Le vrai Barnes

Something to Declare

Julian Barnes<em> Picador, 318pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 033048916X

In Flaubert's Parrot, the writer-hero (not Julian Barnes, obviously) confesses that he is sometimes tempted to go through the red channel at Customs when he returns home from France. Usually he has nothing to declare, apart from an alarmingly smelly piece of Brillat-Savarin and "a dangerous fondness for Flaubert". His explanation for this eccentricity is flimsy, but it amounts to this: an assumption that any sensible Customs officer (or reader) would regard his affection for France as perverse, and probably subversive - a contraband emotion, the single market notwithstanding.

Hence, by deduction, the title of Barnes's new book of essays, Something to Declare, suggesting that all his suspect baggage will finally be opened up for inspection. With its tricolour cover and folksy introduction (featuring a splendid story of a journey of parental ashes), the book promises to tap into the essence of Frenchness, which is, according to Barnes, "designed by God to seem as provokingly dissimilar from the British as possible".

But lovers of Peter Mayle beware: Barnes is playing cross-Channel games. Anyone who quotes Flaubert's dictum as often as he does - "a writer should leave behind him nothing but his words" - is hardly likely to spill the autobiographical beans in a collection of disparate essays. You will search in vain for that accretion of hints and allusions whereby Flaubert builds up an impression, in one of Barnes's examples, of the mysterious colouring of Madame Bovary's eyes. Le vrai Barnes, and the distillation of his passion for France, remain elusive.

Instead, Barnes presents 17 dazzling articles, written for various literary outlets over two decades, in which that passion is given a free rein. And Flaubert is never far away - that scourge of the cult of personality, that derider of "progress" who felt that his ivory tower was constantly threatened by a rising tide of filth. Barnes, the child of a cooler, more ironic age, keeps such metaphoric urges under control, but his instincts emerge from his choice of favoured subjects.

We hear about Richard Cobb, "historian of individuality", who was so disgusted by the dishonesty of France's bicentennial celebrations that he vowed never to write about the country again; Francois Truffaut, whose cinematographic jousting with Jean-Luc Godard ended in moral defeat for the latter when he agreed to direct a commercial for Nike; Tom Simpson, the first British cyclist ever to wear the leader's yellow jersey in the Tour de France, achieved without the use of artificial stimulants; and Elizabeth David, who wrote about French cuisine as she cooked, "with simplicity, purity, colour, self-effacing authority, and a respect for tradition".

In these pieces, Barnes declares not just a preference for the French way of doing things, but also a sense of regret that so much of what he prefers has already been lost. He applauds Edith Wharton, who, after touring France with Henry James in 1907, sighed that the new vogue for motoring would bring expectations of "modern plumbing and maple furniture" and threaten the "thriftily compact traditional life" of la France profonde. Now that process - progress - is almost complete. You are never far from a Monsieur Bricolage. And as for the European Union: "The old nation states of Europe are gradually being homogenised into herdable groups of international consumers separated only by language." Enough said.

Yet all this is by way of a preamble for the literary essays that occupy nearly two-thirds of the book. Teasingly, we are taken on a number of diversionary trips to meet, among others, Georges Simenon - a man who used a 250,000-word memoir to attack his wife, "like using a neutron bomb in a cod war"; and into the self-absorbed world of Charles Baudelaire. The poet, perpetually short of money, tells a friend: "I am writing to you as my last two logs burn." Barnes cannot resist the jest: "Baudelaire is always, as it were, on his last logs."

Finally, Gustave Flaubert steps into the limelight, where he belongs. He arrives in the company of the characters he created, his lovers, friends and relations, his correspondents and contemporaries and - most devastatingly - his biographers (foolish creatures) and hapless critics. The great man despises both breeds, and Flaubert didn't like them much, either.

Barnes starts with Enid Starkie, already duffed up in Flaubert's Parrot. Her capital offence was to preface her academic study of Flaubert with a portrait of the wrong man. But true scorn is reserved for Jean-Paul Sartre, whose "outstandingly badly written book" is condemned as a vast folly, erected with "admirable but mad" single-mindedness. All this effort, Barnes believes, is a function of a 20th-century mania for biography, which has proved a substitute for the bothersome business of "actually reading the writers being biographed". Barnes himself continues to do so with exemplary assiduity. Through minute analysis of Flaubert's letters, he has discovered, for example, that the writer often used the image of a wooden napkin ring turned on a lathe to represent the creative process - but only to female correspondents.

The result of all this endeavour is funny, moving and ultimately convincing. But maybe Barnes should stick to the green channel after all. There is little to declare here that was not expertly exploited in Flaubert's Parrot, though I am grateful to be offered the source of the saying "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose". And it wasn't Flaubert, either.

Nick Clarke is the presenter of BBC Radio 4's The World at One

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?