Julian Barnes 1946-
(Full name Julian Patrick Barnes; has also written under pseudonyms Dan Kavanagh and Edward Pygge) English novelist, editor, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Barnes's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 42.
Barnes's writing is difficult to categorize, as each of his novels varies greatly in form and tone. Several universal themes connect most of Barnes's works; these include obsession, self-discovery, friendship, betrayal, and personal suffering. Critics have lauded certain aspects of Barnes's works such as his verbal proficiency and ironic wit, and praise his abilities as a master of fictional structures. Many reviewers consider Barnes to be amongst the leaders of British postmodernist fiction.
Barnes was born in Leicester, England, on January 19, 1946, to French teachers Albert and Kaye Barnes. His family moved to the London suburbs when he was ten, and he was educated at a private boys' school and finally at Oxford. After graduation he worked as a lexicographer on a supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1972 he moved to London, where he studied law and passed the bar exam. However, his law career was sidetracked when he began to write book reviews for the New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement, and several other publications. Barnes began his own writing career in 1980 with the publication of his first mystery novel, Duffy, under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh and of his first “serious” novel, Metroland. Metroland was received favorably and won the William Somerset Maugham Prize for outstanding first book. From 1990 to 1995 Barnes wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker in a column titled “Letter from London” which commented on British culture and politics. These essays were eventually collected into the book Letters from London (1995). Wide acclaim followed with the publication of Flaubert's Parrot (1984), which won the Prix Medici in France and was nominated for the Booker Prize in England. Barnes has been named an Officer de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Metroland follows the youthful rebellion of friends Christopher and Toni as they try to avoid the demands of their parents and teachers; readers discover whether the two will succumb to the trappings of adult life as they enter their thirties. Before She Met Me (1982) tells the story of Graham Hendrick, a history professor at the University of London who is obsessed with his wife's life before they met. He descends into insecurity and finally fatal jealousy. Flaubert's Parrot combines literary criticism and invention. The main character, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is fascinated with Gustave Flaubert—the author of Madame Bovary—and analyzes events in his own life as he studies the French novelist's life and work. Interestingly, Flaubert, like Barnes, abandoned a law career in favor of writing. A History of the World in 10[frac12] Chapters (1989) is a loosely tied collection of narrative strands. The main story revolves around Damian Fall, an astronomer whose personal sense of failure is seen in light of his place in history. Part of the narrative is told from the perspective of a learned woodworm who had stowed away on Noah's Ark, and both woodworms and the Ark are recurring symbols in the book. The Porcupine (1992) is loosely based on the trial of former Bulgarian president Todor Zhivkov. The main character is Stoyo Petkanov, former Communist Party chief in an East European country who is on trial for mismanagement of government funds and abuse of authority; his chief prosecutor is Peter Solinsky. Each character is a representation of a particular political ideology. Cross Channel (1996) is a collection of short stories about the British in France, among them “Melon,” which focuses on an English cricket team that travels to Paris in 1789 to play an exhibition match amid France's revolutionary fervor; and “Tunnel,” which follows an elderly Englishman, actually Barnes himself, as he crosses the Channel Tunnel to France in the year 2015 and ruminates on his past and on the lives of his fellow passengers. England, England (1999) recounts a developer's answer to what he sees as England's decline: the birth of a park meant to glorify England's past without the problems of real English society. The park's enormous popularity causes it to be viewed as the real England in the eyes of the world.
Several critics have observed Barnes's shifting style and form throughout his novels, which leaves readers off-balance and with conflicting expectations. Many reviewers assert that this versatility and invention of fictional experiments is what sets Barnes's work apart. David Leon Higdon praised Barnes, asserting that he has “consistently broadened [his] appeal with each new work, demonstrating astonishing mastery of fictional structures and burking little in [his] pursuit of complex ideas.” Critics also point to Barnes's use of humor and his verbal skills as reasons for his success. Discussing A History of the World in 10[frac12] Chapters Robert Adams stated, “Barnes writes with a quiet, disillusioned wit and a special gift for change of pace that sometimes makes his prose crack like a whip.” In fact, complaints about Barnes's work often involve passages in which he does not employ humor and irony. The Porcupine has met with the most mixed response of Barnes's works. Many critics complain that Barnes does not fully flesh out the characters in this novel. Some reviewers found the characters one-dimensional and deemed them to be mere representations of a political ideology. Many critics blame the novel's problems on the difficulty of the subject of post-Communist Europe. In an overview, Michael Scammell lauded the author: “Throughout his work Barnes has displayed a remarkable versatility, equally at home with old-fashioned mimesis and abstract speculation, able to mix naturalistic mimicry with outrageous farce, and all with a Gallic elegance, a dashing wit, and a sense of irony that keeps his wonderfully idiosyncratic creations under tight control.”
