American Henry James illuminated the peculiar customs- mating and otherwise-that, like the Atlantic, divided Europe from America. Julian Barnes now educates us on the odd misunderstandings that can occur across a narrower body of water, the English Channel.
In the ten stories in Cross Channel, his first collection, Barnes draws on a series of story-telling techniques-from epistles to first person accounts-as varied as his subjects. The stories themselves range in time from the late 1600s to 2015, with the English finding themselves sometimes emotionally adrift, sometimes involved despite themselves, but always meditating within the space opened by their intersection with the oddest of Europeans, the French.
"Les Rosbifs" approach "these gawping frog-eaters" with a measure of fascination and disdain. In "Junction," a sophisticated group of 19th- century French embark on a Sunday tour of the countryside, encountering a band of British men stupefied by drink, washing their dogs. The French disdain for the Brits' "culture" blinds them to the reason for their presence: skilled British labor built much of the French railway system.
In "Interference," an English composer living in France meditates on his position, geographical and otherwise.
"He was an artist, did she not see? He was not an exile, since that implied a country to which he could, or would, return. Nor was he an immigrant, since that implied a desire to be accepted, to submit yourself to the land of adoption. But you did not leave one country, with its social forms and rules and pettinesses, in order to burden yourself with the parallel forms and rules and pettinesses of another country. No, he was an artist. He therefore lived along with his art, in silence and in freedom."
Unlike the composer, Emily and Florence happily adapt themselves to the wine-growing countryside near Pauillac. In "Hermitage," the two spinsters enjoy a seasonal visit from the vendangeurs, migrants who harvested their grapes.
"It was strictly forbidden for any of the vendangeurs to eat the grapes they were picking, and at the end of each morning the women were obliged to put out their tongues for inspection. If the proof was purple, then the overseer would be entitled to claim a kiss in punishment. Florence and Emily kept to themselves the reflection that this sounded a little primitive, while the homme d'affaires concluded, with a wink bordering on impertinence, 'Of course, sometimes they eat deliberately.'"
The most entertaining story in the collection is surely "Experiment," in which a young British man's inability to pronounce French properly gets him mistaken as a surrealist (you had to be there). Breton and his lusty friends challenge the man to an experiment. "What if there were two lasses who made love in the same way? Exactly the same way, so that if you closed your eyes you couldn't tell the difference." The surrealists, employing a British woman and a French woman on the young Englishman, put the problem to the test, with comical results.
Barnes' fascination with the inchoate attraction of another country is well expressed by the writer-narrator of the "Tunnel."
"Judgements on other countries are seldom fair or precise: the gravitational pull is towards either scorn or sentimentality. The first no longer interested him. As for sentimentality, that was sometimes the charge against him for his view of the French. If accused, he could always plead guilty, claiming in mitigation that this is what other countries are for. It was unhealthy to be idealistic about your own country, since the least clarity of vision led swiftly to disenchantment. Other countries therefore existed to supply the idealism: they were a version of pastoral."
While Henry James interested himself exclusively in the upper class, Barnes' tales move from bicyclists in the Tour de France to "anti-papistical" heathens of the 17th century. The pastilles comprising Cross Channel deserve to be taken singly, with an unassuming Beaujolais, allowing proper time for extended digestion.