If the French were shorter in Flaubert’s day, did they need to be less fat in order to be called ‘fat’?

P.N. Furbank

  • Cross Channel by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 211 pp, £13.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 224 04301 3

It was Wittgenstein’s objection to Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that the procedure might be impressive, but why did interpretation have to end just there, what was to stop it going on indefinitely? On Julian Barnes, who is so addicted to the business or game of interpretations, the question does not seem to weigh so heavily. We perhaps misunderstand Barnes if we take him to be profoundly worried by hermeneutic doubts: by the fictionality of the past and the inaccessibility of truth. When the Flaubert addict in Flaubert’s Parrot writes to the Grocers’ Company to ask whether redcurrant jam was the same colour in the great novelist’s day as it is now, he receives a reassuring answer: it almost certainly was, though perhaps a little cloudier. But there will be no such easy answer, he is forced to realise, to questions such as whether, if the French were shorter in Flaubert’s day, they needed to be less fat in order to be called ‘fat’. Nor, presumably, will it matter in the slightest if there is not. Barnes’s tone is blithe, because the question, what can a novelist’s life and relics tell you about his work, absurd though it is, is a fertile and exponentially expanding one. If one stuffed parrot can tell you something about Flaubert, what may not fifty stuffed parrots do for you? Interpretations can themselves be interpreted; there is always a motive for an interpretation if you know where to look for it.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is, likewise, inspired not so much by hermeneutic doubt as by hermeneutic proliferation. Barnes is marvellously resourceful in his quest after interpretations of the Ark. Shall we think of the Ark as the emblem of love, or as an example of racial discrimination? Is the captain of the Ark really in charge, or only pretending to be? Was Jonah’s whale a kind of Ark? What is the relationship of an Ark to a raft?

Barnes’s new volume (the proof was got up to look like the latest novel from Gallimard) is a sequence of ten short stories about the British in France; and given this theme, they turn, of necessity, on interpretation, often in the most down-to-earth sense of the word. ‘Experiment’ relates how the narrator’s Uncle Freddy got involved with the French Surrealists. It was a favourite story of his and underwent dizzying Surrealist transformations each time he told it. In one version he is in Paris on business, travelling for a firm which manufactures authentic wax polish, and when a stranger in a bar asks him what his line of activity is, he replies: ‘Cire réaliste.’ In another version, having been brought to Paris by a rich patron to act as navigator in a motor rally, his reply becomes: ‘Je suis, sire, rallyiste.’ Misinterpretation stands him in good stead, for his interlocutor turns out to be André Breton (or Prévert or Tanguy), with the most mind-broadening consequences. In ‘Junction’, the interpretation of the British navvies, at work on the Rouen to Le Havre railway, is plain to an ardent young village curé. With their godless language and habits, their heathen names (Bristol Joe, Streaky Bill and Straight-up Nobby), and their service of the false god Industry, they must be emissaries of that devil’s army the Saint-Simonians.

In the final story, ‘Tunnel’, Barnes shows his hand more clearly about interpretation, implying definitely that hermeneutics do not have to do with truth. We are installed in the reveries of an elderly Englishman (as it were Julian Barnes himself twenty years on), crossing to Paris by the Channel Tunnel in the year 2015. He is in a mood to bitch himself for his random old man’s memories, but with their help he imposes interpretations on his fellow passengers. The tallish, good-looking silver-haired woman, he decides, could be a sometime Crazy Horse stripper, returning to Paris for a reunion. When he offers her a glass of his wine, it turns out in fact that she is a Master of Wine, en route to Rheims for a Krug-tasting; but he is not abashed. He comforts himself with the thought that ‘he, after all, was meant to thrive on knowing and not knowing, on the fruitful misprision, the partial discovery and the resonant fragment. That was the point de départ of his trade.’ The story has played a dirty trick on the reader, though a very cunning one, for it is out of what the narrator calls his ‘nostalgia as runny as old Camembert’ that he has constructed the stories, certain of them distinctly touching, that the reader has just been reading.

As a writer, Barnes is above all a creator of ‘conceits’, very often of verbal conceits, and – the fact is worth noticing – the most humanly appealing of the stories in the present volume (it is called ‘Hermitage’) is also the one most riddled with conceits. It is set in the 1890s and the action turns on a simple accident of language. Two middle-aged English spinsters have decided to turn their back on their cloddish turnip-farming Essex neighbours and set up as wine-growers in the Médoc; they are, however, mildly puzzled, during one of their interviews with their prospective homme d’affaires, by his gruff and suspicious inquiry: ‘Etes-vous Américanistes?’ No, ‘Anglaises’, they tell him, and he grunts approval. It is only afterwards, and too late, that they discover what he really meant was: ‘Do you hold the mad doctrine that phylloxera can be cured by grafting French vines onto American root-stocks?’ Of course they do hold it, and trouble follows.

