Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Cross Channel — Julian Barnes — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 28, 2008

Driven by the heightened interest generated after reading Julian Barnes’sArthur & George“, I picked up his collection of short pieces titled “Cross Channel”.  I was amply rewarded.  “Cross Channel” could pretty well have been “Across the English Channel” and is essentially about the experiences of people from various walks of life from England who in a variety of contexts get to see the idiosyncrasies of living in France or interacting with the French people

England and France have had a chequered relationship over the last 500 years. They were friends, foes, partners, neighbours and fought each other on their home soils and jostled as suspicious colonial powers else where in other parts of the world. They have had their times of peace and times of war and mixed periods of time between these. Despite their proximity, they are astonishingly different culturally and tempermentally. Whatever be the ups and downs in the relationships between the countries, people exchanges have remained quite strong and vigorous. If one were to move away from the conventional histories and focus on the experiences of people who have been part of these people interchanges the picture changes quite a bit and gets fascinating and interesting. “Cross Channel” is a mosaic of 10 wonderful pieces depicting precisely this

I thought the best way to document my impressions about this book is by writing about some of these pieces. So here are a few chosen ones

Interference: The final days of a cantankerous and brilliant English music composer – Leonard – who for reasons of percieved hostility of England to foster artists, relocates to a remote French Village with his wife four decades back. The piece is a reminiscence of a life gone by and the small demands of the dying (in the present) set in an environment and circumstances where they are difficult to meet. Towards the end, Leonard wants to listen to his own composition “The Four Seasons” — which BBC plays on his 70th birthday as he is breathing his last. But interference of electrical signals do not allow him to listen to it.  And even the records of his own music that he ordered from the music company located in Britain arrive into the  hands of his despondent partner after his death.

Brilliant. I would rate it as one of the top 10 short stories that I have read so far

Junction: A wonderful sketch of the life and times of English railway contractors and the navvies who work for them building French Railways – as viewed from the eyes and prejudices of a resident french family. It came to me as a surprise that the English were instrumental in building some of the key railway lifelines of the French with labour imported from England around the 1740s. The prejudices reveal a whole range of cultural differences and customs. That a not so popular slice of history covering the construction of railways can be built into a delightful piece of reading is a testimony to Barnes’s strength in coherent story telling. Consider the common opinion about railways during 18th century in France: “Finally, the Fanal reported, without coming to its own judgment on the matter, that some authorities likened the building of the European railways to the building of great medieval cathedrals. The English engineers and contractors, according to such writers, resembled those wandering bands of Italian craftsmen under whose guidance local worksmen had erected their own glorious monuments to God

Through the book one gets to see this studied and loving grasp of history on a variety of things that a writer needs as his raw material to build stories 

Experiment: Is a baudy piece about the attitudes of the French and British towards sex.  It is a series of reminscences of a widower who has been part of a sex experiment conducted by a group of french and narrated to his curious tongue in cheek nephew… Thoroughly enjoyable

Evermore: Battle of Somme has been one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the English in WW I in France and the casualities for them were unimaginably large. This piece is a recollection by a sister the loss of her brother (Sam) in Somme and a resigned but gradual diminishing of the pain of her bereavement (within herself and in the eyes of public) with the passage of time. For her the greatest war ever fought was WW1 and she resents WW II as it replaced the importance of WW I in public consciousness. Consider the following thought that sums up the attitude:  She felt no rancour towards these Huns; time had washed from her any anger at the man, the regiment, the Hun army, the nation that had taken Sam’s life. Her resentment was against those who came later, and whom she refused to dignify with the amicable name of Hun. She hated Hitler’s war for diminishing the memory of Great War, for alloting it a number, the mere first among two. And she hated the way in which the Great War was held responsible for its successor, as if Sam, Denis and all the East Lancashires who fell were partly the cause of that business. Sam had done what he could – he had served and died – and was punished all too quickly with becoming subservient in memory. Time did not behave rationally. Fifty years back to the Somme; a hundred beyond that to Waterloo, four hundred more to Agincourt, or Azincourt as the French preferred. Yet these distances have been now squeezed closer to one another. She blamed it on 1939-45

Dragons: A touching piece on religious persecutions of the English in France and the stubborn French adherents who lose everything to retain their faith. Ironically some of the soldiers who perpetrate these gruesome acts are hired Irish soldiers

Tour De France has come to represent the acme of physical endurance, grit and determination in modern day athletics. Brambilla is a delightful piece involving stories around Tour De France and some heroes like Sean Kelly

Tunnel: An aged man recollecting the changing perceptions of French about the British over the long stretches of history while travelling in a train in Channel Tunnel. It turns out that the old man is none other than the author himself.  Consider this brilliant passage: Tommies they had been called a hundred years ago, while France was being deforested for trench props. Later when he had taught at Rennes, he and his companions were known as Les Rosbifs: an affectionate tag for those sturdy, reliable if unimaginative islanders of the north. But later still a new name was discovered: Les Fuck Offs. Britain had become the problem child of Europe, sending its half hearted politicians to lie about their obligations, and sending its civilian guerillas to swagger the streets, ignorant of the language and haughty about the beer. Fuck off ! Fuck off ! Fuck off !. The Tommies and the Roastbeefs had become Fuck offs…… why should he be surprised? He had never much believed in the melioration……Oh! Forget it… Or rather, take a longer view: it hadn’t always been jolly old Tommies or Roastbeefs, had it? For centuries before, back to Joan of Arc…they had been Goddems, Goddamms and Goddons…. blaspheming ravagers of the happy land to the south. From Goddem to Fuck Off: not very far. And in any case old men grumbling about rowdy youth: what a tired leitmotif that was. Enough complaining

Overall, “Cross Channel” is a delightful book with elegant and beautiful prose interlaced with accute observation of differences that distinguish the people of two countries. With rich insights into stretches of history and a wide variety of human emotions it is an enlivening output of one of the finest writers writing in English today. Barnes does a wonderful job of painting a coherent picture of the French in light of English while carefully avoiding the typical traps of stereotyping

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