Cross Channel was Julian Barnes’s first book of short fiction. It collects 10 stories about the English experience of France over 350 years, from the 17th to the early 21st century. Five of these tales were first published in the New Yorker and Granta. Drawing on a broad array of storytelling techniques and styles—from Regency letters to first-person accounts in cycling slang—these stories articulate a number of Barnes’s primary thematic concerns, such as truth and its verifiability and our relationship to the past. “Experiment,” a fine example of Barnes’s wit, examines questions of truth through the narrator’s investigation of the past of his uncle, who claimed that he was once mistaken for a surrealist because of his poor pronunciation of French. In “Evermore,” the best story of the collection, Barnes explores questions of memory and the inaccessibility of the past through the story of a British proofreader who pays her yearly visit to the grave of the brother she lost in World War I.
Although the stories are all set in France, they do not seek to depict the French way of life as perceived by English travelers. Barnes uses the French otherness rather as decor to address the notion of Englishness through issues as diverse as religion, food, language, love, sexuality, and art. As pointed out by a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, Barnes’s characters remain, despite their encounter with French culture, thoroughly English. For example, in “Interference,” a vain English composer, who has retired to a French village because “it [is] not permitted to be an artist in England,” will listen only to BBC concerts and will not interact with the villagers, whom he sees as a nuisance: In “Hermitage,” two Victorian spinsters buy a rundown vineyard in France and obstinately stick to their high (British) principles as they reestablish it.
Assembled in a nonchronological order, the stories switch at random from a somber evocation of the persecution of Huguenots in the 17th century (“Dragons”) to a vernacular account of a Tour de France in the 1990s (“Brambilla”), or from a cricketer’s view on the aftermath of the French Revolution (“Melon”) to a poignant commemoration of World War I (“Evermore”). The haphazard order and the diversity of tone have led reviewers to point out a lack of coherence in Cross Channel, even if its final piece attempts to unite the whole collection: “Tunnel” abounds in allusions to the preceding tales and informs the reader that the stories in the collection have all been written by the protagonist, an elderly writer (a visionary selfportrait by Barnes) who rides on the Eurostar train in the year 2015 and sifts through his favorite traveling memories.
In addition to a lack of unity, negative critiques have identified an overwhelming profusion of historical facts. However, despite these less favorable reactions, Cross Channel has been well received on both sides of the Channel. Reviewers have praised Barnes’s wit, erudition, and elegance of style, as well as his ability to re-create the language and atmosphere of each time period in this fragmented but inventive portrait of three centuries of cross-channel history.
Barnes, Julian. Cross Channel. London: Jonathan Cape, 1996.
Furbank, P. N. “If the French Were Shorter in Flaubert’s Day, Did They Need to Be Less Fat in Order to Be Called ‘Fat’?” London Review of Books, 4 January 1996, p. 22.
Kempton, Adrian. “A Barnes’-Eye View of France,” Franco- British Studies 22 (1996): 92–101.
Mangan, Gerald. “Très british,” Times Literary Supplement, 19 January 1996, p. 24.