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Essays on France and French Culture

Written by Julian BarnesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Julian Barnes


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: January 16, 2009
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-54710-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Anyone who loves France (or just feels strongly about it), or has succumbed to the spell of Julian Barnes’s previous books, will be enraptured by this collection of essays on the country and its culture.

Barnes’s appreciation extends from France’s vanishing peasantry to its hyper-literate pop singers, from the gleeful iconoclasm of nouvelle vague cinema to the orgy of drugs and suffering that is the Tour de France. Above all, Barnes is an unparalleled connoisseur of French writing and writers. Here are the prolific and priapic Simenon, Baudelaire, Sand and Sartre, and several dazzling excursions on the prickly genius of Flaubert. Lively yet discriminating in its enthusiasm, seemingly infinite in its range of reference, and written in prose as stylish as haute couture, Something to Declare is an unadulterated joy.



I first went to France in the summer of 1959 at the age of thirteen. My pre-adolescence had been car-free and island-bound; now there stood in front of our house a gun-metal-grey Triumph Mayflower, bought secondhand, suddenly affordable thanks to a £200 grant from Great Aunt Edie. It struck me then -- as any car would have done -- as deeply handsome, if perhaps a little too boxy and sharp-edged for true elegance.; last year, in a poll of British autophiles, it was voted one of the ten ugliest cars ever built. Registration plate RTW1, red leather upholstery, walnut dashboard, no radio, and a blue metal RAC badge on the front. (The RAC man, portly and moustachioed, with heavy patched boots and a subservient manner, had arrived to enrol us. His first, preposterous question to my father -- 'Now, sir, how many cars have you got?' -- passed into quiet family myth.) That cars were intended not just for safe commuting but also for perilous voyage was endorsed by the Triumph's subtitle, and further by its illustrative hubcaps: at their centre was an emblematic boss depicting, in blue and red enamel, a Mercator projection of the globe.

Our first expedition was from suburban Middlesex to provincial France. At Newhaven we watched nervously as the Mayflower was slung by crane with routine insouciance over our heads and down into the ferry's hold. The metal RAC badge at the front was now matched by a metal GB plate at the rear. My mother drove; my father map-read and performed emergency hand-signals; my brother and I sat in the back and worried. Over the next few summers we would loop our way through different regions of France, mostly avoiding large cities and always avoiding Paris. We would visit châteaux and churches, grottoes and museums, inducing in me a lifelong phobia for the guided tour. I was the official photographer, first in black-and-white (home processed), later in colour transparency. My parents tended to feature only when the viewfinder's vista seemed dull; then, remembering the dictates of Amateur Photographer, I would summon them to provide 'foreground interest'. We picnicked at lunchtime and towards five o'clock would start looking for a small hotel; the red Michelin was our missal. In those days, as soon as you left the Channel ports behind, the roads were empty of non-French cars; when you saw another GB coming in your direction, you would wave (though never, in our family, hoot).

That first, monstrous expedition into the exotic was a gentle tour of Normady. From Dieppe we drove to Cany-Barville, of which I remember only two things: a vast and watery soup pullulating with some non-British grain or pulse; and being sent out on my first foreign morning for the newspaper. Which one did they want? Oh, just get the local one, my father replied unhelpfully. I had the normal adolescent's self-consciousness -- that's to say, one that weighs like a stone-filled rucksack and feels of a different order to everyone else's. It was a heroic journey across the street and towards the shop, imperilled at every step by garlic-chewing low-lifes who drank red wine for breakfast and cut their bread - and youngsters' throats -- with pocket knives. 'Le journal de la région,' I repeated mantrically to myself, 'Le journal de la région, le journal de la région.' I no longer remember if I even uttered the words, or just flung my coins at some nicotined child-molester with a cry of 'Keep the change.' All I remember is the purity of my fear, the absoluteness of my embarrassment, and the lack of vivid praise from my parents on my safe return.

