Julian Barnes has said that he writes fiction “to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths,” adding that “some people don’t like finding ideas in a novel” and have reacted “as if they’ve found a toothpick in a sandwich.” He likes to leave his plots open and unresolved. His reputation for writing outside the bounds of tradition has earned him the label of being a postmodernist with nineteenth century sensibilities. He likes to experiment, seeing how much he can get away with before losing the thread of his story or the interest of his readers. The plot is always central but is often at the center of a web that includes many of the great social dilemmas, such as fidelity and infidelity, originality and imitation, reason and nonreason, art and life, and the past and the present. His books always question the reliability of memory and of historical truths purportedly gleaned from a past that is irretrievable. In Barnes’s opinion, even autobiography is not much more than fiction, given its reliance on imperfect memory.
He explores opposites, believing that very little can be taken as true considering the constraints of what people are able to learn. Some things may be known, but what about the details that are not included—the small fish that escape the net of research? History is no less amorphous than memory. Even an “objective” historian selects parts of the past, and history, as well as memory, is always changing. Barnes hopes to bring about an awareness of the past as past, as irretrievable, and an acceptance of how ideas about the past have molded the present, which is the only reality, the only truth.
Barnes’s novels cover a broad spectrum, from tales of escape and obsessions to weighty contemplations on the nature of art, death, religion, politics, and ethics. He views each new work as a separate entity, with its own characteristics and intent. He has said that at the start of any work, a writer has to be convinced that the enterprise is a departure for both the author and for the genre in general. He claims not to be overly concerned with wide acceptance or readership, though he appreciates being understood, having readers “get” him. Sometimes reading his works is a struggle, as they often encompass literary criticism, history, and psychology, in addition to telling a story. While it is possible to pinpoint certain themes in his works, Barnes resists the notion of having produced an oeuvre, joking that to be said to have one would mean that he is dead. He just writes one book after another. He rejects attempts on the part of critics to see what his books have in common.
Still, careful analysis yields some similar threads: obsession, in all its forms, love, infidelity, jealousy, the vagaries of the human heart, passions, inconsistencies, betrayal, and a search for authenticity in art and love and for constants in human relationships. He is often linguistically playful, experimenting with nontraditional narrative.
Many of his characters are driven by a need to seek answers to questions that might best be left unasked, to delve into the past, or to resolve real or imagined problems. Many of them are annoying, self-serving, unlikable. Barnes allows readers to be alone with his characters, to interact and roam freely through the narrative and then make up their own minds. He likes to stay out of the picture, tries to avoid mediating, and may not even have a narrator introduce a character. He keeps an authorial distance throughout.
First published: 1984
Type of work: Novel
A widowed, retired doctor yields to an obsession with Gustave Flaubert, in part to draw close to the French writer but in actuality to escape confronting his own personal failures.
Barnes’s first novel of note, Flaubert’s Parrot , is a fictional...
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