Duffy [as Dan Kavanagh] (novel) 1980
Metroland (novel) 1980
Fiddle City [as Dan Kavanagh] (novel) 1981
Before She Met Me (novel) 1982
Flaubert's Parrot (novel) 1984
Putting the Boot In [as Dan Kavanagh] (novel) 1985
Question and Answer (novel) 1986
Staring at the Sun (novel) 1986
Going to the Dogs [as Dan Kavanagh] (novel) 1987
A History of the World in 10[frac12] Chapters (novel) 1989
Talking It Over (novel) 1991
The Porcupine (novel) 1992
Letters from London (essays) 1995
Cross Channel (short stories) 1996
England, England (novel) 1999
(The entire section is 73 words.)
SOURCE: “Novel Probes Flaubert,” in Christian Science Monitor, March 12, 1985, p. 24.
[In the following review, Allen praises Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot.]
In [Flaubert's Parrot] this free-form examination of the great French novelist's life and artistic practice, amateur scholarship, cranky partisanship, and a passionate effort at self-understanding are amusingly assembled into a resonant literary comedy.
Barnes's narrator, Geoffrey Brathwaite, is a recently widowed retired doctor. His late wife was herself a kind of English-village Madam Bovary; he's now satisfying his obsessive curiosity about Flaubert, visiting sites associated with the novelist, studying cruxes unresolved by previous scholars: How tall was Flaubert? Who was the aggressor in his vacillating love affair with the poet Louis Colet? What was the significance of the stuffed parrot that inspired his story “A Simple Heart”?
Brathwaite's endeavors include a “Chronology” of his author's life, ruminative chapters on Flaubert's ideas about animals and his habit of irony, and several similarly crotchety approaches to comprehending his life. It gradually becomes clear that these amateur researches particularize our human urge to know our way inside others' lives—and that Flaubert's lively fatalism offers consolation for our discovery that we cannot do so. This very literary book will perhaps...
(The entire section is 216 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Flaubert's Parrot, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 17, 1985, pp. 2, 12.
[In the following review, Rubin lauds Barnes's ability to mix literary criticism and fiction in Flaubert's Parrot.]
What have we here: literary criticism masquerading as fiction? Is Julian Barnes, British television critic and author of two previous novels (Metroland and Before She Met Me) attempting to gratify his lust for literary criticism under the guise of what is often miscalled “creative” writing? Does he not risk producing a book too dry and lifeless to succeed as a novel, yet too undisciplined to stand as literary criticism?
The answer to these questions is a qualified “Yes.” But Flaubert's Parrot proves, in spite of these perils, that a novel can be lively without purporting to serve up huge chunks of raw life and that literary criticism can be more than an academic exercise. Strictly speaking, this book may not be a novel—the information it includes about Flaubert (as indicated by Barnes' gracious acknowledgment of his debt to Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller) is certainly not fictional—but the result, undoubtedly, is fiction in the root sense of that word: something fashioned, molded, invented.
Barnes' inventions include: Geoffrey Braithwaite, the middle-aged physician and Flaubertophile who narrates Flaubert's...
(The entire section is 1026 words.)
SOURCE: “From Nebulae to Noah's Ark,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 82, January 10, 1990, p. 13.
[In the following review, Rubin provides a tempered assessment of Barnes's A History of the World in 10[frac12] Chapters.]
“I am on a storm-tossed boat out at sea, the dark waves around me. This was what the earliest men saw in the skies above them—an unfathomable sea upon which they were drifting. Now we, too, talk of a universe filled with waves. We have returned to the first myth. And what if the stars are really torches, held up to light me on my way?”
Gazing up at the night sky from a small observatory in Dorset [in Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10[frac12] Chapters], astronomer Damian Fall sees galaxies, nebulae, planets, interstellar debris. He also believes he is seeing the same night sky seen by certain prehistoric inhabitants of this region, whose stone-circled burial mounds seem to have been designed as earth-bound reflections of the celestial order.
Damian considers himself a failed astronomer: His original dream of making a great discovery has come to naught, and he sees himself as a mere functionary, passively recording his small bits of data.
