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About this book

Julian Barnes's work has been marked by great variety, ranging not only from conventional fiction to postmodernist experimentation in such well-known novels as Flaubert's Parrot (1984) and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), but also from witty essays to deeply touching short stories. The responses of readers and critics have likewise varied, from enthusiasm to scepticism, as the substantial volume of critical analysis demonstrates.


This Readers' Guide provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of the essential criticism on Barnes's work, drawing from a selection of reviews, interviews, essays and books. Through the presentation and assessment of key critical interpretations, Vanessa Guignery provides the most wide-ranging examination of his fiction and non-fiction so far, considering key issues such as his use of language, his treatment of history, obsession, love, and the relationship between fact and fiction. Covering all of the novels to date, from Metroland (1981) to Arthur and George (2005), this is an invaluable introduction to the work of one of Britain's most exciting and popular contemporary writers.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Julian Barnes in 10½ Chapters

Abstract
Julian Barnes is the author of ten novels, two volumes of short stories, three collections of essays, and four detective novels published under a pseudonym. His books have received considerable critical acclaim worldwide, and several have been nominated for and/or have won prestigious literary prizes. The distinctive feature of Barnes’s work taken as a whole is its diversity of topics and techniques, which confounds some readers and critics, but enchants others. While some underlying themes can be identified, such as obsession, love, the relationship between fact and fiction, or the irretrievability of the past, it is clear that in each novel Barnes aims to explore a new area of experience and experiments with different narrative modes. He explains: ‘In order to write, you have to convince yourself that it’s a new departure for you and not only a new departure for you but for the entire history of the novel.’1 If Barnes has written several conventional novels which have not always attracted considerable critical attention, he has also proved very keen on formal experimentation. British writer Alain de Botton (born 1969) referred to him as ‘an innovator in the form of the novel’,2 and many critics have emphasised the hybridity of most of his books, which blur and challenge the borders that separate existing genres, texts, arts and languages.
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter One. A Witty Bildungsroman: Metroland (1980)

Abstract
Metroland was Julian Barnes’s first novel, published when he was 34, deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times and television columnist for the New Statesman. It took him almost eight years to write, partly because, as Barnes himself admits, he was ‘lacking confidence’ in his own abilities as a novelist: ‘so it sat in a drawer for a year at a time and went through a lot of re-writing’.1 He even took an original step to meet potentially unfavourable reviews: ‘I thought “There’s only one way I can prepare myself for publication, and that’s by writing the worst review I’m likely to get myself.” So I wrote it, and really slanged the book.’2 The literary prize for a debut novel that he won, worth £1000, thus came as a liberation: ‘I cared very much about winning the Somerset Maugham Award…. It gave me self-confidence.’3 Moreover, he could be relieved in that reviewers were mainly enthusiastic about this Bildungsroman (the term for a kind of novel which gives an account of the main protagonist’s development from childhood to maturity). Merritt Moseley suggests that this is quite a typical form for a first novel: ‘If a novelist is to write a coming-of-age book, it is probably going to be the first book. Julian Barnes is no exception.’4
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Two. When Horror Meets Comedy: Before She Met Me (1982)

Abstract
In 2000, Julian Barnes told Nicholas Wroe: ‘After my first book I have not been an autobiographical writer.’1 Thus, one should not look for any autobiographical hint in the pathological case of retrospective jealousy that Before She Met Me records. The novel, written at times in crude language and mixing horror, wry humour and melodrama, focuses on Graham Hendrick, a history teacher who divorces his first wife Barbara and marries Ann, a former actress, whom his novelist friend Jack had introduced to him. Graham starts watching all the films Ann has made in the past, no matter how bad, and becomes obsessed by the relationships she had before he met her, both on and off the screen. His obsession and retrospective jealousy gradually deepen until he becomes convinced that Ann also had an affair with his friend Jack. Deeply wounded and out of his mind, Graham eventually kills Jack and commits suicide in front of Ann.
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Three. Barnes/Kavanagh, a Janus-faced Writer: Duffy (1980), Fiddle City (1981), Putting the Boot In (1985) and Going to the Dogs (1987)

