211 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 0 330 34911 2
Review by Ann Skea
Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)
'Les Goddams'. 'Les Rosbifs', 'Les Fuck-offs' - for centuries the French have regarded the English as the hereditary enemy: and the sentiment has been reciprocated. For centuries, the French have guarded their language from pollution by English phrases: and the English have refused to speak to 'The Frogs' in anything other than Franglais, or English spoken more slowly and loudly. The English lay claim to the narrow strip of water which separates the two countries, calling it 'The English Channel': The French call it 'La Manche'- the sleeve - as if brushing the English from their side with a sweeping gesture.
Julian Barnes, however, has found acclaim for his work in both England and France, which, if nothing else, requires a remarkable display of tact. It suggests that he is witty and erudite enough to please the French, and that he makes enough sly digs at the French to satisfy the English. In truth, Barnes bridges the gulf between the two nations with understanding and imagination. He is witty and erudite, and there are sly, ironic digs in both directions, but above all his writing is a delight to read.
Barnes slips chameleon-like between eras, genders, ages, classes and nationalities. He is equally at home writing rather ponderous love-letters from a young man touring France in the late 18th century; observing the behaviour of a couple of English spinsters who buy and re-establish a run-down French vineyard; sharing professional secrets, stale jokes and malicious gossip as a competitor (and his wife) in the tour-de-France; or conveying the cruel iniquities of religious persecution in a time when Devils, Beasts and dragons threatened small French agricultural communities.
Most poignant of all the stories, is that of an elderly Englishwoman's annual pilgrimages to her brother's grave in France. It is a simple story, simply told, but it makes a powerful comment on war, grief and the transience of memory.
Three of these stories first appeared in The New Yorker, two were first published in Granta. All are beautifully imagined, perceptive and carefully crafted stories which, together, show a deeply felt love for the two countries and their people, and a keen understanding of for their shared history.
Not being fluent in colloquial French, there were times when Barnes's jokes were beyond me, but his use of French in the text is minimal and understanding of it is not essential. My only other quibble is with the book's final sentence, which I found trite and unnecessary - a clumsy denouement to an otherwise subtle and beguiling collection of stories.
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