A Review of Julian Barnes’ Something to Declare

A Small Flaubertian Moment: A Review of Julian Barnes’ Something to Declare

 Barnes’ latest work, Something to Declare is non-fiction, a series of eighteen essays collected over twenty years, covering a range of (mainly gallic) subjects from Richard Cobb’s love and disappointment with France to crooners Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, the Tour de France to Truffaut, Elizabeth David (and the way in which she brought a very French love of food to the English) to Simenon, Baudelaire, Corbet, Mallarme, and of course Flaubert. The essays are without exception, well written and tight. It would be hard to criticise either Barnes’ polished prose, or his detailed scholarship, especially in the latter pieces on Flaubert, who remains something of an obsession for him.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Something to Declare
by Julian Barnes
Picador, January 2002
ISBN: 0 330 48916 X

Julian Barnes is reputed as saying that he won’t use a computer as that makes his work look too good, too quickly. He is also known to rewrite each page something like 45 times. The tight craftmanship shows, and his masterpieces, The History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Flaubert’s Parrot, and Cross Channel, are the kinds of books that bear infinite re-readings, each revealing another deeper layer of meaning. Barnes’ latest work, Something to Declare is non-fiction, a series of eighteen essays collected over twenty years, covering a range of (mainly gallic) subjects from Richard Cobb’s love and disappointment with France to crooners Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, the Tour de France to Truffaut, Elizabeth David (and the way in which she brought a very French love of food to the English) to Simenon, Baudelaire, Corbet, Mallarme, and of course Flaubert. The essays are without exception, well written and tight. It would be hard to criticise either Barnes’ polished prose, or his detailed scholarship, especially in the latter pieces on Flaubert, who remains something of an obsession for him. The only problem with this book is that it is both too scholarly for a general public, and too general for a scholarly audience. The essays simply don’t work together to form a reasonable whole. One feels that Barnes’ publishers simply wanted to put something out, and Barnes handed over all of his published, but unbound work, and they grouped it without thought or theme.

Individual essays are interesting and enjoyable. The piece on the Tour de France “Tour de France 2000”, and the piece on Vian, Brel and Brassens, “Spending Their Deaths on Holiday” are very good reads. Although I’ve never spent time watching the Tour de France, I was at once interested in the difficulties of this race, the ascent of Mount Ventoux, and the death of legendary British cyclist Tom Simpson. Barnes provides an analysis into the alcoholism and drug taking of the sport, and brings into his work a light, personal context which, combined with his insight into human interest, makes the piece exceptional:

The Tour de France may be an example of ‘purposeless suffering’; it is also, as Armstrong says, ‘the most gallant athletic endeavour in the world’. Whether we are the puzzled president of the French cycling Federation on Hautacam, or Martine of Coiffure Salon Martine sitting by the roadside in Saint-Didier waiting for two minutes of lurid lycra to pass, what we need and what we want is simply this: to know what we have seen.

As for the crooners, I’m an old fan myself, so I especially enjoyed this essay. Barnes provides us with setting and context, comparing the very ordinary deaths of these 3 singers to famous sixties rock stars Jopin, Morrison, Jones and Hendrix, and placing us within the setting of his year as a “lecteur d’anglais’ in Rennes in 1966-7. There are enough snippets of poetry, humour, bits of biography on Vian, Brassens, and especially Brel, and insights on the impact of these “ACI” or “auteur-compositeur-interprete” artists to make the work accessible to any reader.

Barnes’ insights into French literature in general are also interesting and dryly humorous as he moves his pen from Simenon’s numerical obsessions, to the a range of essays on French literature which compares the life and work of Baudelaire, Courbet, and Mallarme. Again, Barnes’ scholarship is exemplary, and his comments both interesting and humorous, for example: “Mallarme is one of the least translatable of the French poets: reading him in English is like listening to a chamber work for boys’ choir in a transcription for brass band.” Of course if you aren’t a French lit enthusiast, these essays will be almost meaningless to you, as will indeed, the rest of the book, from Chapter 9, which is almost solely dedicated to Flaubert, either his work, his life, his friendships, and the life of his lover, Louise Colet.

This is a shame in a way, as many of the first essays in the book will certainly appeal to a general public, but the second half of the book is for French literature enthusiasts only, specifically lovers of Flaubert. Reading literary criticism, and very detailed biography of an author whose work you are not familiar with, or even familiar with only in a cursory sense (eg if for example, you have only read Madame Bovary in translation), can be tedious, despite the fact that Barnes does it exceptionally well, and that his scholarship is faultless and full of the kind of dry humour that his is known for. “Flaubert’s Death-Masks” provides a selected overview of Flaubert’s more well known biographies, including those written by Lottman: “Mr Lottman’s text is a tangle of nits and knots, a flour-bomb of dandruff, a delta of split ends.”, Llosa, and Sartre. There is an essay solely dedicated to the way in which Flaubert’s occasional lover, Louise Colet, lived and a relatively recent biography written by Francine du Plessix Gray, a rather more interesting look at the friendship, and correspondence between Flaubert and Turgenev in “Drinking Ink”, the relationship and correspondence between Flaubert and Sand in “Consolation v Desolation”, Flaubert’s failure as a dramatist and the start of his physcial deterioration and death in “Tail-Flaying”, Flaubert’s literary ideology in “The Cost of Conscientous Literature”, Claude Chabrol’s film version of Madame Bovary in “Faithful Betrayal”, and a very close analysis of one of the “minor” characters ofMadame Bovary in “Justin: A Small Major Character”.

Certainly all of the Flaubert essays are well written, and interesting, not only for the insights into their own subject matter, but for the broader implications for art, literature, the writing process, and the relationship between literature and film which come out of them. These essays, however, really didn’t belong with the earlier essays, and will likely have a very different audience and readership than the readership for the earlier essays on French culture in general, although literature is perhaps a theme which occurs throughout the book, with the one exception of the Tour de France piece. Barnes lovers can enjoy the work for the clarity and quality of the writing, but those not familiar with Barnes’ own literary obsessions should be warned that this book is, in the main, for Flaubertians only. Perhaps we have already been warned with the printing of Kingsley Amis’ famous statement on the front and back covers of the book: “I wish he’d shut up about Flaubert”. Nevertheless, while it is likely that readers who are Flaubertians will enjoy this book immensely (although perhaps they might enjoy simply re-reading one of Flaubert’s novels more), readers without that literary background or inclination will find the book irrelevant and tedious, and will therefore miss the few gems for them which sit at the front.

For more information about Something to Declare visit: Something to Declare

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