This collection of short stories was uneven. Don’t I say this about every collection of short stories? Well, except for the one I found evenly bad, but I won’t mention any names.
The book’s main theme is the relations between French and British, specifically the stories of Brits in France. Being neither French, nor British (at least not for another two years) this is a foreign territory for me. I see both countries through my Polish glasses. France is mostly Napoleon and his broken promises made to the Polish people and also a penchant for romantic/dramatic gestures which we seem to share (although the Polish tend to stick to them longer than it seems reasonable). The British we resent a little bit for the WWII business, and the Yalta, but we also love them because they are what we wish we could be if we could only get our shit together. We also love them because they were the first EU country to fully open their borders to us and let us colonise their land. Finally, we look at both countries with a certain suspicion because they don’t have Jesus in their hearts anymore. And Jesus is very important. So is Virgin Mary.
The impression I have of British-French relations is a peculiar mix of love and hate. The two countries are locked in some silent eternal battle. They constantly invade each other culturally and linguistically and fight to be on top. And they will probably do so long after the world forgets about them and moves on (some say it has happened already).
Having worked for 3.5 year for a London wine broker dealing in high-end stuff (mostly Bordeaux and Burgundy) I have witnessed all of that first hand. It’s no surprise then that I really liked the stories which dealt with wine. One of my favourite stories was Hermitage, a tale about two English ladyfriends who move to Bordeaux to make wine and live happily ever after.
I also liked the one about sex (as I would) called Experiment. It’s about a group of French surrealists pulling a prank on an old Englishman and it’s full of quotables:
“ […] [I] would annually try to avoid getting as drunk as I had the previous year. I can’t say I ever succeeded, because though each year my resolution was stronget, so was the countervailing force of my uncle’s tediousness. In my experience, there are various good but less motives – guilt, fear, misery, happiness – for indulging in a certain excess of drink, and one larger motive for indulging in a great excess: boredom. At one time I knew a clever alcoholic who insisted that he drank because things then happened to him such as never did when he was sober. I half-believed him, though to my mind drink does not really make things happen, it simply helps you bear the pain of things not happening. For instance, the pain of my uncle being exceptionally boring on his birthdays.”
There was also quite a touching story about an old Englishwoman whose life revolved around caring for the grave of her brother, who died in the First World War. This was the only story in the collection that was emotionally developed, the rest of them were clever, imaginative, linguistically brilliant but emotionally stunted.
I think this is why Julian Barnes and I will never fall in love, even though we should. He has got everything I admire and look for in a writer. I want imagination, I want a beautiful language, I never consciously demand emotions, as I am not much into drama, but I suppose it’s one of those things I don’t want but I need them.
I will close this review of Barnes’ work with the following quote:
“The hairy navvy now transferred his suspicion from the label to the viand.”
That’s Barnes for you. He is going to send to the dictionary ten times a page. A lesser writer would just write ‘food’, but not Barnes. For Barnes it’s ‘viand’.