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Something to Declare: Essays on France [Hardcover]

Julian Barnes
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 1, 2002
Julian Barnes's long and passionate relationship with la belle France began more than forty years ago, and in these essays on the country and the culture he combines a keen appreciation, a seemingly infinite sphere of reference, and prose as stylish as classic haute couture.

Barnes's vision of France-"The Land Without Brussels Sprouts"-embraces its vanishing peasantry; its vanished hyper-literate pop singers, Georges Brassens, Boris Vian, and Jacques Brel ("[he] sang at the world as if it… could be saved from its follies and brutalities by his vocal embrace"); and the gleeful iconoclasm of its nouvelle vague cinema ("'The Underpass in Modern French Film' is a thesis waiting to be written").

He describes the elegant tour of France that Henry James and Edith Wharton made in 1907, and the orgy of drugs and suffering of the Tour de France in our own time. An unparalleled connoisseur of French writing and writers, Barnes gives us his thoughts on the prolific and priapic Simenon, on Sand, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé ("If literature is a spectrum, and Hugo hogs the rainbow, then Mallarmé is working in ultra-violet").

In several dazzling excursions into the prickly genius of Flaubert, Barnes discusses his letters; his lover Louise Colet; and his biographers (Sartre's The Family Idiot, "an intense, unfinished, three-volume growl at Flaubert, is mad, of course"). He delves into Flaubert's friendship with Turgenev; looks at the "faithful betrayal" of Claude Chabrol's film version of Madame Bovary; and reveals the importance of the pharmacist's assistant, the most major minor character in Flaubert's great novel: "if Madame Bovary were a mansion, Justin would be the handle to the back door; but great architects have the design of door-furniture in mind even as they lay out the west wing."

For lovers of France and all things French-and of Julian Barnes's singular wit and intelligence-Something to Declare is an unadulterated joy to read.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Barnes's latest collection of haute musings on France and things French is rather like a ride in a creaky Citro n: at first, it kicks and gurgles in a scattered path, but once it gets started, it's a charming and nostalgic way to view la belle France. Barnes, author of nine novels (Love, Etc., etc.), a book of stories and a collection of essays, offers here an amalgamation of pieces, many previously published in the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. The collection begins with meandering yet tellingly accurate critiques of popular culture phenomena, such as the Tour de France, the films of Truffaut and Godard, and singer Jacques Brel. Barnes's assessment of culinary writer Elizabeth David's thoughts on nouvelle cuisine (it means "lighter food, less of it, costing more") are at once witty and dead-on. After sharing these lighter, whimsical thoughts, Barnes shifts into a higher gear and delves into a study of the French and Francophile literary establishment, from Edith Wharton and Ford Madox Ford to Henry James and George Sand. He saves many of the book's later chapters for his favorite subject, Gustave Flaubert. Throughout, Barnes integrates his commentary with detailed, intriguing bits of history. Devotees of Madame Bovary will thrill to read his ruminations on the masterpiece (e.g., what if it had been written for the screen rather than as a book?). Serious yet self-deprecating, Barnes's prose is perfectly tuned to its subject. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct. 7)
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

What do you get when you combine a passion for France, a rapier wit, and an immense writing vocabulary? You get Barnes, a one-time lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, a declared Francophile, and a much-published writer of nonfiction and fiction (e.g., Staring at the Sun). This collection of essays on France includes some of Barnes's best work published in the United States (the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker) and England (Times Literary Supplement) between 1982 and 2000. A fascinating essay on the Tour de Franc, for example, includes a detailed portrait of Lance Armstrong's 2000 victory and gives insight into how the Tour has changed over time. Edith Wharton and Henry James figure prominently in an essay on travel in France at the turn of the century. Flaubert appears in several essays, reflecting Barnes's lifelong involvement in Flaubertiana: we meet his colleagues Turgenev, Baudelaire, Mallarm‚, and, of course, his mistress Louise Colet. Going beyond the literary, Barnes includes essays on cooking, contemporary film, and pop singers. All in all, this eclectic commentary on all things French is a very satisfying read-just keep your unabridged dictionary nearby! Definitely recommended for larger collections on French culture, civilization, and travel.
Olga B. Wise, Hewlett-Packard, Austin, TX
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375415130
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375415135
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,508,915 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer reviews

Top customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars March 26, 2016
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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3.0 out of 5 stars Francophiles only, even if you like Barnes. June 10, 2015
Format:Kindle Edition
First, I should acknowledge that I read this in the hardcover, having recently picked it up at a used book store. I snatched it up because I am an admirer of Julian Barnes's writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Unlike one reviewer, I also liked Flaubert's Parrot a lot, which is relevant because, as also noted, half or more of the book features essays pertaining to Flaubert.

To appreciate this collection of essays, it is not enough that one like Barnes's style or that one not be a Francophobe. One really must be a devoted Francophile. While a working appreciation of the French language is not necessary, it would help, as would a basic familiarity with some particular elements of French culture, e.g., Flaubert's literary era and perhaps some singular French vocalists of a golden era from WWII roughly through the 60's. If you don't fit any of these descriptives, you may find the book wearing, even when Barnes style shows through. I noted also a review far more appreciative than mine, and suspect that reviewer fits this bill. If you do, as well, then you may well enjoy this collection for the reasons that reviewer very nicely describes. I simply found myself skimming a lot, and (I am sorry to say) mostly uninterested.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?" -- Acts 2:8 (NKJV)

Julian Barnes has a great appreciation for all things French, from the rural life there, to the language, to the manifestations of Frenchness itself in popular culture, and, of course, literature . . . most notably Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary. The collection of stories is more about Flaubert than about anything else. If you are a fan of Madame Bovary, you'll have some fun. If you already know the book and Flaubert well, these essays aren't really necessary.

My favorite sections were about the Tour de France and Mr. Barnes' subtle commentaries about the French language, to which he brings a nuanced knowledge that added a lot to my understanding of his observations.

Should you read this collection? The Lemon Table is a better choice for most Barnes fans. But if you are a true Francophile (of which I am one), be sure to read this collection as well. If you are a Francophobe, the essays won't change your mind.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Personal Francophilia May 21, 2006
By Sirin
Julian Barnes is probably the British writer most associated with French influence over his literature. Most of his novels are influenced by France in one way or another, especially his acclaimed 1984 masterpiece, Flaubert's Parrot.

In the introduction to these essays, Barnes traces his personal affiliation with France. From nervous childhood holidays with his parents, to his immersion in French language and culture while studying Languages at Oxford, ending with a 1997 trip across the Channel to deliver the ashes of his parents. He cheerfully admits a bias towards French culture over his native Anglo-Saxon and this fact permeates the essays here.

The first part of the book features a range of essays on obscure French singers, the film director Francois Truffaut, Elizabeth David's cookery writing and, best of all, a lenghty piece on drug taking in the Tour de France.

In the second half of the book, the emphasis shifts to Flaubert, Barnes's self professed literary idol. The essays span the full range of Flaubert's life and his associations: his biographers, his mistresses, his relationship with other writers and film versions of Madame Bovary. Flaubert was given extensive fictional treatment in 'Flaubert's Parrot' and these pieces perhaps read like a reworking of the research notes for that novel.

Unlike most wannabe British continentals who think that to become au fait with European Culture one just has to eat at The River Cafe and take the occasional jaunt to Paris or Rome, Barnes has clearly read many pages of French literature and watched many metres of film. His depth and range of knowledge is impressive and the style is (as with all Barnes's writings) erudite, crisp and piercingly intelligent.
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