As Damian plots the nightly course of the giant red star Aldebaran, nearby a team of archaeologists is excavating the ancient burial mound. Mark Clare, head of this...
(The entire section is 962 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Unconfessed Confessions’: the Narrators of Graham Swift and Julian Barnes,” in The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, edited by James Acheson, Macmillan, 1991, pp. 174–91.
[In the following essay, Higdon analyzes some of the contributions to fictional structure made by Julian Barnes and Graham Swift.]
Who will be for the British novel of the 1980s what John Fowles and Margaret Drabble were for the 1960s? Which new novel will capture attention as did The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, as did The Millstone and The Waterfall? The decade has not been lacking in contenders: D. M. Thomas, though, has been unable to maintain the audience and high praise garnered by The White Hotel (1981); Bruce Chatwin's promise has been lost in an unfortunately early death; Salman Rushdie may have been co-opted and compromised by world politics. Two of the most promising authors, however, have consistently broadened their appeal with each new work, demonstrating astonishing mastery of fictional structures and burking little in their pursuit of complex ideas: Julian Barnes and Graham Swift.1
The novels of these two authors will undoubtedly be used for some time to explore and define British postmodernist fiction, especially in terms of their shared thematic and structural interests, and of their creation of a new type of narrator, the...
(The entire section is 6973 words.)
SOURCE: “The Honourable Cuckold: Models of Masculine Defence,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1992, pp. 1–19.
[In the following essay, Millington and Sinclair trace the use of the cuckold in literature, citing several examples including Graham from Barnes's Before She Met Me.]
A large number of works of literature contain husbands whose wives are unfaithful to them. There is, however, a glaring lack of attention paid to those neglected spouses both within the works of literature and in critical discussion of those works. Yet it is in the portrayal of those husbands that we can see the centre of patriarchy's concern with a phenomenon which appears to proclaim its weakness as a system, since it points to the lack of social power and sexual potency of the man considered to have authority—the husband.
Our initial proposition is that there are two models or paradigms for the portrayal of the offended husband: either he is mocked for the situation he finds himself in, or he is admired for his attitude and action in the face of his wife's infidelity. That is, he is portrayed either as a cuckold or as a man of honour. The portrayal of the former seeks to provoke mirth rather than sympathy, to invite a detached rather than an engaged attitude. The portrayal of the latter presents us with a protagonist in relation to whom the final intended emotion of the spectator is...
(The entire section is 8363 words.)
SOURCE: “Breaking the Frame, Again,” in Commonweal, Vol. 119, No. 9, May 8, 1992, pp. 22–4.
[In the following review, Wheeler lauds Barnes's Talking It Over.]
Julian Barnes is an extraordinary writer. In this novel [Talking It Over,] he takes an old love story, the triangle that leads from marriage to divorce and remarriage, and applies a skewed narrative geometry. He then leads a reader to illogical proofs and theorems. But paradox is nothing new to Julian Barnes's books—five novels in the last decade—or to his admirers. What he does with so apparently simple a story is all the more impressive when measured against the books which have brought him acclaim.
“Real questions were limited to those questions to which the people you asked already knew the answers … it was these questions, the ones that weren't real, to which you wanted to know the answers most pressingly.” So observes a character in Barnes's Staring at the Sun, but the notion drives the novelist as well: Barnes looks for answers to questions that aren't real. In doing so, he writes novels which break the realist frame, get the reader to ask is this a “real” story? Is the man telling the truth or is he playing at writing fiction? To be sure, there is little in Barnes's work which gives us the reassurance of “Once upon a time. …” Take Flaubert's Parrot, a story of a retired...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)
SOURCE: “Invasions of Privacy,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 331–38.
[In the following excerpt, Flower praises Barnes's Talking It Over, stating, “Few novels seem as authentic and lifelike as this one.”]
Fiction, especially modern fiction, licenses a certain amount of prurience. It invites us into the mind of a character or a narrator, and lets us indulge ourselves there rather freely. We are pleasantly exempt from the risks of any real intimacy. Readers are supposed to be eavesdroppers and spies, of a certain kind at least. Filmgoers have to confront their own voyeurism at some point, morally, but readers of Lambert Strether or Lily Briscoe or Quentin Compson are not likely to have that problem. Just looking, thanks. In the Nausicaa chapter of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom watches Gertie MacDowell on the beach while we hear by means of internal monologue the cliché-ridden contents of her soul come forth. Bloom watches her pruriently, and has an orgasm. We invade Gertie's privacy too, in a different way, remaining at what seems a safe aesthetic distance, since none of it actually happens—except by means of our looking at words printed on paper. We are supposed to be critically detached, having “participated” in the scene, if at all, only imaginatively and figuratively. No real Gertie MacDowell has been seen in actuality, hence no privacy violated....
