My Significant Authors: Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes. I can’t even pronounce the name without a wistful sigh escaping with me on that final downwards sloping syllable. Julian Barnes was my first, and greatest, and in fact only literary crush; how I loved that man, how nearly was I brought to tears by the intelligent beauty of his prose, the supple mastery of his mind. When I first saw a picture of his wide-planed plantagenet face, he looked just like I thought a writer should look: noble, wise, eccentric. And I didn’t think it was possible to do the things he did with language. Sentences weren’t simple transmissions of information, oh no, in his hands they became whole teams of Russian acrobats, performing dazzling displays of fearless tumbling. I adored him for making the experimental and the academic playful, and fun, and witty. For throwing reverence to the winds, for taking stuffy British institutions like the serious, ideas-based novel and shaking it by the throat until its teeth rattled. Unfortunately I read Barnes at a formative age, and it wasn’t until years later, teaching literature, that I realised he had resurfaced, woven deeply into the pattern of my approach to academics. Take for instance, this passage from the spoof examination paper that appears in Flaubert’s Parrot:

‘It has become clear to the examiners in recent years that candidates are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between Art and Life. Everyone claims to understand the difference, but perceptions vary greatly. For some, Life is rich and creamy, made according to an old peasant recipe from nothing but natural products, while Art is a pallid commercial confection, consisting mainly of artificial colourings and flavourings. For others, Art is the truer thing, full, bustling and emotionally satisfying, while Life is worse than the poorest novel: devoid of narrative, peopled by bores and rogues, short on wit, long on unpleasant incidents, and leading to a painfully predictable denouement. Adherents of the latter view tend to cit Logan Pearsall Smith: ‘People say that life is the thing; but I prefer reading.’ Candidates are advised not to use this quotation in their answers.’

This is how I would talk to my students about the difference between art and life, if I were only capable. They have to make do with a watered-down, less amusing version from me, and I probably only end up puzzling them. That’s the brilliance of Barnes; he is a wordsmith of the highest order, whose erudition is used only in the service of informative entertainment. Now that sounds like an oxymoron, but again, it’s his lightness of hand, the glancing blow of his wit that carries the reader over his prose as if she were cresting waves like a surfer rather than – as is so often the case with clever books – wading over the floor of the ocean like a deep-sea diver. One of my favourite characters is the hapless intellectual, Oliver, who appears in the love triangle novel, Talking It Over, and its equally fine sequel, Love, etc. Oliver speaks in a voice that can only be described as pure, unadulterated, 100 percent proof Barnes.

‘The law of unintended effect. Doesn’t that sing out, not like some timid if happily untainted hedgerow warbler, but like a mighty chorus to which humankind, Nature and the Almighty lend their joint voices? (I use the Almighty as a metaphor, you understand. Replace with Thor, Zeus or little Johnnie Quark, according to taste.) Isn’t that just a phrase written in neon? Put it up there alongside ‘the word made flesh’, ‘que sera, sera’, ‘si monumentum requiris, circumspice’, ‘horseman, pass by’, ‘we have left undone those things which we ought to have done’, and ‘with trembling hands he undid her bra’. The law of unintended effect. Does that not explain your life even as it does mine? What metaphysician, what moralist could put it better?’

It often seems odd to me that the main criticism levelled against Julian Barnes is that he is an unfeeling writer, who fails to move his audience. For me, if there’s one thing he writes about wonderfully, it’s love (if it’s not the interplay between life and art). How else would he have made my knees go weak as an adolescent? But then I was always the kind of girl to be won over by a good line in witty analysis.

‘If we are to oppose love to such wily, muscled concepts as power, money, history and death, then we mustn’t retreat into self-celebration or snobby vagueness. Love’s enemies profit from its unspecific claims, its grand capacity for isolationism. So where do we start? Love may or may not produce happiness; whether or not it does in the end, it’s primary effect is to energize. Have you ever talked so well, needed less sleep, returned to sex so eagerly, as when you were first in love? The anaemic begin to glow while the normally healthy become intolerable. Next, it gives spine-stretching confidence. You feel you are standing up straight for the first time in your life […] Then again, it gives clarity of vision: it’s a windscreen wiper across the eyeball. Have you ever seen so clearly as when you were first in love?’

But I don’t like all of his novels. I never finished his political escapade, The Porcupine, and although I admired Arthur and George greatly, it wasn’t a proper Julian Barnes novel for me. I suppose it’s that particular voice I’m in love with; the one that plays with ideas like a juggler wielding his clubs. A few sentences of that and I’m a lost woman.

