Sunday, December 2, 2012

The View From Julian Barnes's Window

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the satisfactions of reading writers on other writers is their ability to generate insights based on shared familiarity with the art. This is what holds together Julian Barnes's new collection of essays, Through the Window -- otherwise a ragbag of reviews and pieces that have appeared in the Guardian and the NYRB, among others.

The volume is also a handy guide to some of Barnes’s pre-occupations: the French in general and Flaubert in particular; inventive modes of narration; and the ways in which we deal with the imminence of death. Much of this is rendered in an aphoristic style that Barnes -- unusually for a writer from England -- has strived to perfect. (As he says: "the idea of taking a social or moral observation, polishing it into literary form, and laying it out by itself on a white page as a jeweller lays a sparkler on black velvet -– this seems a bit suspicious to us.")

Not all of the pieces are laudatory, however: there's a takedown of George Orwell in which he raises questions about the veracity of the celebrated essays 'A Hanging’ and 'Shooting an Elephant’. In a dig at the reasons for Orwell's fame, Barnes writes: "He denounced the Empire, which pleases the left; he denounced communism, which pleases the right. He warned us against the corrupting effect on politics and public life of the misuse of language, which pleases almost everyone". That won’t please everyone.

As against this, there’s a generous, informed tribute to John Updike, written shortly after his death -- even though one disagrees with Barnes's judgment that Terrorist is one of Updike's novel’s that will stay the course. Nevertheless, it’s "impossible equally not to honour and thank him with a reader’s raised glass, full to the brim – though preferably not with water".

The essays on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Parade’s End are probing analyses of their worth as well as the reasons for Ford's neglect. It’s also clear that Barnes’s unreliable, deluded narrator from his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending learnt a trick or two from Ford's John Dowell.

Barnes's fussy side emerges in his exegesis of Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. While praising its precision, he says, in typically Barnesian manner: "at its worst, it takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose". A translation that gratifies everyone is probably impossible, given Flaubert’s well-documented struggle to polish every French sentence of his masterpiece.

Other essays include those on neglected writer-aphorist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort; on monument restorer Prosper Mérimée; and on neo-Impressionist art critic and dealer Félix Fénéon. (Yes, you have to be something of a Francophile to summon up the requisite enthusiasm.) There’s also a delightful piece on the unpublished French motoring diaries of Rudyard Kipling, revealing the writer to be a punctilious record-keeper of the state of Rolls-Royces, hotels and graveyards.

The short story, 'Homage to Hemingway’, is an apt companion to the rest, dealing as it does with ways of representation and the dangers of a writer's life overtaking his art. Patterned on Hemingway's short story, ‘Homage to Switzerland’, it features scenes from the classrooms of an author and writing professor, or versions of him. He tells his students that though Hemingway is supposed to be obsessed with male courage and machismo, "They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness".

What stands out is the introduction, in which Barnes writes with feeling of his life in books, from early forays into his parents’s collection to local libraries to his latter bibliophilia. It's also a passionate defence of print: "Books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information". The printed book, he says, is the perfect symbol to show that reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. The view through Barnes’s window is one that shows the intersections of his reading and of his life.

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