France without finesse

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Something to Declare

by Julian Barnes

Picador, 8.99

Review by Ashok Adicam

Julian Barnes has been criss- crossing France and its culture since 1959, when his parents took him there on holiday. Vastly more knowledgeable about the country than the average Francophile, he has a clutch of top French literary awards to prove it, including the Prix Medici for Flaubert’s Parrot and the Prix Femina for Talking It Over.

His latest collection of essays, written over 20 years, tackles subjects from French literature to chanson franaise and the Tour de France. But his musing on la France profonde is tinged with nostalgia. The kind of France Barnes likes is on the wane and has even, in some cases, already disappeared.

For Barnes, the irresistible golden age of France was 1850-1925. Although he allows himself a few detours into the near-present (although almost nothing after 1980), his main task here is erecting signposts pointing the way back to Flaubert and his invention of the modern novel with Madame Bovary.

Flaubert isn’t alone in Barnes’s Pantheon, even though he takes up the most room. Among the others is an impressively eclectic selection:

The historian Richard Cobb, for his fascination with French popular life .

A musical trio composed of Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, who were Barnes’s "anti-clerical shield" while he was a language assistant in a Jesuit college in France.

Jean-Luc Godard and Franois Truffaut, who created the "nouvelle vague" with bout de Souffle and subsequently vented their hatred of each other in a series of open letters.

French cuisine, as immortalised by Elizabeth David and (according to the Queen) her "very useful recipes".

Henry James and Edith Wharton, for travelling around France and writing about it so well at the beginning of the last century.

Barnes’s journey around la France profonde takes up the first half of the book. The second studies French literature of the second half of the 19th century, placing Flaubert amid a constellation composed of his extravagant girlfriend Louise Colet, Georges Sand (to whom Madame Bovary is dedicated), Baudelaire, Courbet and Mallarm.

But apart from a piece of reportage on Tour de France 2000, Barnes steers well clear of contemporary French culture - whether of the high or low varieties. If Barnes wants to be considered a credible commentator on France, one really expects a lot more.

Football, for example, is far more popular than cycling in today’s France and the French victories in the last World Cup and Euro 2000 have had a major effect on the country. Zinedine Zidane’s France is being enriched by the integration of immigrants - a far more important cultural process than nouvelle cuisine.

In the same way, Barnes ignores the music that followed Brel and Brassens. There is nothing about Serge Gainsbourg, Alain Souchon, rai (Algerian music increasingly popular in France), or French rap. In Barnes’s France, there is no room for films such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine or its subject - social exclusion and racism.

Generally speaking, the artistic scene in France may not be as visible and dogmatic as it used to be, but it is just as creative. Contemporary literature proves the point: what does Barnes make of Genet, Perec, Sarraute or Duras? Does he think that Houellbecq’s acidic writing can stand comparison with Flaubert’s? Alas, he fails to tell us.

As in the rest of the world, one of the key intellectual debates in France concerns globalisation. Again, we would like to have heard Barnes’s position on that, or what he thought of campaigners such as Michel Serres, Edgar Morin and Pierre Bourdieu - all of Barnes’s generation and all contributing to an international forum of a better understanding of different cultures. As a writer and an essayist, Barnes is, of course, free to write about what he loves and dislikes about "his" France. And his literary performance - that cultivated hauteur, that precise mastering of delicious words and mathematic sentences - must be applauded.

But if read as a cultural mediator between France and Great Britain, one should expect more from his new book.

Anything else to declare, Monsieur Barnes?

Ashok Adicam is director of the French Institute in Scotland.