Twice now I’ve met Julian Barnes. I’d be lying if I said that on each occasion I didn’t have Leonora Carrington in mind who, at the age of nineteen, travelled down to London for the first time to visit an exhibition of Surrealist painting and ran away with the painter, Max Ernst. The first time (aged 19), I’d gone to Edinburgh for the Fringe, and he was part of a book festival that was taking place simultaneously. Clutching my copy of The History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, I waited in line. It’s difficult, though, to pick up a famous novelist in a bookstore in the middle of a signing session, particularly when he has an attentive publicist practically handcuffed to him. I said instead (true at the time), that I was hoping to write a PhD on his work. He wondered, amicably, if he needed to be dead for that to happen, as has traditionally been the case in the French education system. When Andre Gide finally died, he told me, the line of students signing up to undertake research work on his oeuvre stretched right the way around the Sorbonne. I assured him that being alive was fine by me and the educational authorities, he handed me back my book, and I was obliged to move on. The second time was at a more staged literary do in Highgate in London. Barnes was talking to an audience with two other authors, one of whom was Penelope Fitzgerald (I forget the third). Afterwards there was a drinks reception, and once again I queued in line, frantically trying to think of an intelligent, lively question I could put to the object of my deepest admiration. The line moved too quickly, and I happened to be at the end of it. Overcome by my opportunity to engage one of my all-time favourite novelists in conversation and perhaps persuade him to run away with me to the south of France, I completely dried up. I could think of absolutely nothing to say, and Julian Barnes is notoriously shy. We stood staring over each other’s heads in the vague and sharply declining hope that someone would come over and rescue us, me thoroughly tongue tied and almost hopping up and down on the spot with frustration, he, I suspect, uncomfortable and bored. Afterwards I learnt that he is a great fan of football. I am wondering if he is speaking in public at all at the moment; my days of absconding with him are past, I fear, but we could perhaps manage a decent conversation on England’s chances.

10 thoughts on “My Significant Authors: Julian Barnes

  1. My only encounter with Barnes’ work so far was “Arthur and George” which I wasn’t particularly taken with. It’s good to know that in your opinion it’s not really a representative work. Which other Barnes’ book should I begin with in a quest to get properly acquainted with his work?

  2. I saw him once, in a reading he did with A.S. Byatt — it was a great reading, and I got him to sign my book, but I don’t even remember what the interaction was like — probably the usual not much. I’ve admired what I’ve read of his, particularly Flaubert’s Parrot, which I’d like to re-read at some point. You inspire me to try more!

  3. Kate, I think that Flaubert’s Parrot really is the best he’s done. But I enjoyed both Talking it Over and Love etc greatly. A History of the World is brilliant but patchy – some chapters work much better than others. I also liked Staring at the Sun, and England, England. And Dorothy, I would also love to hear A. S. Byatt in discussion (although I never have). She’s another author I must talk about one day!

  4. You have made me want to go back and reread Barnes. I love the way you describe his language–the “Russian acrobats” line makes me tremble with jealousy because I wish I had written it.

  5. I think you and I must be related, not only because you’re the first person I’ve ever encountered — if you can call this “encountering” — who feels the same way about Barnes as I do (being American, so many people I know have never even read him), but also because I had a similar experience as your second encounter with him, only it wasn’t Julian Barnes I met; it was Nick Hornby. I couldn’t think of a word to say to him, and, although I love many of his books, I don’t come close to feeling the same way about him as I do about Julian Barnes. I can’t begin to imagine, if given the opportunity with Mr. Barnes, how I would have taken to new levels my red-faced inability to utter more than a very quiet “thank you,” as I stared and then scurried away, signed book in hand.

  6. I’ve only read “The Lemon Table,” and I had mixed feelings about it. Your entry really makes me want to read “Flaubert’s Parrot.” Meeting authors–or anyone you admire–is really difficult because the adoration is stifling. I’ve been so overwhelmed with trying to find the wittiest thing to say that I wind up saying nothing, just smiling like an idiot and trying to listen in on other people’s conversations.

  7. Oh dear, you remind me of the time when I met Jackie Kay (whose novel – “Trumpet” – I adore) and had the opportunity to say something delightful, witty and incisive about her work…but failed utterly. In fact, I failed to say anything at all, even my name for her to inscribe. I just smiled inanely like a loon and giggled stupidly when she noted that my copy was well thumbed. Of course later I realised she’d given me the perfect “in” to saying: “Oh, that’s because I wrote an undergraduate paper on it. I argued that it was a quintessentially lesbian rather than a transgender novel…” etc.

    As for Julian Barnes, I’ve only read “Arthur and George”. I liked it…or rather, should I say, appreciated it…but I see now from your quotes how different it was from his other novels. So much more restrained, gagged almost and denying its potential virtuosity. I have a copy of “The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters somewhere… I must look it up.

    And my academic magnum opus (re. below)? 🙂 Well, one day, perhaps six or seven or eight years from now you’re going to see a hefty tome on medieval Anglo-Jewish women by me. Maybe. Hopefully. It’s my proposal for my PhD…and, yes, I left literature for history in postgrad. Bad me. 😉

  8. It’s extremely reassuring to have you all sympathise with my lack of social savoir faire when confronted with a much admired author. Thank you! Thank you, too bikeprof, for your kind words. I would gladly swap my odd verbal flourishes for your sustained and effortless eloquence. Emily, the way you describe it, we MUST be related – no other possible explanation, and Victoria, your thesis is in a fascinating area of enquiry – the very best of luck with it. History and fiction are half-sisters to my mind, both struggling to pin words to restless reality. I hope you’ll talk more about it one day.

  9. I read Flaubert’s Parrot for a class in college. History of the World was my next Barnes, and I was hooked for life. I read everything he had written up to that point, and, after many years of claiming no particular “favorite book,” I suddenly had both a favorite book and a favorite author. Julian Barnes’ work happened into my own life during a literarily formative period, near the end of my college days, so I too, have a particularly sentimental and personal relationship with all things Barnes. However, I have never met him in person. I am sure that I would have even less to say to him if I did.

    Funny, my very first blog entry featured these years and my discover of Julian Barnes. So glad to have met another fan.

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