Nothing to Declare. He really is a superb writer!
You don't read Barnes to be transported into imaginary realms, or to encounter the struggle and pathos of humanity. You read him, rather, for that superior tone and for his voice; in many ways, his novels are all voice - amused, languorous, insouciant and arch. You read him for his hauteur, his gift of cultivated digression and for his riffs and anecdotes. Above all, you read him as an essayist, one of our best.
Nowadays, any newspaper columnist who can sustain an argument of more than 1,000 words is recognised as an essayist, but the popularity of the column or 'piece' is no more than an example of the cheap popularisation of the essay in a degraded culture. Dr Johnson called the essay an 'irregular, undigested piece'. That is right. The column is too regular, too finished; it's an easily digested piece. But the essay, as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb and EB White, strives for literary permanence. It concerns the search for a personal voice, of the kind that animates the most successful offerings in Barnes's new book of essays about France.
Barnes first visited France in the summer of 1959. He was 13, on holiday with his parents, and was enchanted; he has been returning, at irregular intervals, ever since. France, it seems, is the idealised Other against which he measures all other countries, including England, and finds them, by contrast, a perplexing disappointment. He accepts many of the stereotypes about the French: that they are Cassanovan in sex and Machiavellian in politics; that they are 'relaxed about pleasure' and treat the arts 'as central to life, rather than some add-on, like a set of alloy wheels'.
Here you can actually read the opening essay - and judge for yourself.
Books about Turkey never fail to fascinate me and Tim Kelsey’s Dervish – travels to modern Turkey (1996) was another book in my package. Most books I’ve read on the country are balanced if not positive – but
in vain will the reader search for passages on the splendors of ancient Ephesus, Cappadocia's fairytale landscape, pristine Mediterranean beaches, colorful bazaars or amusing anecdotes about friendly locals. Instead the author of “Dervish” paints an almost dystopian portrait of a country that, just a decade-and-a-half ago, appeared so full of contradictions that social, political and economic meltdown lay just around the corner.
It is, however, a gripping read - focusing on the marginal underside of Turkey - with chapters on transvestites and the minorities struggling for survival in the troubled south-east. It's all a good reminder of how far Turkey has travelled in the past decade. For those wanting a more rounded picture of the country, Hugh Pope recommends his best 5 reads on Turkey
The Sofia-Bucharest drive is one of the most civilised I know – and I know my central European roads! In 1991 I was based in Copenhagen and drove a lot to and from places such as Gdansk (when the first election campaign was underway); Berlin (in which I had an employer in 1992); Prague (where I worked and lived from 1991-93); Budapest (Miskolc and Nyíregyháza 1993-95); Bratislava (and Nitra 1996); and Bucharest.
Friday gave a superb, relaxed drive (despite the heavy snow of the previous days) – initially over the Balkans – arriving Bucharest at 4pm. And Saturday’s visit to the Humanitas and Carterescu bookshops bagged another 5 books – including a lovely poetry compendium (with CD) The Great Modern Poets ed by Michael Schmidt which contained this amazing 1917 critique of ruling elites written by a man usually associated with Victorian Imperialism – Rudolph Kipling
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide--I'm surprised this poem has not been dogging Tony Bliar as he is followed around by those wanting to have him prosecuted for war crimes for the death of so many people in the Iraq invasion and occupation. The poem was written in the aftermath of the British invasion a hundred years ago of...Mesopotamia
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their
To conform and re-establish each career?
Their lives cannot repay us--their death could not undo--
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shell we leave it unabated in its place?