(The entire section is 813 words.)
SOURCE: “The Big Match,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 5, No. 228, November 13, 1992, pp. 34–5.
[In the following review, Duplain lauds Barnes's The Porcupine as “a satisfyingly balanced book.”]
When the party has fallen, the economy is in ruins, the atmosphere choked with pollutants, and the country's only nuclear reactor is leaky, how does the helmsman of the nation put up a defence? By reference to history, to the days of struggle when the party last found itself hard-pressed by the forces of reaction: “More than 50 years ago … I was helping organise the anti-Fascist struggle in Velpen. We were protesting against the imprisonment of railway workers. It was a peaceful democratic protest but of course it was attacked by the bourgeois-landlord police … we were sentenced to hard labour for our defence of the proletariat.”
Thus Stoyo Petkanov, former Communist Party chief in an unnamed east European country, on trial for deception, abuse of authority and mismanagement [in Julian Barnes's The Porcupine]. His account of socialist credentials is given a different gloss by the Prosecutor-General, Peter Solinsky: “Your conviction by the court in Velpen was for criminal damage to property, theft of an iron railing, and criminal assault with the said stolen item on a member of the national police.” Post-revolutionary justice comes down to an argument...
(The entire section is 865 words.)
National Review (review date 14 December 1992)
SOURCE: “The Character Issue,” in National Review, Vol. 44, No. 24, December 14, 1992, pp. 50–1.
[In the following review, the critic complains that Barnes's The Porcupine “lacks warmth or, in the end, any particular moral force.”]
The so-called “literary novel” is a curious kind of artifact. You might think that all novels were, by definition, “literary,” but the term actually excludes most novels. To read one of these highly revered and much reviewed volumes for the story (which is surely what novels are primarily about) would entail the urgent need of a fast-forward button. For colorful characters then? But very few modern novelists seem even to have entered themselves in the Dickens Stakes. Should we read them, as the Church of England says we should read the Apocrypha, “for example of life and instruction of manners,” or for a social and political message? Perhaps: but there must be more efficient and quicker methods of study. In fact, much “literary” writing appears to be phrase-making for its own sake.
Julian Barnes is unquestionably a skilled manipulator of words. His new book, The Porcupine, can indeed be described as a literary novel (or novella, since it is very short), but, although many sentences are conspicuously and imaginatively well-turned, there is little...
(The entire section is 1019 words.)
SOURCE: “After the Fall,” in Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1993, Section 13, p. 3.
[In the following review, Gosswiller asserts that the style of Barnes's The Porcupine is different from his earlier novels due to its subject matter.]
A truly powerful short novel is a rare event. Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, with its confessions of a social misfit, and Thomas Mann's “Death in Venice,” the story of a pederast, come immediately to mind. Both characters, reprehensible in society, were new to literature. Julian Barnes's The Porcupine, focusing upon a type of individual as much scorned today as the protagonists of Dostoyevsky and Mann were then, is a work of similar power.
Stoyo Petkanov is an old-school communist hardened by prison in the 1930s, a crafty, ruthless politician with an enormous ego. With the fall of communism, he was deposed as president of his former Iron Curtain country, which bears some resemblance to Bulgaria.
Because evidence of criminal activity is lacking, Petkanov is waiting to be tried on the only charge the new regime believes it can make stick: mismanagement of the country. Why is he being tried? Possibly, Barnes hints, because the trial will help to divert attention from food shortages. The novel begins with a great chorus of sound as women demonstrating at the parliament building bang their spoons...
(The entire section is 742 words.)
Michael Scammell (review date 4 & 11 January 1993)
SOURCE: “Trial and Error,” in New Republic, Vol. 208, Nos. 1-2, January 4 & 11, 1993, pp. 35–8.
[Scammell is a professor of Russian literature at Cornell University. In the following review, he complains that Barnes loses control of the narrative in The Porcupine.]
