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.”