CROSS CHANNEL by Julian Barnes


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A first collection of ten thematically linked stories, each of which deals with Britain's experience of France, from a sophisticated observer of both countries. Barnes's Francophilia has previously found expression in such novels as Flaubert's Parrot (1985) and Talking It Over (1991). The stories range widely, from a hauntingly dramatic tale of the persecution of a 17th-century village's forbidden religious practices ("Dragons") to a discursive medley of memories (in "Tunnel") indulged during a train ride to Paris in the year 2015 by the elderly English writer to whom we've been listening for longer than we'd suspected. The latter piece demonstrates the signal weaknesses of Barnes's fiction: a tendency to overload frail narrative situations with extravagant quantities of specific information (in this case, about the history, commerce, literature, viticulture, and Lord knows what-an-else of la belle France), and a self-conscious density of aper‡u and epigram so oppressive that the book fairly grows heavy in your hands. Such ostentation reduces to trivia a promising tale ("Experiment") about a stuffy Englishman's "undeserved entr‚e to the Surrealist circle" and a snappish satire on literary conferences ("Gnossienne")--and, conversely, swells to shapelessness the narrative of a cricketer whose visits to France climax in the unhappy year of 1789 ("Melon") and an otherwise strongly imagined and beautifully structured story ("Junction") about the building of the Rouen and Le Havre Railway. The better stories--often very good indeed--include a wry account of two unmarried English ladies relocated in the French countryside and struggling to operate a vineyard ("Hermitage"); a compassionate (though overextended) portrayal of a lonely Jewish woman who mourns for many decades afterward the death of her brother on the Somme battlefields ("Evermore"); and the superbly witty "Interference," which describes with delicious comic detail the final days of a vain and waspish English composer in the adopted country that good-naturedly attempts to tolerate him. A very uneven display of this very skillful author's obvious talents.
Pub Date: March 25th, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-44691-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1996


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