From Cany-Barville to Thury-Harcourt: did all French villages have such solemn hyphenation? None of that Something-upon-Whatsit, Thingummy-in-the-Tum-Tum. Cany-Barville, Thury-Harcourt: this was different, grave. Thereafter, my memories become slighter, more banal; perhaps not even memories, but half-forgotten impressions revived by photographs. A brown-beamed coaching inn, a rough-fleeced donkey in a rough-grassed park, my first squat French château with pepperpot towers (Combourg), my first soaring ditto (Josselin). Then first viewings of Chartres, the Bayeux Tapestry and Chateaubriand’s aqueous tomb. On the tranquil roads we mingled with traffic of lustrous oddity. French cars were very unMayflowery: curved in the weirdest places, coloured according toa different palette, and often formidably eccentric — witness the Panhard. They had corrugated butchers’ vans, Deux Chevaux with canvas stacker seats, Maigret Citroëns, and later the otherworldly DS, whose initials punned on divinity.

And then there was the formidable eccentricity of the food. Their butter was wanly unsalted, blood came out of their meat, and they would put anything, absolutely anything, into soup. They grew perfectly edible tomatoes and then doused them in foul vinaigrette; ditto lettuce, ditto carrots, ditto beetroot. Normally you could detect that foul vinaigrette had been slimed over the salad; but sometimes they fooled you by slurping it into the bottom of the bowl, so that when with hopeful heart you lifted a leaf from the top... Bread was good (but see butter); chips were good (but see meat); vegetables were unpredictable. What were those things that weren’t proper runner beans but round, fat, overcooked, and — cold! There was pâté: forget it, anything could have gone into that; though not as anything as the anything that went into their gristly, warty saucissons, assembled from the disposings of an axe murderer. There was cheese. No, there were thousands of cheese, and I would eat only one of them — Gruyère. Fruit was reliable — not much they could do to ruin that; indeed, they grew very large and juicy red apples you could positively look forward to. They liked onions far too much. They brushed their teeth with garlic paste. They camouflaged quite edible meat and fish with sauces of dubious origin and name. Then there was wine, which bore a close resemblance to vinaigrette; and coffee, which I hated. Occasionally there would be a noxious, unassessable dish which explained all too well what you found and smelt behind the teak-stained door of les waters, where gigantic feet in knobbed porcelain awaited you, followed by a gigantic flush which drenched your turn-ups.
Julian Barnes|Author Q&A

About Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes - Something to Declare

Photo © Jillian Edelstein

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester and moved to London in 1946. He is the author of twenty books, and in 2011 won the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending. He met Pat Kavanagh in 1978.
Pat Kavanagh was born in South Africa and moved to London in 1964. She worked in advertising and then, for forty years, as a literary agent. She married Julian Barnes in 1979, and died in 2008.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Julian Barnes
Editor and Translator of In the Land of Pain

Q: Charles Dickens called Alphonse Daudet “his little brother in France,” and Daudet’s friends and contemporaries were Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola. Why has he become, as you call him in your introduction, “ a substantially forgotten writer nowadays,” and why is he important?

I think he was one of those writers, extremely popular in his day, whose work has most of its appeal to his contemporaries. Also, while he is a very good writer—novelist, playwright, journalist—he was, in the final judgment, less great than the three friends whose names you cite. He is still read—Letters from My Mill and the Tartarin books are always in print—but this vein of humorous Provencal fiction is only one side of him. The rest has more of less vanished. I think that’s a bit unfair, thought I wouldn’t claim that his collected works are full of forgotten masterpieces waiting to be resurrected. But In the Land of Pain—hitherto completely unknown outside France, and never before translated—is a work that falls outside any obvious category, and demands not rediscovery (since our predecessors didn’t know it) but discovery.

Q:What drew you do Daudet and specifically his notes on his experience living and suffering with an incurable case of syphilis?

