Friday, July 19, 1996

Cross Channel, by Julian Barnes

A review of Cross Channel, by Julian Barnes
Published July 19th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Changing Channels
English Novelist Crosses Over with
Short Stories About French

By Julian Barnes
Knopf, $21

Born in 1946, Julian Barnes was a late bloomer. He published his first novel—the fine, if conventional, Metroland—in 1980, and has been turning out novel after novel, each more brilliant than the last, ever since. His third book, Flaubert’s Parrot—a combination biography, novel, literary critique, and critique of literary critique—was hailed by critics as the greatest novelistic innovation since Nabokov’s Pale Fire. With these accomplishments, Barnes has established himself as one of the masters of the novel. His newest book, however, Cross Channel, is a collection of short stories and finds him far out of his element.

Comprising ten loosely connected stories, Cross Channel addresses Barnes’—and England’s—obsession with France. This obsession colors much of Barnes’ earlier work, and Cross Channel deals directly with the questions of language, culture, and religion at the heart of British and French discourse.

As always, Barnes’ scholarship is formidable. Ranging from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries, Cross Channel takes up everything from Catholic missionary soldiers to bridge building to bicycling to winemaking, and as with Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes delved heavily into journals, newspapers, and correspondence to write these stories. The results can be perplexing, especially to monolingual Americans, but at times they can also be deeply gratifying.

The richest of these stories, “Hermitage,” is a moving treatise on love and winemaking in fin-de-siècle France. Two British women, Emily and Florence, are fed up with the turnip farmers of their native village, and to escape they buy a vineyard in northern France, their “hermitage.” Through their interactions with the locals, Emily and Florence open the story to much larger questions than to just the specifics of winemaking. Discussing purity regulations for their vintage, the two women learn about local habits, issues of nationalism, and questions of language. Even the simple task of transporting the wine brings up old economic and social dilemmas.

Not every story in this collection evokes so much so powerfully. Many stories, however beautiful the language, are more technically dazzling than artistically satisfying. The story “Melon” astounds with its knowledge of eighteenth-century culture and history but leaves the reader dry. “Melon” records the various destinies of a group of British noblemen who go to France for a cricket match in September 1789, at the start of the French Revolution—definitely the wrong time to be thinking of sports. With this premise, the story could have been a powerful depiction of personal loyalties, or at the very least an examination of class struggle, but it’s neither. The narrative threads end up getting mangled and fragmented by Barnes’ own virtuosity. Each character’s individuality becomes more and more obscure, and the story ends up being pointless despite its wide range.

Although many of the individual stories in Cross Channel successfully examine the English/French fascination—such as “Interference,” with its cranky exiled composer, and “Dragons,” with its awesome religious clash—the collection is, as a whole, somewhat weak. The interconnecting threads are flimsy, and there’s too much going on in this book for it to be wholly integrated or complete. Maybe the collection is too short—just 211 pages—to make any sense of Barnes’ vast subject material.

Barnes’ worst mistake in Cross Channel is an attempt at closure at the end of all this discontinuity. In the last story, “Tunnel,” the main character, an older version of Barnes himself, travels to France by Eurostar in the year 2017. Letting his mind wander over his lifetime of visits to France, he constructs in his mind a kind of English/French mythology. Despite the story’s eschatological bent, nothing is really culminated. Instead, Barnes relies on the worst narrative trick to pull the story together: The last line of the book reads, “And the elderly Englishman, when he returned home, began to write the stories you have just read.” Hopefully Barnes—the somewhat younger Englishman—will return home to write another novel.

—David Wiley

1 comment:

  1. Note: When I wrote this review, I’d only read Barnes’ first three novels, which were each significantly and remarkably more brilliant than the last. I’d also heard great things about his fifth novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, but hadn’t read it. So after reviewing Cross Channel, I decided to go back and read A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, and I found it amazingly idiotic. Along with Cross Channel, it made me seriously downgrade my whole view of Barnes’ overall importance. Perhaps I’ll pick him up again someday and be pleasantly surprised.