Julian Barnes Barnes, Julian - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Bruce Allen (review date 12 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 mean most to those who know something about Flaubert, but its elegant elusiveness should fascinate even those who do not.

Merle Rubin (review date 17 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?


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Merle Rubin (review date 10 January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Leon Higdon (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark I. Millington and Alison S. Sinclair (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward T. Wheeler (review date 8 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dean Flower (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julian Duplain (review date 13 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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National Review (review date 14 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Gosswiller (review date 3 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Scammell (review date 4 & 11 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Warner Marien (review date 20 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jack Byrne (review date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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P. N. Furbank (review date 4 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 17 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Filbin (review date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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George Michelson Foy (review date 5 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ron Charles (review date 13 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Neil Brooks (essay date Fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Dean Flower (essay date Winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

—Eddie Harnovey

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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