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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 16:37 GMT
Barnes' declaration of love
Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes spent time in France as a teacher
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

After 1995's commentary about Britain, Letters From London, it is no great surprise that Julian Barnes has published a book about France, his "second country".

Fans waiting for a new Barnes novel may be disappointed to learn that this is a book of essays, almost all of which have been published, some of them as much as 20 years ago.

But in his work Barnes has already blurred the distinction between fact and fiction, between the novel and the essay, and parts of Something To Declare read like the odd, factual tangents of Flaubert's Parrot or A History Of The World In 10 Chapters.

Something To Declare
Barnes has won a number of French literary prizes
And readers who already enjoy Barnes' wry, amused, understated writing will feel at home.

The France Barnes loves is not so much the country at the other end of the Eurotunnel, as the cultural powerhouse that France was in the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th.

He lauds the France of Jean Paul Sartre, Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and the Tour de France, the land of check table-clothed bistros and the cooking that inspired Elizabeth David.

All of these are explored in the essays, along with another set of pieces on Barnes' great literary love, Gustave Flaubert, author of what he calls "the first modern novel" - Madame Bovary.

The pieces are, as one would expect, considered, shrewd and well-researched. The old, sly humour is there, too.

But the collection still seems a bit bloodless.

Jean Paul Sartre
He is critical of French intellectual totem Sartre
And if one did not already share Barnes' enthusiasms, it is not clear that these essays would fire one up.

In fact Barnes is at his best when getting in a few digs at his "second country", such as when he skewers Sartre's love for jargon and obfuscation, "fighting against the allure of lucidity, against the guilt induced by pleasing the reader".

And his account of a visit to an apparently idyllic southern French village in 1998 is notable for its cold-eyed assessment of the state of la France profonde - depopulated, demoralised and kept alive by tourism.

There are some more fascinating insights into Flaubert, of course, but for this reader the liveliest chapter is that on the great singer-songwriters Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens.

Barnes not only makes a good fist of explaining their qualities to British readers - who never showed much appreciation of French popular music - but he also slips in an enjoyable account of life as an English teacher at a college in Rennes.

And perhaps this is what is missing elsewhere in the book - a touch more simple enthusiasm and a little more autobiographical detail might have made this collection rather more immediate and less coldly analytical - less, well, French.

Something To Declare is published by Picador

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