I hate not finishing a book. The literature student in me feels compelled to give every author his due, and there was a time when I would have slogged through anything no matter how disinterested I was. Now that I’m older and one would hope wiser, I’ve realized that life is short and there are times when I should cut my losses and move on to something that makes me happy.
I’ve always had a love–meh relationship with Julian Barnes, so it surprised me at first that I was struggling so much with this collection of essays. They aren’t bad–I can get through a bad book. Sometimes a bad book, like a bad movie, can be delightful, especially if you get to write a scathing review of it afterwards. No, in this case, these beautifully crafted essays just aren’t written for me.
Let me explain: Julian Barnes is a shameless Francophile. His parents were both French teachers; his first novel was about a 16-year old Brit who dreams of being French; his breakout novel was Flaubert’s Parrot; and Barnes once cited Gustave Flaubert as the writer “. . .who I think has spoken the most truth about writing.” Ironically, the only assigned reading I ever failed to complete in school and which I have now failed to finish twice in my life was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: the first time, in college, I procrastinated too long and just couldn’t finish the novel in time for class; the second time (more recently) I checked it out of the library, didn’t finish before it was due, and couldn’t be bothered to renew. I haven’t given up on it completely yet–I would still like some closure on Emma Bovary’s fate. At some point, though, I might have to accept that French lit just isn’t my thing.
So when, around a third to half-way through this collection, Barnes began comparing Baudelaire with Flaubert, I finally accepted that I am not his intended audience. The problem is Barnes doesn’t take me along with him and entice me to appreciate his beloved France: he assumes I’m already with him and have read and studied French history and literature as much as he has. For someone who hasn’t even been to France yet (I’m fairly well traveled, but there are still a dozen places that rank higher on my bucket list), reading these essays is like sitting at a dinner party with a bunch of people all sharing an inside joke. I even wondered at points, is he writing for anyone other than himself? That’s not a judgment–but it definitely contributed to my decision to stop reading.
Of the essays that I did finish, the most interesting perhaps is the one titled “Tour de France 2000.” In this piece, Barnes recounts the story of Tom Simpson, a British cyclist who collapsed and died during the 1967 Tour while climbing Mount Ventoux. Amphetamines contributed to Simpson’s death, and Barnes expands on the history of drug use at the famous cycling event. The year Simpson died, another Tour winner told a French magazine, “You’d have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days out a year can hold himself together without stimulants.” It’s worth noting that this essay was published in 2002, a decade before Lance Armstrong was banned from cycling for doping. At the time of writing, Armstrong had won the Tour three times.
Another curious essay is one called “The Pouncer,” about Belgian writer George Simenon, best known for creating a fictional detective called Jules Maigret. In addition to being a prolific writer, Simenon was also apparently a sex addict, claiming to have had sex with over 10,000 women (his second wife estimated it was probably closer to 1200). I say sex addict, but in reality some of the stories related in this essay amount to sexual assault, and I just don’t have the stomach to read about that these days, no matter how willing the participants are portrayed to be.
So as hard as it is to admit defeat, I’m going to let this one go. Looking ahead, I see I’m missing out on more essays about Flaubert, and one about Louise Colet, Flaubert’s spurned lover. Hmm, maybe I should just give that one a try. . . no, no, closing the book. . .moving on.