In the twelve years since he gave up writing detective stories for serious fiction, Julian Barnes has earned an enviable reputation as one of England's most interesting and provocative novelists. Beginning with Metroland in 1980, he has gone on to produce five more novels, ranging from dazzlingly reflexive metafictions like Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10[frac12] Chapters to postmodernist fables like Staring at the Sun and Talking It Over. Throughout his work Barnes has displayed a remarkable versatility, equally at home with old-fashioned mimesis and abstract speculation, able to mix naturalistic mimicry with outrageous farce, and all with a Gallic elegance, a dashing wit, and a sense of irony that keeps his wonderfully idiosyncratic creations under tight control.
Within his eclectic body of work, certain topics seem to stand out as more or less permanent obsessions. One is a pre-occupation with conflicting points of view, which found its most diverting expression in his last novel,...
(The entire section is 3159 words.)
SOURCE: “Twilight in the Balkans,” in Christian Science Monitor, January 20, 1993, p. 13.
[In the following review, Marien discusses the virtues and faults of Barnes's The Porcupine.]
“Do you think a whole country can get therapy?” That question is at the core of British writer Julian Barnes's new novella [The Porcupine]. Set in January 1991 in an unnamed Balkan state, the narrative traces the trail of its elderly, recently deposed communist dictator.
As he revealed in a New Yorker essay published on Oct. 26 of this year, Barnes used the actual trial of Todor Zhivkov, former communist head of state in Bulgaria, as a springboard for his ruminations on the generational and ideological clash between a stolid true-believer and a faint-hearted law professor turned public prosecutor general, Peter Solinsky.
In this largely fictional account, the newly empowered authorities intend the widely televised trial to be a catharsis for the nation. The deck is stacked against the accused. There is no chance of an acquittal.
In Barnes's telling, Second Leader Stoyo Petkanov is the antithesis of the new state's prosecutor. The sly self-confidence of the former dictator contrasts with the middle-aged attorney's reticence and indecisiveness.
Solinsky's wariness is so extreme that he jokes about wearing porcupine gloves. In fact,...
(The entire section is 664 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Porcupine, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1993, p. 252-53.
[In the following review, Byrne praises Barnes's mixing of politics and fiction in The Porcupine.]
The jury is still out, one might think, on the subject of whether a good defense is the best offense or whether a good offense is the best defense. I suppose it depends on whether we're talking about porcupines, football, boxing, or possibly show trials before and after the meltdown of the Iron Curtain. The Porcupine is about the fictitious show trial of a former Balkan dictator of many years, a trial which takes place just after the recent break-up of the Soviet Union. Stoyo Petkanov is the old porcupine, the longtime leader who fought his way up through the party ranks to the top; Peter Solinsky is the young prosecutor, the law professor who wishes to bring Petkanov to a new kind of justice for the Balkans, based on a new democracy, but one that does allow for some bending of the rules (and a little help from the showier trials on both sides of the Atlantic). As he tells his wife Maria, when he is about to leave on the first morning of Criminal Law Case Number 1, after she has warned him to be careful, “Careful? Of course I shall be careful. Look … I am wearing my porcupine gloves.” What follows is a play-by-play, blow-by-blow account of the daily confrontation between these...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
SOURCE: “If the French Were Shorter in Flaubert's Day, Did They Need to Be Less Fat in Order to Be Called ‘Fat’?” in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, January 4, 1996, p. 22.
[In the following review, Furbank calls Cross Channel “perhaps Barnes's most assured work so far.”]
It was Wittgenstein's objection to Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that the procedure might be impressive, but why did interpretation have to end just there, what was to stop it going on indefinitely? On Julian Barnes, who is so addicted to the business or game of interpretations, the question does not seem to weigh so heavily. We perhaps misunderstand Barnes if we take him to be profoundly worried by hermeneutic doubts: by the fictionality of the past and the inaccessibility of truth. When the Flaubert addict in Flaubert's Parrot writes to the Grocers' Company to ask whether red currant jam was the same colour in the great novelist's day as it is now, he receives a reassuring answer: it almost certainly was, though perhaps a little cloudier. But there will be no such easy answer, he is forced to realise, to questions such as whether, if the French were shorter in Flaubert's day, they needed to be less fat in order to be called ‘fat’. Nor, presumably, will it matter in the slightest if there is not. Barnes's tone is blithe, because the question, what can a novelist's life and relics tell you...
(The entire section is 1908 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Cross Channel, in Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1996, p. 2.
[In the following review, Eder lauds the stories in Barnes's Cross Channel.]
