The ten works constituting Julian Barnes’s first collection of variously touching, provocative, and lighthearted short stories will inevitably reinforce in the reader a truth all but self-evident: that despite their relative geographical proximity and nearly a millennium of continual contact (not always under ideal circumstances), the French and English of the late twentieth century are only nominally closer to understanding one another and to sympathizing with each other’s foibles than they were in the days of William the Conqueror. While Barnes’s engaging volume directly traces this rivalrous relationship only as far back as Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes, a 1598 decree granting religious tolerance for the Protestant Huguenots (and the backdrop for “Dragons”), a sense of the ongoing historical friction as well as the interdependence between these two fiercely chauvinistic nations conspicuously permeates every aspect of his book.
Pierre Chaigne, the main character in “Dragons,” cannot refrain from generalizing the French position—be it the murderous icy wind, the livestock-devouring Beast of Gruissan, the commissioners from the Paris court who first explain Henri IV’s proclamation, or the three Irish dragons who overrun his house and pressure the population to convert to Catholicism: “Everything bad came from the north.” In “Junctions,” the only other piece in Cross Channel presented from a decidedly French perspective, Dr. Achille, his wife Mme Julie, and the medical student Charles- André gawk at the beef-eating, hard-swearing British navvies imported to construct the Rouen-Le Havre railway while the narration coolly notes the familiar mundanity of the arrangement—after all, British captives under the Roman emperor Claudius had built the first road linking Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand way back in c.e. 45-46. The surprise these three worldly characters experience at not being set upon by gypsies, bandits, or locusts during their Sunday strolls through British work sites in the early 1840’s provides the reader with a glimpse of the more relaxed cultural rapprochement between the two countries already looming on the horizon. This narrowing of distance is made especially manifest at the story’s close, where Napoleon III awards the British engineer Brassey the Cross of the Légion d’honneur for his invaluable service to France.
In spite of its early twentieth century time frame, though, the collection’s opening piece strikes the emblematic chord of sustained cultural estrangement for the nine stories to come. In “Interference,” the dying English composer Leonard Verity hopes to hear his final work and putative masterpiece played on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio in the remote French village of Saint-Maure-de-Vercelles, where he has lived with his common-law wife for many years in self-imposed exile. The “interference” of the title, the reader learns, has at least three distinct meanings, only two of which are explained directly in the story: first, there is the static caused by the modern electrical apparatuses in the vicinity, which threatens to impair the quality of the broadcast; then there is the arrogant Verity’s belief that the artist as creator is above the niceties (that is, interference) of societal responsibility and intercourse. Unspoken, though, is the third and most blatant example of interference, that of Verity’s own implacable and uncompromising presence in a village where he has made little effort to act in a neighborly fashion toward the French inhabitants. For all Verity’s pretensions to be a citizen of the world, the story’s close confirms his standing as an unassimilated man without a country, alienated as much from the bourgeois, God-fearing England he despises as from the France he never considered home.
“Melon,” in contrast, treats predictable Anglo- Gallic culture shock with greater irony and poignancy. Divided into three sections, the story opens with a letter home from Hamilton Lindsay, an English student traveling through France, to his beloved Evelina, the cousin and sweetheart he later marries. In this bright-eyed correspondence, the young Hamilton recounts the strangeness of the titular fruit there; his difficulty in growing accustomed to Catholic fast days; the impossibility of coming across hot water with which to prepare tea, and the unappetizing quality to the small bloody birds one is served for supper. Still, Lindsay, who is referred to as “Sir” in the second section of “Melon” and as “General” by the third (in which he awaits a prisoner exchange while interned in France during the Napoleonic Wars), blithely enjoys his reputation for being a “Galloman,” due to his lifelong cultivated fondness for things French. This in spite of his extreme Britishness and the impoverished relationship to his...
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