But this is only the first of a series of verbal conceits and mésententes. In discussing diseases of the vine Emily lets drop the phrase ‘cryptogamic malady’, explaining to her friend that ‘cryptogamia’ means ‘concealed wedlock’. (The reader, of course, quietly makes the application to Florence and Emily themselves.) As for ‘Hermitage’, the name of a Rhône wine, this is a little joke of Florence and Emily’s own: they tell themselves that the chateau in the Médoc is to be their ‘hermitage’. Despite this, however, a great crisis develops between them and their French employees when they discover that their Bordeaux vintage is being fortified (or in their eyes adulterated) for the export market with cheap ‘Hermitage’ Rhône wine. Adaptable as they are, they take a firm moral stand over this: Emily attacks the barrels of Rhône wine with a hatchet, and the French staff, much against their will, bow to British ethical scruple. Nevertheless, when Florence later remarks to Emily that their wine, on its return from bottling in Bordeaux, ‘seems to have acquired a certain additional solidity’, her friend replies sharply that ‘all good wine puts on weight in the bottle.’ The pair’s Britishness, the reader observes, is after all becoming a little adulterated.

Reader, narrator and the characters themselves are all equally involved in this simile-making, based on the master metaphor of wine. The opposite of an Américaniste is a sulfureur, or believer in the curative properties of sulphur; and Florence, affectionately and flirtatiously, takes to calling the fiery Emily, who likes yellow dresses, her ‘petite sulfureuse’. Emily, for her part, muses on how Florence and she have survived early frosts and mildew and have reached the véraison, the late-summer colour-turn, of their lives. Florence reflects that their glass as yet contains no lees.

In going through some reviews of Barnes’s earlier novels, I noticed that David Coward called Flaubert’s Parrot ‘a Modernist text with a 19th-century heart’. By contrast Malcolm Bradbury, in The Modern British Novel, claims that – with its game with notions of the real and the fictional, its making its own rules and its breaking up of its own discourse – it is ‘a Post-Modern “text” indeed’. But leaving aside the matter of the novel’s ‘19th-century heart’, does it, one wonders, make all that much difference whether one calls Barnes a ‘Modernist’ or a ‘Post-Modernist’ writer? Some might want to call Beckett or Georges Perec ‘Modernist’, some might want to call them ‘Post-Modernist’, and the disagreement would not seem to be fatal. The concept ‘Modernist’ originated in connection with art, and if you do not demand too much from the term, it can be rather useful – as denoting, shall we say, something in common between the work of Joyce, Proust, Picasso and Stravinsky. In the case of ‘Modernism’, art led the way, for others to follow or fail to follow. By contrast, what the term ‘Post-Modernism’ first brings to mind is a mode of cultural criticism: it evokes the work of Barthes, Foucault and Lyotard etc. For this reason the ‘Post-Modernist’ novel, as defined in Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Post-Modernism or earlier in David Lodge’s The Modes of Modern Writing, has the air of being a poor relation, coming in on the coat-tails of Post-Modernism proper. If any self-respecting intellectual is Post-Modernist, then, the implication is, a contemporary novel had better be so too – out of duty, almost, as much as out of imperious artistic necessity.

Cross Channel, whether ‘Post-Modernist’ or not, strikes me as perhaps Barnes’s most assured work so far. There was, it seemed to me, a major weakness in Flaubert’s Parrot. Barnes, like many novelists, alternates between the mimesis of speech styles and style indirect libre, in which a narrator, ostensibly impersonal, is actually all the time betraying the outlook of an actor in the story. This latter style requires one to observe strict rules, and Barnes, in Flaubert’s Parrot, flouts such rules right and left. Half the time, his narrator Braithwaite falls into a witty, hard-boiled, smart-arse tone (like that of his wood-worm who stows away aboard the Ark, or of the private eye Duffy in the crime novels he publishes as ‘Dan Kavanagh’), thus effectively wrecking the parallel, which it is part of Barnes’s scheme to draw, between Braithwaite and the shy and bumbling Charles Bovary.

In Cross Channel Barnes observes the rules of style indirect libre a good deal more carefully, though, one might say, still not quite faithfully enough. This style is the staple of ‘Hermitage’, but then we read: ‘the first fireworks of the new century climbed into the sky. Florence and Emily played at trying to guess their firingpoints. Chateau Latour, obviously, that ruby explosion close at hand. Chateau Haut Brion, the browny-fold susurrus in the distance.’ By this showy, professional-writerly phrasing (‘browny-fold susurrus’) we are taken outside Florence and Emily’s consciousness, and not to our profit. There is a sort of leaking away of human value.

There may be a link here to the coldness of very dazzling writings of Barnes’s. In a brilliant and eulogistic review of one of them, Michael Wood wrote that ‘Flaubert’s scruffy parrot was a rebuke to our age for (demeaning) interpretation.’ The thought struck me, on reading this, that I would probably not take it to heart to be rebuked by Julian Barnes. Furnishing himself with so many ironic ruses and escaperoutes, he has no reason to fear us, and in return we are the less in danger of being really disquieted by him.