of his love for the country that it could in the end so disappoint him."

After pointing out how France, in becoming a member of the European community, is, like other European countries, losing its distinctive individuality, he proceeds to examine, and glorify, its lyrical and literary heart and soul. The essay on the "singing poets" -- Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, and Boris Vian -- analyzes their songs and singing styles and the impact they had on the young Barnes.

Brel's songs were, as Barnes put it, "a mixture of satire, wisdom and heart," while Brassens celebrated the downtrodden, "cowards, pimps, gravediggers, tarts with ordinary hearts, women with huge arses, traitors, shaven-headed collaborationists, and older women." Vian, better known as a songwriter than as a singer, wrote more than 700 songs, some of them jazz-influenced. His songs were wryly satirical, like the one about the successful arms salesman who has no more clients because they've all killed each other off.

All three, Brel, Brassens and Vian, were anarchic, anti-clerical, and anti-bourgeois, although one of Brel's songs, in a neat twist, has the mocker of the "pig bourgeois" gradually become a mocked bourgeois himself: a comment on the inevitability of "embourgeoisement."

In examining the French, by the way, Barnes includes the francophones, since Brel and Georges Simenon were born in Belgium but lived and attained fame in Paris. He also takes a close look at Mallarmé and Baudelaire, both 19th-century poets, and Courbet, the artist who delighted in puzzling his viewers. He, like James Joyce, would "keep them guessing" and declared that future generations would "have their work cut out" to explain his oeuvres.

Baudelaire, always short of money, wrote to his friends asking for help. "I am writing to you as my last two logs burn," was his refrain, and Barnes adds, "He is always, as it were, on his last logs."

His judgment on Mallarmé is sublimely ironic. After describing the uneventful life of the poet, he adds. "His life was one of flights untaken and feelings suppressed, the inner life and the late-burning lamp. If he weren't so French he could easily be English."

The essay on Simenon is by turns amusing, shocking and revealing. The prolific author apparently spent more time pouncing on women, including his maids, than on writing.

His literary technique matched his amorous one: "the sudden pounce, the rapid penetration, the unfailing female orgasm, and the retreat into the study," where he would write his novels in swift, uninterrupted bursts.

Barnes also looks at France through the eyes of Edith Wharton and Henry James, two American novelists, who lived in, and traveled extensively through, France. They did it by motor car, that new and most practical invention that liberated them from train schedules and enabled them to arrive at their destination without having to go through the always ugly and sordid neighborhoods of the railway stations.

Their various trips through the French countryside illustrate how much both France and travel in general have changed, and not necessarily for the better. You may, or may not, agree with them -- they often did not agree with each other -- but they were observant and intelligent travelers.

In telling contrast, the "Tour de France 2000" details the scandals of the drug-riddled endurance bicycle race. From the British Tom Simpson, who died of a heart attack on the Mont Ventoux in 1967, to the legendary Italian, Fausto Coppi, to the latest scandal a couple of years ago, Barnes takes us into the heart of this sport for "sado-masochists." Lance Armstrong, the American who survived testicular cancer to dominate and win three more Tours de France, has also been accused of taking drugs, although he has always vehemently denied it and all tests have proven negative.

Gustave Flaubert is Barnes' favorite author, so it should be expected that the greatest part of the book is devoted to the author of "Madame Bovary." We are treated to a close examination of Flaubert's masterpiece, his letters and his "carnets."

Barnes comments disparagingly on the various biographers of Flaubert, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Francine du Plessix Gray, reserving his praise for the editors of Flaubert's "Correspondance," five volumes of his letters.

Through his correspondence with such luminaries as French author George Sand and Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, we are given a glimpse of the author at work, as well as the son, uncle and friend in his daily life; and finally the grumpy old man, who declared, "If I weren't indignant, I would fall down."

In December 1875, George Sand wrote to Flaubert, "Before long you will gradually be entering the happiest and most propitious part of life: old age." Flaubert is not sure that's true; in fact, he tends to agree more with Turgenev, who wrote, "I have just turned 60, my dear old fellow . . . This is the start of the tail-end of life." Flaubert replied, "I'm becoming too stupid! I bore everybody! In short, your Cruchard has turned into an intolerable old geezer -- the result of his own intolerance."

Barnes also discusses Claude Chabrol's film version of "Madame Bovary," which he calls a "faithful betrayal," and the role of Justin, one of the minor characters in the novel, or as Barnes calls him, "a small, major character."

Do you have to be a fan of Flaubert to enjoy and appreciate these essays? Not necessarily. You just have to be a fan of good writing, and appreciate a keen mind and sharp pen at work.

("Something to Declare," by Julian Barnes, Knopf, $25.00, 295 pages.)

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