Something to Declare: Essays on France
Something to declare can feel like a cocktail party where you don't know anyone. Even so, as Britain's most knowledgeable Francophile, Julian Barnes is a pretty good host. This collection of essays written over the past 20 years honors Barnes' heroes of French film, music, theater, cooking, even cycling. He talks about Georges Brassens, François Truffaut, and Maxime Du Camp like old friends. He also returns to a subject familiar to anyone who's read Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot: Gustave Flaubert, the "writer's writer."
The first essay, "An Englishman Abroad," starts with Barnes' morning walk, then turns into a story about the sole surviving Ultimate Peasant in a village in the Vercors--a man and his goats. Barnes mourns the day when "the last indigene" will be gone, and fears global consumerism's appetite for individual cultures.
Can there be an authentic France when Jacques Brel is no longer alive and well and living in Paris? This question is an undercurrent through the first half of the book. But maybe it's only Barnes' France that he's afraid of losing. He admits that in making France his second country he has been free to choose which parts to adopt, telling Britain's Independent: "I'm not French, so I can't feel responsible for their corrupt politicians or dodgy businessmen, for the sort of bigotry and racism I can just as well get at home." But he wouldn't be the first traveler to idealize a place; anyone who's seen a favorite stomping ground go to hell can identify with his attraction to the good old jours.
In the second half of the book, though, the writing slows down as Barnes seems unable to keep himself from returning to his favorite topic--Flaubert. Here the essays lose the universality of the earlier pieces. The first sign of this is in "Flaubert's Death-Masks," when he takes yet another shot at Enid Starkie. The late Starkie--British Flaubert biographer and Barnes' target in Flaubert's Parrot -- doesn't seem to have been forgiven for suggesting that Flaubert changed the color of Emma Bovary's eyes midnovel. This kind of self-indulgence gets tiring. Fans of Flaubert may continue into the second half of the collection, but fans of France may put the book down. Still, Barnes throws a good party. Some people may straggle out, but loyal guests, regardless of the topic, will stay until the last line of Barnes' lively, eloquent prose.