Adrian Turpin on literature

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The Independent Culture
The good news this week is that Julian Barnes (below) has a new book out, his first collection of short stories. And the bad news? Read the dust-jacket. "Julian Barnes takes as his universal theme the British in France," it says, "our fascination with the country, our various and mixed reasons for being there, and our sometimes ambiguous reception." Fantastic. An infinitely remainderable, highbrow version of A Year in Provence, chock-a-block with boules and pastis, Papa and Nicole.

Personally, I'd find myself another blurb writer. As coolly intelligent and entertaining as anything Barnes has written before, Cross Channel deserves better. Despite an emotionally buttoned-up prose style that's the quintessence of quivering English irony, Barnes has always had a fruitful working relationship with the French. Much of his first novel, Metroland, is set in Paris during the student protests of 1968, while his third, Flaubert's Parrot, daringly (when you consider what it might do to his British sales) focuses upon the life of the man who wrote Madame Bovary.

France has an affinity for Barnes, too. He is the first British writer to win the esteemed Prix Medicis and Prix Femina, and is also a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a grand fromage in the Gallic literary world. The point is, though, you don't need to be a committed Francophile to enjoy this book. Whether in the story of a cricketing general held hostage by Napoleon, or a dying avant-garde English composer, Barnes's France is a "version of pastoral", a distorting mirror that reflects the strengths and limitations of British character and culture. Lay aside your preconceptions, and vive l'entente cordiale.

'Cross Channel' is published by Jonathan Cape on 18 January, price pounds 13.99

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