ASKED to sum up the differences between being interviewed by newspapers in London and Paris, Julian Barnes says that a London journalist is likely to begin with, "I hear you murdered your dog last week," whereas a French journalist would be more inclined to ask, "Monsieur Barnes - myth or reality?"
Something to Declare is Barnes’s second book of journalism, following his collection of articles on the state of England, Letters from London. This time he turns his attention to France and to French literature, developing some of the preoccupations already aired in his genre-breaking novel Flaubert’s Parrot, and in his collection of Francophile short stories, Cross Channel.
Barnes first visited France as a teenager in the Fifties. His initial impressions were unfavourable: he hated the food ("foul vinaigrette had been slimed over the salad") and was frightened by the prospect of having to speak the language. His parents were both French teachers and in a mood of adolescent rebellion he decided to study philosophy at university instead of languages. But, as an enthusiastic reader of 19th-century French literature, he felt compelled to reassess his disenchantment with France as a young adult. He came to Francophilia relatively late in life, and he cheerfully admits that being a visitor from England allows him to focus on the attractive aspects of French culture while ignoring its disagreeable elements (such as perpetual strikes, gang warfare on the Metro and the inexorable rise of racist political parties).
Barnes’s journalistic reputation is founded on his relaxed, anecdotal style, which is never entirely devoid of swank, clatter and show-off puns. It is a surprise, then, to find him writing a serious, investigative piece about drug-taking in the Tour de France. He discovers that the misuse of erythropoietin (a substance which raises the level of red blood cells) is widespread among professional cyclists. It was undetectable until a couple of years ago, but it had led to a number of early deaths from cardiac arrest. Barnes uses this as the springboard for a wider discussion about the ethics of drug-taking in sport. He concludes that athletes have never been innocent or particularly heroic figures: even in ancient Greece there were Olympic breath tests for alcohol.
The best pieces here are a review of a Flaubert biography and two long reviews of Flaubert’s letters, which intersect with Barnes’s mock-biographical novel. Flaubert, like Shakespeare, is an impossible subject for a biography, since he deliberately laid down so many false trails. As a result, most of his biographers end up writing about themselves. The correspondence, according to Barnes, "has always added up to Flaubert’s best biography", though he concedes a few lines later that often the letters "veer towards the novelistic". The enigmatic Flaubert is finally seen to be a multitude of letter-writers, co-existing within a single writerly imagination. Some of Barnes’s best lines are hidden in the index. For example, an entry for the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev refers us to points in the text where he is described as "neutered", "oyster-like", "squirrel-like" and "unimpressed by the Swiss". The entry on "Excretion" is a filthy masterpiece. It seems characteristic of Barnes that he should be playing such games. In fact the index works as a parodic version of Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des Idees Revues.
After the slight disappointment of Barnes’s last novel, Love, etc - the story of a dreary erotic triangle, narrated as a series of interior monologues - this wide-ranging and erudite book feels like a satisfying return to form. It is an extended love letter to the French from one of England’s sharpest literary novelists. n