Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1976
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 second country he must endure in the diminished capacity of his declining years.
Another story highlighting the inevitability of cultural division brought to bear by history and custom is “Hermitage.” In this work, Florence and Emily, a lesbian couple eager to leave behind the stuffy provinciality of their native Essex, and wholeheartedly open to the charms of France’s wine country, wonder whether their revitalizing presence at the château and vineyard they have purchased will really produce any lasting or palpable change. While these two independent-minded British ladies are quickly accepted as somewhat eccentric fixtures by the local population, they nevertheless come to realize that all their attempts to improve the cultivation and processing of the estate’s wine have, in fact, had little impact on its quality. Age-old traditions, as well as the inscrutable methods of the French natives who work the vineyard, it seems, ultimately undermine any chance of permanent English influence taking root there.
The exploration of national characteristics and the inevitable clash of cultures these produce hardly constitute new terrain for Julian Barnes. His novel Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) wryly recounts the efforts of an English doctor, a Gustave Flaubert aficionado, to determine which of two stuffed parrots residing in separate French museums is actually the one the French realist author kept on his desk while writing. Similarly, Barnes’s The Porcupine (1992) follows the trial of a deposed Communist leader after the collapse of the Berlin Wall who cunningly challenges the capitalist ideology and hidden motivation of his ambitious young prosecutor, exposing in the process the same hypocrisy and self-interest in the new regime as existed in the old. Barnes’s entertaining collection of essays, Letters from London 1990-1995 (1995) also provides piquant insights into the collective sensibilities of his own compatriots.
Yet, at no point are Barnes’s unique takes on a nation’s peculiar disposition more perceptive than when they target the insurmountable barriers of language and their effect on both individual and collective alienation. If the British navvies and their fellow French workers in “Junction” somehow manage to make themselves understood (when necessary) through an indecipherable lingua franca of their own invention, Dr. Achille nevertheless finds himself unwilling to romanticize this glimpse into a possibly harmonious future world order. Their patois will neither doom poetry nor put an end to war, as his strolling companions remark, but simply lead to new versions of both. In “Evermore,” the lexicographer Miss Moss fears that the world’s fading memory of the Great War will doom her brother’s ultimate sacrifice to meaninglessness and oblivion. Recalling the inscription on a monument erected to honor the World War I fallen in France, which she has visited annually for fifty years, Miss Moss, in her meticulous work on an English-language dictionary, fights against designating her cherished definition of the story’s title word (“for all future times”) as “obsolete.”
In a lighter vein, the narrator’s garrulous, though predictable Uncle Freddy in “Experiment” appears incapable of fixing his explanation of how he managed to be invited to participate in a Surrealist conference on sexuality attended by some of France’s most infamous artists of the 1920’s. Is it because this wax polish salesman tells them his product iscire réaliste, or that as a racing enthusiast he declares, “Je suis, sire, rallyiste?” Similar linguistic intricacies provide a subtle shading to the sexual dimensions of the middle-aged Englishwomen of “Hermitage,” as well. After Emily, with her annoying attention to detail, catalogs various types of viticultural malady, Florence asks her what cryptogamia might be. The daunting word of Greek origin turns out to mean literally “concealed wedlock,” and is a fungus, Emily explains, included in Linnaeus’ taxonomy among the last (that is, lowest) class of plants. In a wink to the reader, Florence expresses her sincere hopes that this classification does not entail any moral judgment.
While most of the stories in Cross Channel are rooted in historical realism, at least two are of a more whimsical nature. “Gnossienne,” in particular, tends toward fantasy with its account of the English writer Clements, whose claim never to have attended a single literary conference is belied by a seemingly intimate knowledge of their proceedings. Usually averse to requests to participate, Clements becomes intrigued by an unexpected invitation he receives which requires no response, but suggests cryptically that “attendance is performance.” After some difficulty in arriving at the town where the mysterious conference is to be held, Clements is met, curiously, by its mayor and a marching band, led to his hotel, and instructed to appear at seven-thirty that evening for a dinner and discussion. The session is moderated by one Jean-Luc Cazes, whom Clements later learns is a writer invented by the OULIPO group of artists and intellectuals who espouse “pataphysics,” that is, the “science of imagining solutions!” Recalling an earlier interview for French television in which he was asked to comment on myth versus reality, Clements’ final utterance in “Gnossienne” is the reiterated claim never to have been present at a literary conference in his life.
Cross Channel ends on a ludic note with “Tunnel,” the only story set in the future (2015), which serves as a summational coda to the nine earlier pieces in the volume. At first glance, the work appears simply to recount the observations of an elderly British writer traveling on business to Paris aboard the efficient Eurostar. As “Tunnel” progresses, however, familiar echoes from the preceding stories begin to be heard in oblique references now recombined coherently into an entirely new narrative. By the time the collection closes with the sentence: “And the elderly Englishman, when he returned home, began to write the stories you have just read,” the reader should hardly be surprised as to the tenth story’s function. Dispersed elements here—an adolescent outing to France, a concern about senility and the presence of an alembic—had all already appeared in “Melon.” Speculation that another traveler, a sportswriter, may be covering the Tour de France, and that an older woman may once have been a cabaret performer at the famed Crazy Horse dance hall in Paris, leads the reader back to the British cyclist Andy and his stripper girlfriend in “Brambilla.” The view of a World War I cemetery on the French side of the titular tunnel brings to mind “Evermore”; the imagined presence of an engineer recalls “Junction”; the Meursault wine the English writer takes along with him, “Hermitage.” If mention of the hooligan fans of a British football club called the “Dragons” seems to turn the final integrating impulse of “Tunnel” into a forced conceit, the elderly author is there to sound this concluding justificatory note—the writer, he explains, “was meant to thrive on knowing and not knowing, on the fruitful misprision, the partial discovery and the resonant fragment.” The sentiment might have served Cross Channel as its epigraph.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCII, February 15, 1996, p. 988.
Chicago Tribune. April 21, 1996, XIV, p. 3.
Kirkus Review. LXIV, February 1, 1996, p. 151.
London Review of Books. XVIII, January 4, 1996, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 17, 1996, p. 2.
The New Republic. CCXIV, June 24, 1996, p. 40.
New Statesman and Society. IX, January 19, 1996, p. 39.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 21, 1996, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 19, 1996, p. 204.
The Spectator. CCLXXVI, January 6, 1996, p. 28.
The Times Literary Supplement. January 19, 1996, p. 24.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Autumn, 1996, p. 132.