Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes



Julian Barnes

A biographical essay by
Anne P. Ogan


Since we’ve just begun an election year, I hope you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing a political epithet: “It’s the books, stupid.”  I speculate that the narrator in Julian Barnes’s best known book, Flaubert’s Parrot ,  speaks for the author when he queries: “Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough? Flaubert wanted them to be: few writers believed more in the objectivity of the written text and the insignificance of the writer’s personality; yet still we disobediently pursue. …Don’t we believe the words enough? Do we think the leavings of a life contain some ancillary truth?” (Flaubert’s Parrot, p12)

Barnes’s narrator again: “People assume they own part of you, on no matter how small an acquaintance; …if you are reckless enough to write a book, this puts your bank account, your medical records, and the state of your marriage irrevocably in the public domain.” He goes on to quote Flaubert: “ ‘The artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed. … In the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one’s own and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature. Man is nothing, the work of art everything. …Giving the public details about oneself is a bourgeois temptation that I have always resisted.’ (1879)” (Flaubert’s Parrot, pp. 86, 87, 94)

When interviewed, (and he only reluctantly agrees to be interviewed at all, we are told), Barnes repeats these ideas. Some have said he’s as reclusive as Pynchon and Salinger. And yet we disobediently pursue.

Julian was born in Leicester in 1946. A decade later, the family, which included an older brother, moved to Northwood, a suburb northwest of London. From 1957 to 1964, he was a student at the City of London School in London, commuting via the Underground. That experience gave him the title for his first novel, Metroland, a story of adolescence and coming of age in suburbia. His parents both taught French, a probable source of his deep and ongoing interest in France, French authors, and French history.
At 18, Julian went to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied modern languages, visited Russia and taught English at a Catholic school in France before graduating with honors in 1968. Subsequently, he began to prepare for a career in law, but it never materialized, although he qualified as a barrister after studying law from 1972-74. Instead, he joined the staff at The Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked for three years as a lexicographer. 1977, Barnes began working as a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesmen and the New Review. From 1979 to 1986 he worked as a television critic, first for the New Statesmen and then for the Observer (London), as well as a restaurant column for The Tatler. Barnes has also written for The New York Review of Books. For several years in the 1990’s Barnes was the London correspondent for The New Yorker, writing about politics, the Royal Family, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and more.
Asked whom he believes influenced him, (Georgie Lewis interview, see source note at end), he responded, “I could give you a list of writers I read when I was growing up, and it would include people like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, but I'm always very unclear as to what actual effect they had on my writing. I don't know—Shakespeare, Flaubert are there.”  He says he likes John Updike and Philip Larkin. And perhaps he is influenced by his friends, who include Jay McInerney, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Christopher Hitchens, as well as Martin Amis, who was his boss twice in the 70’s.
If we let his books themselves be the story of his life, we’ll find Julian Barnes interesting indeed. To date, and Barnes will be just 62 on his birthday later this month, he has published 20 books – two collections of short stories, a translation, three collections of essays, four detective novels, and ten novels. Though consistently witty (and sometimes downright hilarious), he is by turns (and sometimes all at once) serious, erudite, scholarly, subtle, ironic, warm and concerned. His themes: history, reality, the interplay of life and art, truth, love and death.

A self-described journalist, the lexicographer, critic, translator and essayist became a novelist in 1980 at age 34 with the publication of Metroland.  Though it was eight years in the making Barnes calls it “an 18-month book. … I was very lacking in confidence. I took a long time convincing myself that I had anything to say or that I was capable of writing a novel.” (Andrew Billen, “Two Aspects of a Writer,” 7/1/1991 Observer, p.26) Barnes acknowledges that the first third of Metroland draws directly from his experience, but the rest of his work should not be considered autobiographical.

His four detective novels, featuring a bisexual former police officer named Nick Duffy, were published next, under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. These, Barnes says, each took just three to four weeks to write. Nevertheless, they reflect meticulous research of their settings, a feature of all Barnes’s subsequent work. The four books are similar, following a reasonably conventional plot-driven formula, though they are more atmospheric than many examples of the genre. But that was the end of “writing the same book twice,” a strategy antithetical to Barnes’s artistic and professional commitment.

It is his stated mission to move forward with each novel he writes, not just with respect to his own work, but in regard to the form itself. “You have to convince yourself that it’s a new departure for you and not only for you but for the entire history of the novel,” he says. (Andrew Billen, “Two Aspects of a Writer,” 7/1/1991 Observer,p.26) “I like to try new things with each book,” he said, “that mastery is further off.” (Birnbaum interview). “I work at each book as it comes along, and forget the previous ones when I do so. My books are often very different from one another, demanding different technical solutions to different formal and thematic questions.” (Lidia Vainu interview, see end for source)

This experimentation has led some critics to argue some of his books aren’t novels, to which he responds that if he says they’re novels, they’re novels. His definition: a novel is “an extended piece of prose, largely fictional, which is planned and executed as a whole piece.” (David Sexton, “Still Parroting on About God,” Sunday Telegraph, 6/1//1989, p42.)

Some of his novels, for example, are decidedly not chronological or even linear; they may not seem to tie nicely into a unified whole, though there’s usually a thematic consistency. Merritt Moseley, a professor and literary critic writing in 1997 about the first ten novels, believed love, especially marital love, was Barnes’s focus. In the subsequent decade, Barnes’s theme is often death (Bookmunch.co.uk interview, 6/3/02), a topic he had introduced even in his first novel. This might seen odd to Novel Club readers introduced to Barnes through his ninth novel, England, England, a highly comic piece. Barnes claims he has always been interested in death, thinking about it “daily since age 16”.  (O’Regan interview, see source notes at end). And it is Barnes’s habit to be comic about serious matters and sometimes serious about comic ones.

