I tend to think of Julian Barnes as an all-English writer but I realize, that’s probably just because he used to rather famously play tennis with Martin Amis. (So very English!) But it turns out that Barnes is Francophone and something of a Flaubert scholar — ack, Flaubert’s Parrot, of course he’s a Flaubertiste. So Something to Declare is a nice little collection of various Francophilia subjects: tourism in France, the Tour de France, Henry James and Edith Wharton touring France, French food…. and in the kind of cleverness this book is full of, “French letters.” (A pun: you might not recognize that as an old-fashioned term for condoms.) Most of these pieces, in fact, are reviews for the usual suspects: The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement.
Well, cleverness about the French: how delightful! In a book like this there are going to be hits and misses and only because I am conscientious did I read all of the essay on Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens,which was a waste of time because I don’t know what any of them sounds like. Ditto the essays on films I hadn’t seen. But when Barnes is writing about literary figures, that’s when the fun starts, because he treats Baudelaire and Mallarmé and George Sand and, yes, Flaubert as if they were friends who had just left the room.
For instance, I was especially entertained by the essay on Louise Colet, Flaubert’s mistress, a figure Barnes handles with both amusement and sympathy. Her writing — of course she wrote — was evidently overheated and bombastic, she herself always the heroine of the tale. Here’s how Barnes describes Colet’s thinly veiled account of her affair with a celebrated poet (the character “Albert” in Colet’s novel, Alfred de Musset in history):
Musset was clearly unsafe in a cab at any speed, and as Flaubert sardonically reminded Louise, ‘Convention has it that one doesn’t go for a moonlight drive with a man for the purpose of admiring the moon.’ But Louise went for many moonlight drives with the poet. Musset would turn up drunk and imploring on her doorstep and — such being her reverence for glory — he eventually got into her bed.
One of the most engaging essays covers the correspondence between George Sand and Flaubert, who were literary friends in middle age. Barnes calls this a correspondence in which Flaubert manages “to attain both equality and difference.” They argued, they gossiped, they tried to hammer out the basic question of What Fiction Was For, and ended up on opposite sides of the question. Sand became “increasingly prone to giving Flaubert increasingly basic advice… She has told him to get married… she has told him not to be grumpy;… told him to eat properly, take walks, and do some gym…” Barnes straddles respect and irreverence in these essays. If this is the kind of thing you like, you’ll like it a lot.