Julian Barnes

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By the time his third book was published, Julian Patrick Barnes had been hailed by critics as one of the most accomplished novelists in years. Barnes was educated at the City of London School from 1957 to 1964 and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with honors in 1968. From 1969 to 1972, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement, and in 1977 he began working as a reviewer and literary editor for various British journals. Between 1979 and 1986, he was a television critic, and he ultimately joined the London Observer; in the 1990’s, he also began writing for The New Yorker.{$S[A]Kavanagh, Dan;Barnes, Julian}

In 1980, Barnes published his first novel, Metroland, a first-person account of the maturation of Christopher Lloyd, who rebels against his bourgeois upbringing and enjoys a bohemian fling in Paris before settling down to middle-class domesticity back home. The novel made an immediate impression and won the Somerset Maugham Award. Critics admired the work’s remarkably assured tone, its well-turned phrases, and its lively reworking of the traditional apprenticeship story. Two years later, Before She Met Me attracted even more favorable notice. This novel is a witty but chilling depiction of an intelligent man destroyed by obsessive jealousy: Graham Hendrick, a mild-mannered history teacher, happily remarried after a painful divorce, finds himself unable to stop brooding over the men in his new wife’s past. The novel depicts both the comic entanglement of life with art—a novelist friend, for example, complicates Graham’s search for truth by his habit of putting real people into his fiction—and the tragic entanglement of reason with emotion in the human psyche. Although some critics complained of a lack of credibility in characterization, most agreed on the disturbing power of Barnes’s portrayal of an individual’s disintegration.

Barnes’s first outstanding success came in 1984 with Flaubert’s Parrot, which was nominated for the prestigious Booker-McConnell Prize and won many literary awards in England and in France. The novel is a tour de force reminiscent, in its ingenious wordplay, of Vladimir Nabokov. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired English doctor and admirer of Gustave Flaubert, believes he owns the stuffed bird that sat on the Master’s desk, and he is dismayed to find that a French museum claims to have the original. He sets out to find the truth, not only about the bird but also about Flaubert. What follows is part biography, part mystery, part essay, demonstrating the elusiveness of “fact” as it reveals truths about the doctor’s relationship with his dead wife, who seems a modern counterpart of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Readers, undaunted by the book’s convoluted structure—which includes passages in the form of encyclopedia entries, a bestiary, and examination questions—found it both entertaining and instructive, and the book became an immediate best-seller.

In subsequent novels, Barnes continued to experiment in form and technique. In the subdued character study Staring at the Sun, Jean Sergeant, naïve and unembittered, has endured to her one hundredth birthday in 2021; her sixty-year-old son, weary of his own existence, must turn to his old mother rather than to the machines that now dominate society to learn about life and death. A History of the World in 10½ Chapters examines the relationship between past and present through a more powerful telescope. Each chapter, as well as the half chapter, is linked by the themes and motifs of the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood, and the novel is polished and witty. Other novels focus on power struggles in human relationships. In Talking It Over , the conflict centers on a...

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love triangle involving three characters whose monologues make up the bulk of the novel, while inThe Porcupine, written on a trip to Bulgaria and set in Eastern Europe, the power struggle is political rather than romantic. England, England is a highly entertaining postmodern satire that explores the notion of authenticity and personal and national identity in a near-future England. Love, etc., a sequel to Talking It Over, continues the exploration of the tangled relationships of the three protagonists. In general, Barnes’s novels illustrate his willingness to surprise his reader and to go beyond the successful formulas of previous work.

Under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, Barnes pursued a second career as a writer of mystery fiction. In Duffy, published in 1980, he introduced his eponymous detective hero, a former policeman whose new work as a security specialist keeps him in contact with criminals at all levels of society. Fiddle City, Putting the Boot In, and Going to the Dogs continued the detective’s adventures. Despite their less profound themes, these mysteries share many of the stylistic characteristics, particularly puns and literary allusions, of the serious novels. Even as he parodies classic detective fiction, Barnes skillfully employs all the conventions of the form, in well-constructed plots, credible characters, and tersely witty dialogue.

In Letters from London, a collection of articles written for The New Yorker, Barnes covers topics ranging from the fatwa proclaimed against Salman Rushdie to the World Chess Championship. The essays, which offer fascinating insights into British life in the 1990’s, are engaging and provocative. In this they match the accomplishments of Barnes’s fiction. Something to Declare collects Barnes’s eccentric but glowing essays on France. Highly entertaining in its Nabokovian wit and ingenuity, all of Barnes’s work is thought-provoking in its exploration of perennial moral and aesthetic questions.


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