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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 12:37 GMT
Barnes and France: Love requited
Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes: Aiming for "lucidity"
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

Julian Barnes' fondness for France and French culture has been obvious since his third novel, Flaubert's Parrot, in 1984.

It is clearly a two-way love affair, because France made the author a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988 and an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1995.

I don't read criticism of my work any more

Julian Barnes
And, talking to BBC News Online on the eve of the publication of his latest book - a collection of essays about France - he again demonstrates his sensitivity to the Gallic way of seeing things.

"We speak in a week in which the younger son of the heir to the throne was barred from a pub not just for vomiting on the wall, but for calling the French chef 'a f**king frog'.

"I don't think he should just have been sent to a drug rehabilitation clinic.

"I think he should be sent to a meeting of a far-right fascist group somewhere to show where those tendencies end up - if that's what he thinks now."

Jean Paul Sartre
Barnes: Sartre displays the "French vice"
But Barnes is not usually so blunt - his conversational style, like his writing, is discursive, understated, wry - rather English, in fact.

It raises the question as to why his work has been so popular in France and elsewhere in mainland Europe.

"For a long time I though it was because I was half French, or I was a bit European, but when I put this theory to French people I met, tentatively, they would all say, 'No, no, no. We like you because you're are so English'.

"Then they give me line of descent which goes Tristram Shandy, Edward Lear, Monty Python, Julian Barnes.

"That's very bizarre indeed, but if they're approving of all these people, then that's OK by me," he says.

Prose style

His latest book is a canter around some French cultural artefacts - Jean Paul Sartre, Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel, the Tour de France - and Gustave Flaubert, again.

But his love for French culture does not blind him to certain failings - he laments Sartre's deliberately difficult prose style, for example.

"He was capable of being a wonderful writer, and in his autobiography he is as lucid as you can be and funny with it.

"But the problem is when he gives in to theory, which of course to me as an Englishman is the one chief French vice."

Frances O'Connor as Emma Bovary in the BBC series
Frances O'Connor as Emma Bovary: No British equivalent?
He finds Flaubert endlessly fascinating - as he does Flaubert's creation, the doomed adulteress Emma Bovary.

"The figure of the adulterous woman in the 19th century inspired great novels in France Germany, Russia, Spain - but there's absolutely no equivalent in English literature.

"High Victorian artistic ideals wouldn't allow for it, or something - I'm really not sure whether it's prudery, whether it's censorship, or whether there was less adultery in 19th century England, I don't know."

But Barnes has never decamped to France, or even had a house there.


"I've frequently been tempted, but there are still a lot of different areas I want to explore in France and if you have a house there - apart from the responsibility of looking after it, and I've got one house and that's enough trouble - it means you'd feel you have to go there every year."

"And I appreciate that fact that Britain is where I have my being, where the language that I exist in lives, and that it's a very easy and comfortable place to live.

"I'm one of those people who, when they get to the airport after a couple of weeks abroad, the first thing they look for is a British newspaper - I would want my Guardian."

Emily Watson and Christian Bale in the film of Metroland
In fact Barnes has written sympathetically about rather unglamorous aspects of British life, like life in the suburbs, explored in his first novel Metroland.

"It took me about eight years to write.

"I was very lacking in any confidence that I had the authority to be a novelist, so apart from an unpublished literary guide to Oxford - which I'm glad to say remains unpublished - it was the first book that I tried to write."


Metroland was published when Barnes was 34. It was another six years before he became a professional fiction writer.

"The day I turned 40 I finished my fourth novel, resigned my job as Observer TV critic and I bought myself a snooker table - it was painless, 40.

"I still write quite a lot of journalism but now it's my fiction that supports my journalism, not the other way round."

The body of fiction that Barnes has produced - which includes nine novels and four more detective novels under the name Dan Kavanagh - has attracted its share of critical anaylsis, in France and elsewhere.

But Barnes professes not to read it. "I don't read criticism of my work any more.

Something To Declare
The new book is a collection of essays
"It's a sort of necessary protectiveness - I don't want to be told that I use this theme in this book, and then again in this book, and then again in this book - in case I'm coming back to it in the next book.

"There has to be a level of un-selfconsciousness in what you do."

It is clearly an approach that works for the writer, who has honed a style which combines a conversational matter-of-factness with the ability to undertake complex explorations of art, philosophy and emotion.

"You do work hard in order make it less hard work for the reader - it varies from fiction writing to non-fiction writing, obviously.

"In both I try for lucidity, but you're trying also in fiction to have a lucidity which reveals complication, and that's the difference - you're essentially trying to simplify in journalism and complicate in fiction."

And Barnes is lucid enough about the continued importance of books in the 21st century.

"I think they're vital. I think they tell us many of the important truths about society."

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