Ten stories, each a variation on the theme of the British in France. A British general, held prisoner by Napoleon, settles into his dotage with memories of two earlier expeditions to France, one a Grand Tour of sorts as a very young man, the other a challenge cricket match that was pretermitted by the French Revolution. British contractors, with their British navvies, construct the railroad from Paris to Rouen to Le Havre. Two English spinsters acquire a dilapidated estate in Pauillac and learn the winemaking chicaneries of vinage and coupage. An aging Englishwoman, who works as a copyeditor on a dictionary project, continues her annual pilgrimage of fifty years to the grave of her brother at Cabaret Rouge, one of the cemeteries for soldiers killed in the Great War. A bicycle racer and his girlfriend, a stripper, recount stories of the Tour de France and other races, including stratagems to fool the drug-testers. And five more. The settings of the stories range from the 1660's to 2015 (the last of the stories engages in a slight temporal projection).
Published in 1996, CROSS CHANNEL was Julian Barnes's first collection of short stories. And it reveals him to be a master of the form. With many books of short stories, the contents all come from the same mold. Not so CROSS CHANNEL, in which Barnes employs different styles and voices, always in an accomplished and assured fashion. What the stories have in common is grace, charm, sophistication, and their humaneness.
To me, two of the stories were particularly striking. "Experiment" is about the time, in 1928, when the narrator's Uncle Freddy was enlisted by the Surrealists to participate in their sexual research. Uncle Freddy was challenged to distinguish between two young women he had sex with blindfolded. The story ends with a clever twist, an engaging analogue from the world of wine. In the last story of the book, "Tunnel", the narrator - who turns out to be Julian Barnes himself - is taking the Eurostar from London to Paris, via the Chunnel. The story consists of Barnes's musings about his fellow travellers and about aging, as well as remembrances of travels from his past. For example:
"He remembered . . . no, that verb, he increasingly found, was often inexact. He seemed to remember, or he retrospectively imagined, or he reconstructed, from films and books with the aid of a nostalgia as runny as old Camembert, a time when travellers crossing Europe by train would become acquaintances for the length of the journey."
CROSS CHANNEL is not usually cited as one of Barnes's best or most noted books. To my mind, it deserves to be better known. As, perhaps, does Barnes as an author. For example, why isn't he Sir Julian Barnes?