In the 1860s, a bourgeois family takes a Sunday excursion out of Rouen to gawk at an encampment of British laborers engaged in building the railroad line from Paris. The red-faced giants are reported to shovel 20 tons of earth apiece each day and to devour 12 pounds of beef.
A bluff Englishman of the John Bull variety falls into conversation at a Paris bar in the 1920s. Soon he finds himself a guest at a Surrealist seminar on sex, being grilled with mock pedantry about his favorite positions and whether he has ever lusted after a nun or a rabbit—and not quite answering. “Almost like betraying your country, talking smut to a group of foreigners,” he explains to his nephew years later. “Unpatriotic, don't you think?”
Two Englishwomen buy a decaying Bordeaux wine property at the turn of the century and fail, happily, to modernize it. An Oxford Dictionary proof-reader, sister of a World War I soldier buried in Flanders, carries on a lifelong feud with the War Graves Commission over the syllable breaks in the engraved epitaphs. A carriage-load of English cricketers sets off for a goodwill match in Paris just as the French Revolution is breaking out.
The 10 stories in Cross...
(The entire section is 1190 words.)
SOURCE: “Julian Barnes (1946-),” in British Writers, edited by George Stade and Carol Howard, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997, pp. 65–76.
[In the following essay, Birkerts provides an overview of Barnes's career and major works.]
Julian Barnes once remarked—or, better, proclaimed—that “in order to write, you have to convince yourself that it's a new departure not only for you but for the entire history of the novel” (quoted in Stout, p. 68). This is a young man's take-on-all-comers kind of statement, and one that Barnes may have regretted making as soon as the reporter packed up her notebook and left; it tells us, however, that the writer not only harbors a great ambition but also sustains a commitment to literary seriousness that is uncommon at the end of the twentieth century.
Few writers even think in terms of history and departures from it—these are modernist, not post-modernist, preoccupations. Which brings us to a paradox: How is it that the author of two defiantly postmodern novels—Flaubert's Parrot (1984) and A History of the World in 10[frac12] Chapters (1989)—can still strike the reader as essentially a modernist? The answer, perhaps, is that Barnes is a writer determined to have it all ways; that he has adopted a coolly cerebral modernist stance that is flexible enough to accommodate some postmodern dalliance, but never in a way that would be...
(The entire section is 8850 words.)
SOURCE: “Familiar Capability,” in Hudson Review, Spring, 1997, pp. 159–65.
[In the following excerpt, Filbin calls Barnes's Cross Channel “charming, brilliant, and sui generis.”]
While first novels often burst with literary energy and the raw emotion franchised to the young, the writing game demands other qualifications if the successful novice is to make it a vocation. Producing an interesting book every few years requires self-sharpening powers of insight, an inventory of questions about the human condition, and seriously established work habits. This is not to deny that even the immortals had dry seasons and ignition failures; Zola wrote masterpieces like L'Assommoir and The Debacle, but he penned his share of duds, too. Try The Sin of Father Mouret for soppy sentiment, a weep through the woods that goes wrong from the very beginning. But lapses aside, writers can usually tell when they've tapped into the vein. As discouraging as any first draft must be, with its shortcomings before rewrite strutting about like bad actors in audition, a familiar capability noticeable in a day's rushes can overcome the fear of failure. Some recent fiction by six older writers (the youngest is fifty and the oldest nearly seventy) showcases the talents of people who wrote well at the beginning of their careers and then continued on to write better. Like veteran baseball players,...
(The entire section is 736 words.)
SOURCE: “A Magic Kingdom,” in New Leader, Vol. 82, April 5, 1999, pp. 18–19.
[In the following review, Foy asserts that the first one-tenth of Barnes's England, England is “[b]y far the most interesting” part of the book.]
In a world where grim Pilgrims, colonizing Zulu and marauding Teutonic Knights have at different times been hailed as historic heroes it is important to be reminded that such histories are always relative. In a world where Disney sanitizes New York's 42nd Street to make the area safe for screening faux-historical fables such as Mulan or Anastasia, it is vital to reassess why, and how, we craft the stories that tell us who we are.
Those are the tasks Julian Barnes sets himself in his new novel, [England, England,] and he attacks them with his usual grace and wit. The book is a three-part life of Martha Cochrane, a woman born at the end of the 20th century in the British sticks, who becomes the hard-shelled director of a theme park called “England, England,” built on the Isle of Wight. Most of the tale is told in the second part, which expands in scope beyond the perils of Martha, summoning up harlequin echoes of Evelyn Waugh and Tom Wolfe, and sending up contemporary entertainment capitalism.
