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December 17, 2017

Deconstructing Julian Barnes

On this day in 1946 Julian Barnes was born. When in his mid-thirties Barnes was featured in Granta magazine's "Best of Young British Fiction" issue. If this did not exactly launch his career (Barnes protests the claim), it certainly put him in good company - Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and others. The prize-winning Flaubert's Parrot was published the next year (1984), and some two-dozen books have followed - not just novels and story collections, but science fiction, memoir and translation. In 2011, he won the Booker Prize with his novel, The Sense of an Ending.

Some early interviewers struggled to describe Barnes's mixed-genre books, one literary magazine describing his "subversion of all conventional taxonomic boundaries" as the best of the Young Guns rather than the Young Brits:
    INTERVIEWER: You belong to a generation of writers who will do anything in their power, form and content (technical and emotional experiment at all costs) to shock, confuse, render the reader helpless. These I have called "Desperadoes." Do you feel you relate to the description of the group and to the label?
    BARNES: Well, ... I'm rather surprised to be called a Desperado. I rather like the description (who wouldn't?) but you make us (if there is an 'us', which I'm sceptical about) sound like a gang led by Clint Eastwood....
    INTERVIEWER. How would you describe the "Julian Barnes movement"? Daring, inquiring, insinuating, starved for the reader's affection? Or indifferent, independent, haughtily ironical and cold (which it is not, though)?
    BARNES. Well, I never think of myself as a one-man movement, or a writer with particular characteristics.... From your galaxy of adjectives, I recognize 'ironic' (how could I not?). All I'd say is that the common mistake is that irony precludes sympathy. It doesn't: see Flaubert....
    INTERVIEWER. Your work as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary may have influenced your style, which is both confusingly rich in synonyms and subtly witty....
    BARNES. I don't think the OED affected my writing. It may have made me a better Scrabble player, but only in the range of words beginning with C,D,E,F or G....
If Barnes's narrators can sometimes be standoffish - "I see the novelist at the stern rail of a cross-Channel ferry, throwing bits of gristle from his sandwich to the hovering gulls" (Flaubert's Parrot) - they can sometimes be chummy. Here is Gillian, one of several narrators from Love, etc., sharing some of her "etc" with the reader::
    Our sex life is ... friendly. Do you know what I mean? Yes, I can see that you do. Perhaps all too well. We're partners in the act. We enjoy one another's company in the act. We do our best for one another, we look after one another in the act. Our sex life is ... friendly. I'm sure there are much worse things. Much worse.
    Have I put you off? He or she beside you has had their light out for some time now. They're doing that breathing which is meant to sound like sleep but doesn't really. You probably said, 'I'll just finish this bit,' and got a friendly grunt in reply, but then you read on a bit longer than you thought. But it doesn't matter now, does it? Because I've put you off. You don't feel like sex any more. Do you?

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