cover image Letters from London

Letters from London

Julian Barnes. Vintage Books USA, $14.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-679-76161-7

The essays in this collection of the celebrated British author of Flaubert's Parrot were originally published in The New Yorker and span the four years of Barnes's tenure as that magazine's London correspondent. From the debacle of Lloyd's of London's decline to the fatwa declared on Salman Rushdie, Barnes explores his topics with an innate curiosity and a merciless wit, using each event to explore the social and political landscape of modern London. If Letters from London has a shortcoming, it is one inherent in any such collection: lack of timeliness. With entries dating back to 1990, it is inevitable that portions of the book seem a bit stale. Some readers may be tempted to skip such missives as ``Vote Glenda!'' on actress Glenda Jackson's 1992 bid for a Parliamentary seat. But as Barnes notes in his preface, he is admirably ``wary of zeitgeist journalism and decade summarizing,'' and it is this refusal to proselytize or prognosticate that distinguishes Barnes's observations. On the 1994 ceremonial opening of the ``chunnel'' linking Britain and France, and the British anxiety over a possible resulting influx of rabid French animals, he notes, ``It was as if, lining up behind Mitterrand and the Queen as they cut the tricolor ribbons at Calais were packs of swivel-eyed dogs, fizzing foxes and slavering squirrels, all waiting to jump on the first boxcar to Folkestone and sink their teeth into some Kentish flesh.'' Probably of greatest interest to Barnes's many fans (and equally great numbers of Anglophiles), this collection is nonetheless a consistently pleasurable opportunity to watch a razor-sharp mind at work. (July)