Before She Met Me, (1982)Barnes’s second novel published under his own name, explores a husband’s intense feelings of jealousy about the love affairs his wife had before she met him. Merritt Moseley, calls it “a credible and compelling study of abnormal psychology…(and of) normal psychology.” (Moseley, see end for source, p65)

Flaubert’s Parrot, published in 1984, is perhaps Barnes’s best-known work. It was short-listed for the Booker and won for Barnes the Prix Médicis (in1986), a prize normally given to a French author and traditionally awarded for non-fiction.  Staring at the Sun followed in 1986. It is about the long life (1920-something until 2021) of an ordinary woman, who “throughout her life, … learns to question the world's idea of truth while she explores the beauty and miracles of everyday life.” (www.julianbarnes.com, books)

Next,in 1989, came A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in which Barnes again deviates dramatically from the standard structure for a novel.  The first chapter is about Noah’s ark, the last half-chapter a disquisition on love. A capsule from Barnes’s website puts it thus:   “The mixture of fictional and historical narratives provides Barnes the opportunity to question our ideas of history, our interpretation of facts, and our search for answers to explain our interaction and placement within the grand scope of history.” (www.julianbarnes.com, books) In his review in the Observer, Salman Rushdie said of 10½ Chapters, “Frequently brilliant, funny, thoughtful, iconoclastic and a delight to read.’ ”

His sixth book, Talking It Over (1991),takesBarnes to a more ordinary novelistic topic, a love triangle. He returns to the trio involved again in his 10th novel, Love, Etc. (2001)Barnes’s seventh novel, The Porcupine, is again somewhat out of the ordinary. It is a story about the criminal trial of a communist dictator after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Cross Channel,  a book of stories, looks at the differences and similarities between French and British culture. Something to Declare, published a few years later, is a collection of essays on the subject of France and French culture written by Barnes over the previous twenty years. Subjects include the Tour de France, French food, and, of course, Gustave Flaubert. While doing research on Flaubert, Barnes learned that  the notes Alphonse Daudet wrote about his experience with syphilis, The Land of Pain, had never been translated, and he set about correcting that (2002). It is his only published work of translation, and it covers a topic which appears again in his next book, The Lemon Table, a collection of stories about aging and dying published in 2004. The title refers to a table in a restaurant in Helsinki that Sibelius and his friends frequented; those who sat at “the lemon table” were obliged to talk about death. The lemon is the Chinese symbol of death. (O’Regan interview, see source notes at end).

Barnes’s latest book, Arthur & George, (2006)is another based on history. It is about detective novelist Arthur Conan Doyle’s role in getting a judgment reversed in a shameful case of miscarriage of justice. In a long-forgotten case around the time of the Dreyfus affair, and similar to it, a Parsee solicitor from Birmingham, George Edalji, is convicted of mutilating farm animals--a crime he did not commit. When researching the story, Barnes discovered in Doyle’s autobiography and related texts, that Doyle was in love with a woman other than his wife, and that, he believed, would give him the opportunity to revisit his oft-discussed theme of the difficulties of marital love in yet another interesting novel. The book was widely praised.

His next book, Nothing to Be  Frightened Of, will be released in March. According to his website, the book “is, among many things, a family memoir, an exchange with his brother (a philosopher), a meditation on mortality and the fear of death, a celebration of art, an argument with and about God, and a homage to the French writer Jules Renard. Though he warns us that ‘this is not my autobiography’, the result is like a tour of the mind of one of our most brilliant writers. When Angela Carter reviewed Barnes’s first novel, Metroland, she praised the mature way he wrote about death. Now, nearly thirty years later, he returns to the subject in a wise , funny and constantly surprising book, which defies category and classification – except as Barnesian.

But if all this makes Barnes sound heavy, I have only to remind you of the book under discussion tonight, which is anything but. And, at the risk of frustrating you, I’ll draw attention to another a third work of non-fiction, Barnes’s marvelous collection of essays on the preparation, consumption, and enjoyment of food called The Pedant in the Kitchen . Your frustration will derive only from the difficulty of securing it; I seem to have bought the last extant copy in this country.
Barnes has received several awards and honors for his writing including the Somerset Maugham Award (Metroland 1981), two Booker Prize nominations (Flaubert's Parrot 1984, England, England 1998); Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (FP 1985); Prix Médicis (FP 1986); E. M. Forster Award (American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1986); Gutenberg Prize (1987); Grinzane Cavour Prize (Italy, 1988); and the Prix Femina (Talking It Over 1992). Barnes was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1995 and Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004. In 1993 he was awarded the Shakespeare Prize by the FVS Foundation and in 2004 won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.
I found Barnes erudite, clever, scholarly, subtle, ironic, warm, witty, and concerned. He has been married to Pat Kavanagh, his agent, since 1979. Childless, they live in North London.



Birnbaum, Robert. "Julian Barnes, Etc." Identity Theory, [March 2001], http://www.identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum8.html
Georgie Lewis, Powell’s.com Julian Barnes spoke to me at our Powells.com offices on February 13, 2006. I was absurdly nervous and he was ridiculously fabulous. And very funny.
Moseley, Merritt, Understanding Julian Barnes. Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press, 1997
O'Regan, Nadine. "Cool, Clean Man of Letters." Sunday Business Post (29 June 2003) [Interview during his visit to Ireland for the Dublin Writers' Festival].
Vianu, Lidia. "Giving up criticism is much easier than giving up alcohol or tobacco." România Literara (13-19 December 2000).



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