Criticism

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In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Barnes's work.

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"Julian Barnes," wrote Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Merritt Moseley, "is one of the most celebrated, and one of the most variously rewarding, of Britain's younger novelists." His work, the critic continued, "has been acclaimed by readers as different as Carlos Fuentes and Philip Larkin; reviewers and interviewers sum him up with praise such as Mark Lawson's claim that he 'writes like the teacher of your dreams: jokey, metaphorical across both popular and unpopular culture, epigrammatic'" In addition to novels such as Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters, and The Porcupine, Barnes has also won a reputation as a writer of innovative detective fiction and an essayist. "Since 1990," Moseley concluded, "he has been the London correspondent of the New Yorker magazine, contributing 'Letters from London' every few months on subjects such as the royal family and the quirkier side of British politics." Barnes was also one of many writers—among them Stephen King and Annie Proulx—invited to read from their works at the first-ever New Yorker Festival in 2000.

Barnes published four novels, Metroland, Before She Met Me, and the detective novels Duffy and Fiddle City—both written under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh—before he completed Flaubert's Parrot, his first great success. Critics have acclaimed these early books for their comic sensibility and witty language. Metroland tells the story of two young men who "adopt the motto epater la bourgeoisie," explained New Statesman contributor Nicholas Shrimpton. "But this grandiose ambition is promptly reduced to the level of 'epats,' a thoroughly English field-sport in which the competitors attempt to shock respectable citizens for bets of sixpence a time." "After this vision of the Decadence in short trousers," the reviewer concluded, "it is hard to take the idea of outrage too solemnly." Before She Met Me is the tale of an older man who falls into an obsession about his actress wife's former screen lovers. The book, stated Anthony Thwaite in the Observer, presents an "elegantly hardboiled treatment of the nastier levels of obsession, full of controlled jokes when almost everything else has got out of control."

Barnes's detective fiction also looks at times and characters for whom life has gotten out of control. The title character of Duffy is a bisexual former policeman who was blackmailed out of his job. "The thrillers are active, louche, violent, thoroughly plotted," stated Moseley. "Duffy shows the result of serious research into the seamy world of London's sex industry; in Duffy, as in its successors, the crime tends to be theft or fraud rather than murder, though Barnes successfully imbues the book with a feeling of menace." Fiddle City, for instance, takes place at London's Heathrow airport and looks at the smuggling of drugs and other illegal items.

It was with the publication of Flaubert's Parrot, though, that Barnes scored his greatest success to date. The novel tells of Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired English doctor, and his obsession with the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert. After his wife's somewhat mysterious death, Braithwaite travels to France in search of trivia concerning Flaubert; his chief aim is to find the stuffed parrot that the writer kept on his desk for inspiration while writing Un coeur simple, the story of a peasant woman's devotion to her pet. Barnes "uses Braithwaite's investigations to reflect on the ambiguous truths of biography, the relationship of art and life, the impact of death, the consolations of literature," explained Michael Dirda in the Washington Post Book World.

Far from a straightforward narrative, Flaubert's Parrot blends fiction, literary criticism, and biography in a manner strongly reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, according to many critics. Newsweek

(The entire section contains 1993 words.)

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Barnes, Julian