Margot Mifflin
May 03, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Judgments on other countries,” writes Julian Barnes in his first collection of stories, ”are seldom fair or precise: the gravitational pull is towards either scorn or sentimentality.” Barnes favors the latter: Cross Channel‘s tales of British travelers and expatriates in France play Gallic country charm and urban wit against England’s more plodding temperament. And yet there’s a gloomy cast to his nostalgia. In ”Hermitage,” for example, two Englishwomen escape dreary domesticity and achieve a sort of beige contentment by running a vineyard in the Medoc. Only in the wryly funny ”Experiment” does an average English Joe get a French thrill when he’s embraced by the Surrealists, but his story, told by his nephew, is shrouded in smirking doubt. Barnes writes with a refinement that’s often exquisite though sometimes stuffy; his stories unfold slowly but usually repay the close attention they demand. B+

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