In about 1982/3 I was researching my novel Flaubert’s Parrot, and came across a reference to this book with a strange title, La Doulou, in which Daudet wrote about his experiences as a tertiary syphilitic. Flaubert also had syphilis (but barely alluded to it), so I looked up the Daudet in a university library. I was immediately struck by its extraordinary truthfulness, lack of self-pity, precision and wry humour. In the old phrase, grace under pressure—extreme pressure. The book lodged in my mind and never really left. A couple of years ago I thought I ought to reread it, and wondered why it (still) hadn’t been translated. (Well, because no one knew about it—I still haven’t met anyone in England who’s read it in French). So I thought I’d write one of those articles in a literary magazine saying ‘Why hasn’t this small masterpiece been translated?’ Then I thought, Do it yourself, matey. So I did.

Q: You also say in your introduction that if Daudet “dined in the highest company, he was also a member of a less enviable 19th century French club: that of literary syphilitics.”
What was the connection between syphilis and the literati of the time? Did other writers record their experiences?

A number of writers—Flaubert, Jules de Goncourt, Maupassant, Baudelaire—had syphilis; likewise others in the artistic field. But they were far from atypical; as Daudet’s notes about the spas he visited in an attempt to cure his disease make plain, syphilis was common in all walks of life. We hear more about ‘artistic syphilis’ because we are interested in the artist (and sometimes try to theorize about the extent to which their art is affected by the grim disease’s presence in their lives); but of course for every famous writer who caught syphilis, there is usually an unfamous non-writer from whom he caught it. These we forget more easily. Few writers recorded their experiences—though Edmond de Goncourt recorded his brother Jules’ suffering in his Journal. After Jules died, Edmond made a new best friend and surrogate brother in Alphonse Daudet—only to watch him go through the same terrible, inexorable suffering that he had witnessed already. Further, Daudet kept asking Goncourt about what Jules was going through at a similar stage, and measuring his progress—or regress—against that of his friend’s dead brother. This generation of writers did look life, in all of its facets, full in the face.

Q: Which of Daudet’s works are available in English, and what would you recommend to someone interested in reading more of his work?

I should imagine Letters from My Mill exists in English. But most of him is out of print. However, since he was translated and reprinted many time, the estimable www.abebooks.com will doubtless be able to supply anything. Sappho, The Evangelist, and Numa Roumestan are certainly worth investigating. But only after you’ve read In the Land of Pain, of course.

Q: What do you think Daudet’s observations have to offer people suffering from chronic pain/disease today?

A: People don’t die of tertiary syphilis any more in the developed world. And pain control is better nowadays. But obviously AIDS offers a parallel case—especially in its earliest, seemingly untreatable days. And diseases carrying death sentences are still with us. What is central and timeless about In the Land of Pain, what makes it speak to us directly and harrowingly, isn’t the fact of syphilis but the more general encounter with pain: physical, moral, familial, social. Daudet’s response to it, never boastful, never self-pitying, seems to me to be exemplary—though he would not have thought of himself as an example. I’d also say that what he has written is relevant to each of us, however young, healthy, and chaste we might be. To be born is to receive a life sentence of anything between zero and one hundred years. Daudet—when he learned that his condition could not be cured—received one of between five and fifteen years. So he faced, in a shorter period, what we all face in what we hope will be a longer one. As a courageous truth-teller who has gone before, he is worthy of our attention—and our honouring.



“Beautifully written. . . . There is much to amuse and delight in this collection, and reflections of considerable worth.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Offers insight into the political, literary and sporting culture of a nation, with brilliant and engaging results. . . . Barnes displays here his nose for the extraordinary detail and the comic moment of phrasing.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Julian Barnes seems to have done more for Anglo-French relations than anyone since Edward VII.” –Daily Telegraph (London)

“Our finest essayist.” –Financial Times

“Barnes does indeed have numerous things to declare . . . and he does so with profound insight and biting intelligence. . . . Barnes conveys his passions with infectious vigor.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune

Something to Declare is supremely enjoyable. . . . A tour de force.” –Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“[Barnes’] insights are intelligent and provocative, his turn of phrase stylish and witty.” –Winston-Salem Journal

"[A] Tour de France–and a tour de force." –Booklist (starred review)

“Barnes is humorous throughout this collection, attenuating the stress of cultural intersections.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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