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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Something to Declare

Julian Barnes

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To purchase Something to Declare

Title: Something to Declare
Author: Julian Barnes
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2002)
Length: 286 pages
Availability: Something to Declare - US
Something to Declare - UK
Something to Declare - Canada
Quelque chose à déclarer - France
Tour de France - Deutschland
  • Essays on France
  • Previously published in The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere, between 1982 and 2000

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining essay collection, a bit heavy on the Flaubert

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 15/4/2002 Michelle de Kretser
The Guardian . 5/1/2002 Geoff Dyer
New Statesman . 14/1/2002 Nick Clarke
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/10/2002 Claire Messud
The Observer . 6/1/2002 Jason Cowley
The Spectator . 26/1/2002 Alberto Manguel
Sunday Telegraph . 6/1/2002 George Walden
TLS . 1/2/2002 Gillian Tindall
Die Zeit . 9/10/2003 Günter Ohnemus

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus

  From the Reviews:
  • "You might find something ludicrous in the way Barnes flutters about France like a solicitous lover around his mistress, adjusting the light to its most flattering slant, smoothing out blemishes, gently chiding on occasion. But all devotion is ultimately touching. And here it produces one of the best essays I have ever read." - Michelle de Kretser, The Age

  • "Like much else in this book they are so assured, so satisfying in detail and overall argument, as to make me wonder why I remain unsatisfied by Barnes's fiction." - Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

  • "The result of all this endeavour is funny, moving and ultimately convincing. But maybe Barnes should stick to the green channel after all. There is little to declare here that was not expertly exploited in Flaubert's Parrot" - Nick Clarke, New Statesman

  • "It is, in the end, not enough. Somehow, the knowledge that Barnes demonstrates becomes frustrating because it is crammed into so many small articles, none of which has the capacity fully to tackle the central, iconic subject. (...) There is much to amuse and delight in this collection, and reflections of considerable worth. But Something to Declare is a mixed bag, mainly of interest to those who care not about France but about Flaubert." - Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But this unsatisfactory offering is about as much of an event as a Worthington Cup semi-final, not because the writing quality isn't high -- Barnes is incapable of writing a clumsy sentence -- but because recycled journalism too often carries a taint of vanity publishing -- this book is no exception." - Jason Cowley, The Observer

  • "(W)e are grateful for both his love and his intelligence in guiding us through the mazes of the Gallic heart and mind. (...) Barnes has become something like that impossible reader Flaubert wished for and thought he’d never have: someone able to capture a certain tournure d’esprit, someone who could prove wrong his own dictum that ‘words are a rolling mill that always flatten feeling’, someone much wiser and fonder (and more unforgiving) than any mere Flaubertian." - Alberto Manguel, The Spectato

  • "Flaubert and his times give Barnes, whose own novels have a flimsy quality, a kind of borrowed weight. I understand his fascination with the master, I just don't see why he doesn't write a fat biography and, as we now say, move on." - George Walden, Sunday Telegraph

  • "It has to be admitted, however, that Barnes, with his novelist's eye for pattern, is very good at the game." - Gillian Tindall, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Something to Declare collects France-related essays by Julian Barnes written over the course of almost two decades. There are some travel-pieces, and some personal reminiscences, but the bulk of the pieces are essentially book reviews -- and the bulk of those deal with a Barnes favourite, Gustave Flaubert. It does not read like a review-collection, however, as Barnes pieces are decidedly esssayistic, the books under discussion often merely a convenient stepping-stone for Barnes to share his own thoughts and knowledge.
       Barnes' focus is on the decidedly literary side of France, though he does start off with looks at other things, including the Tour de France, French music (Jacques Brel, Boris Vian, and George Brassens), French film (Truffaut), and, in something of an aside, Elizabeth David.
       But it's literature that counts -- 19th century literature, at least; Barnes has barely a word for 20th century French fiction (save a very nice chapter on Simenon -- though here too it's the man more than the work that interest him (in, admittedly, a review of a Simenon-biography)). And, for Barnes, even more than mere literature it is specifically Flaubert who counts. A few other writers are covered -- Baudelaire, Mallarmé -- but it's Flaubert that is the centrepiece. Every facet, every book about the author seems to be explored, from Vargas Llosa's The Perpetual Orgy to Sartre's massive work on Flaubert, to the letters with Turgenev and Louise Colet and Georges Sand.
       Barnes does all this very well: these aren't tiresome scholarly pieces, and most of what's presented here is of interest even to those who aren't that familiar with Flaubert. What Flaubertian minutiae Barnes revels in is, for the most part, interesting. It is also entertainingly presented: Barnes has a light touch, and even (or especially) in his criticism he expresses himself very nicely. Consider, for example, his assessment of Herbert Lottman's biographical efforts (a rare near-outburst for Barnes):

Pre-eminently a dredger and sifter, an archive-pounder and source-badgerer, Mr. Lottman arrives approximately a hundred years too late, yet still needed. He arranges the known facts about Flaubert's life, and the known opinions of his contemporaries, with an efficiency that has not been seen before. As against this, he writes badly, translates awkwardly, has no apparent opinion on Flaubert's work, and has little feel for the nineteenth century; he alternates stretches of drab invisibility with outbursts of perkily certain judgement, and is often crassly up-to-date.
       Covering so much of the literature on an about Flaubert, Barnes in fact winds up presenting a decent, broad introduction to the author in this collection.

       Barnes writes very well, and the pieces are all well-informed (even the one on cycling). They convey a great deal of information, yet rarely feel dense or tempt one to skim over. There might be a bit much Flaubert here for some readers, but it is a very enjoyable collection.

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Something to Declare: Reviews: Julian Barnes: Other books by Julian Barnes under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author Julian Barnes was born in 1946. He is the author of several highly acclaimed novels.

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