“Without technique, a gift - even one amounting to genius - is no more than a filthy habit.”
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.