Something to Declare by Julian Barnes

Sarah Tan

He scourges the catacombs of literature and prose, and presents you with a glittering selection of informative gems.

Something to Declare

Publisher: Picador
Length: 318
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $13.95 (US)
Author: Julian Barnes
US publication date: 1969-12
"Without technique, a gift -� even one amounting to genius �- is no more than a filthy habit."
� Julian Barnes

Kingsley Amis is quoted on the back of the book as saying, I wish he?d [Julian Barnes] just shut up about Flaubert. As a first time Barnes reader, it was particularly difficult to understand what Amis meant. His comment could have been a compliment or complaint -- depending on the context, which was very absent. I knew that Barnes had written a book called Flaubert's Parrot, but I wasn't aware of the extent of his interest in the French writer until I read Something to Declare.

The first couple of chapters of Something to Declare are blissful. Barnes covers, amongst other things, the French countryside, film, and music. 108 pages fly by before we get to the French writers. It is then that I spot Flaubert's name for the first time, and from then on, it seems that I read nothing but Flaubert. It is as if a swarm of bees materialize out of an unsuspecting dormant hive. There is Baudelaire vs. Flaubert, a photograph of Flaubert's death mask staring at us before we dive into more Flaubert. For the next five chapters, Flaubert's name appears on the first sentence of every piece. We have Louise Colet's letters to Flaubert; Turgenev and Flaubert (the Russian and our moustached writer dominate two chapters); Flaubert and the naturalist Georges Pouchet by the sea; and then we trail to the end on the Frenchman's coat tails.

Something to Declare is simply a collection of essays related to France compiled over the last twenty years. However, simple is hardly the word to describe Barnes' mature style. He writes about the French experience of a myriad of characters in a style that can only be described as "eloquent". His sentences don't seem to flow into one another, but rather, they fit like matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece, with its sharp ends and rounded sides, gives the reader a picture that could only have been constructed with careful craftsmanship and research.

In the first piece, Barnes speaks of a historian that "prefers to begin from the opposite end, with a specific person, in a specific place, and a specific time" and that is just what Barnes seems to do himself in Something to Declare. He starts each piece with a personality who he thinks has captured an aspect of France -- be it its landscape or stark yet flamboyant nature -- and then builds around the character to create an image of the culture of that time.

The characters that Barnes chooses are not those who we would usually associate with France. The book introduces us to the English historian Richard Cobb; musicians Jacque Brel, Boris Vian, and Georges Brassen; filmakers Truffaunt and his rival Godard; Elizabeth David the cook; Edith Wharton and Henry James. That's just the cast before we get to the middle of the book, which we are then drowned in what one would think is Barnes' true passion -- Baudelaire, Mallarme, Courbet, and all things related to Flaubert.

What you end up liking about Barnes is that he rewards you for putting up with his Flaubertian (yes, that is really a word) obsession. He scourges the catacombs of literature and prose, and presents you with a glittering selection of informative gems. How lovely it is to know of a song about "the plight of an arms salesman so successful that all his clients kill one another off and reduce him to penury" (Boris Vians 'Le Petit commerce'), or of the chemical responsibilities of soigneurs in the Tour de France. Something to Declare has a lot of interesting facts that could strike your whim and fancy. Barnes' pieces have less observations and more information, which makes one emerge feeling more like a historian than an armchair tourist.

There's a lot of new journalism out there. Informal prose by essay writers that seem to casually guide you through the streets and scenes like an old friend taken by the arm. Reading Julian Barnes is different in the sense that he comes across as less of a comrade and more like an older and wiser mentor. For this, he deserves the accolades he has received (he is the only writer in France to have won both the Prix Medicis and the Prix Femina, and has bagged the Shakespeare Prize). In his work, Barnes manages to create a more academic prose. Reading his work gives you the feel of spending time with a scholar, sitting behind his desk and talking about his favourite subjects. You travel through the pages listening to a man dressed in a knit vest, pipe in one cheek, throwing in the occasional wry observation and anecdote with a recollective smile on his face.

Barnes is a literary historian. His interest predominantly lies in writers -- English, French, writers of cookbooks, novels, or songs. He reads all works pertaining to his chosen character, and dives into the jaundiced archives to find clues that help create a more complete portrait. With this wealth of information, Barnes paints, daubing on our thinly outlined canvas to reveal colour and discrepancies in history and opinion.

The only difficulty one may find with reading Something to Declare is having to bear with Barnes' need to go on and on about Flaubert. The fact that the first couple of chapters are so varied in subject makes one feel almost cheated with the rest of the book. You find yourself wishing that Barnes would talk about something else. Knowing that he has many more interesting bits to share makes it even more frustrating, but one comes to accept it as one of the writer's idiosyncrasies. However, if you do have the patience to put up with his obsession, Barnes makes sure you don't finish empty handed -- which is enough of a reason to keep on reading.





Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".


Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.


Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.


On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.


Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".


Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?


London Indie-Poppers the Motive Impress on "You" (premiere)

Southwest London's the Motive concoct catchy, indie-pop earworms with breezy melodies, jangly guitars, and hooky riffs, as on their latest single "You".


Vigdis Hjorth's 'Long Live the Post Horn!' Breathes Life into Bureaucratic Anxiety

Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! is a study in existential torpor that, happily, does not induce the same condition in the reader.


Konqistador and HanHan Team for Darkwave Hip-Hop on "Visaya"

Detroit-based electronic/industrial outfit, Konqistador team with Toronto hip-hopper HanHan for "Visaya", a song that blends darkwave and rap into an incendiary combination.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.