The section's dominant figure is Sir Jack Pitman, a tycoon hunting for a magnum opus to crown his life's...
(The entire section is 1422 words.)
SOURCE: “O, Brave New Venture That Has Such People In't!,” in Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1999, p. 19.
[In the following review, Charles calls Barnes's England, England “an unsettling satire of corporate ambition gone wild in a culture that values convenience above all else.”]
In the disturbing tradition of Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, fellow English writer Julian Barnes has produced the first classic dystopia of the 21st century.
England, England is an unsettling satire of corporate ambition gone wild in a culture that values convenience above all else.
Sir Jack Pitman thinks big. He rules his financial empire from a worldly cathedral of the most extravagant design. Subjects coming for an audience pass first through the Quote Room, where they can reflect upon a lavish description of Sir Jack chiseled into a monolith of slate.
Having conquered every field, he laments to his sycophantic minions, “What is there left for me?” A secretary's body microphone immediately clicks on to archive Sir Jack's answer: “Perhaps what I need is one last great idea,” he muses, “one for the road.”
Sir Jack's final idea, the concept worthy of crowning his brilliant career, is to solve the problem of Britain's long, steady decline.
England enjoys the most enviable...
(The entire section is 769 words.)
SOURCE: “Interred Textuality: The Good Soldier and Flaubert's Parrot,” in Critique Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 41, No. 1, Fall, 1999, pp. 45–51.
[In the following essay, Brooks analyzes the relationship between Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.]
Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people's lives, never your own.
—Flaubert's Parrot, 168
Toward the end of Flaubert's Parrot, Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite ironically concedes his own failure because he has putatively tried to write a book to make sense of his own life. At the novel's conclusion, Braithwaite finds himself unable to say with certainty anything about his own life, his late wife, or his various investigations into the life of Flaubert. Indeed, even the books that had been so important to him no longer provide him with the Positivist assurances that he seeks; nor does his clear distinction between books and life prove tenable. Rather, Flaubert's Parrot, through its complex intertextuality that explores the relation between life and textuality, provides insight...
(The entire section is 3187 words.)
SOURCE: “Cynicism and Its Discontents,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 52, No. 4, Winter, 2000, pp. 657–64.
[In the following excerpt, Flower complains that Barnes's England, England “does not live up to the searching questions with which it begins.”]
Being judgmental must surely be one of the most joyful activities known to the species and it is cruel that other animals are denied this pleasure.
Are women more cynical than men? Martha Cochrane, the protagonist of Julian Barnes's latest novel,1 [England, England] answers her interrogator (male) in a characteristically acerbic fashion:
“You put us on a pedestal in order to look up our skirts. When you wanted models of purity and spiritual value, something to idealize while you were away tilling the soil or killing the enemy, we accommodated ourselves. If you now want us to be cynical and disillusioned I dare say we can accommodate ourselves to that as well. Though of course we may not mean it, any more than we meant it before. We might just be being cynical about being cynical.”
Not exactly at a loss for words, is she? Her argument resembles Emilia's in Othello: “The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” Martha's misanthropy emerges from forty years...
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Adams, Robert. “Balancing Act.” New York Review of Books 36, No. 16, (26 October 1989): 7.
Adams lauds Barnes's ability to weave a collection of short tales into a novel, his ability to balance a fair amount of factual information with fantasy, and his proficiency at creating a sardonic, cold, witty, story.
Bayley, John. “Time of Indifference.” New York Review of Books 39, No. 21, (17 December 1992): 30–2.
Bayley discusses the political and aesthetic implications of Barnes's The Porcupine.
Buruma, Ian. “Mrs. Thatcher's Revenge.” New York Review of Books 43, No. 5 (21 March 1996): 22–7.
Review of Letters from London.
Cook, Bruce. A review of Cross Channel. Chicago Tribune (21 April 1996): 3.
A review in which Cook lauds the stories in Barnes's Cross Channel.
Glover, Michael. “Michael Glover's Pick of Literary Fiction.” Books 6, No. 6 (November 1992): 8.
Discussion of The Porcupineand Talking It Over.
Howard, Maureen. A review of The Porcupine. Yale Review 81, No. 2, (April, 1993): 134–43.
Howard contends that Barnes has created a small history play out of a surfeit of journalism, and that he accomplishes...
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