Abstract
In 1980, Julian Barnes published both his first novel under his own name, Metroland, and his first detective novel, Duffy, under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanagh, using the surname of his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, to whom almost all Barnes’s books are dedicated. Kavanagh published four detective novels from 1980 to 1987 — Duffy (1980), Fiddle City (1981), Putting the Boot In (1985) and Going to the Dogs (1987) — and a short story, ‘The 50p Santa. A Duffy Detective Story’ (1985). Before focusing on the Kavanagh books proper, the reader may wonder why Barnes should have decided to publish his detective fiction under a pseudonym. It is relatively common for a journalist to use pseudonyms and Barnes alternatively took the name of Edward Pygge, author of satirical pieces in the ‘Greek Street’ column of the New Review from 1976 to 1978, Edwina Pygge, PC49, Fat Jeff, Russell Davies, Marion Lloyd or Basil Seal.
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Four. Postmodernist Experimentation: Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)

Abstract
Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes’s most celebrated book worldwide, marked a decisive step in the writer’s career, garnering acclaim from readers, critics and scholars alike.The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award in 1985 and the Prix Médicis in the non-fiction category in France in 1986. It was the first novel by Barnes to be translated and it enabled the writer to publish his two earlier novels in the United States and later have them translated into many languages.To this date, Flaubert’s Parrot remains the book that reviewers and journalists inevitably refer to when presenting the author or his later novels. Asked whether he minded being still best known for Flaubert’s Parrot despite having published so many books since, Barnes answered in the negative and gave another literary example: ‘Kingsley Amis was once asked if Lucky Jim was an albatross around his neck, and he said it was better than not having a bloody albatross at all. That’s my perspective.’1
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Five. An Ordinary Miracle: Staring at the Sun (1986)

Abstract
Julian Barnes started writing Staring at the Sun in 1982, and had already completed a third of the book when he decided to compose a short story about Flaubert, which grew into a whole book.As a consequence, he put aside Staring at the Sun for 18 months and came back to it only after the success of Flaubert’s Parrot. Reviewers and readers were mainly disconcerted by this new novel, which is strikingly different in theme, form and style from the experimental Flaubert’s Parrot. However, in an interview with Patrick McGrath, Barnes pointed out the link he perceived between the two novels:
■ The connection that I see between the two is technical rather than thematic, in that Flaubert’s Parrot is a book that went off in all directions, and one of the ways of tying it all together was to use repeated phrases and ideas like thin bits of gossamer, to keep it vaguely bound together. That developed in Staring at the Sun into actual images, and incidents, and stories, which, as the story continues, take on more depth and significance. At first, they’re just odd stories, but by the end they become metaphors.1
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Six. A Re-vision of History: A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989)

Abstract
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is an ambitious tragicomic novel composed of various stories randomly ranging over centuries and involving different characters in each chapter. It is usually considered as Julian Barnes’s second postmodernist masterpiece after Flaubert’s Parrot, displaying as much heterogeneity in style, form and approach, and attracting as much critical attention. The two books are also linked in that Barnes’s original idea was to take up again Braithwaite’s narrative voice: ‘I was going to write Geoffrey Braithwaite’s Guide to the Bible. Which would be the entire Bible, restructured for handy modern use, with the boring bits cut out, written by an agnostic skeptic rationalist.’ Barnes dropped the idea but something of it ‘transmuted itself into a woodworm’s account of the Ark’.1 When Barnes’s new novel was published, reviewers were mainly concerned with its generic hybridity — part history, part fiction — which some found disconcerting even though it was certainly one of its many achievements. Thus David Sexton remarked: ‘Barnes writes books which look like novels and get shelved as novels but which, when you open them up, are something else altogether,’2 while D. J. Taylor argued that the book was ‘not a novel, according to the staider definitions’.3 Having already gone through this debate with Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes was slightly irritated that it should emerge again with his new book: ‘My line now is I’m a novelist and if I say it’s a novel, it is.’4
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Seven. The Polyphony of Love and Truth: Talking It Over (1991) and Love, etc (2001)

Abstract
When A History of the World in 10½ Chapters was published and reviewers commented upon its formal experimentation, Julian Barnes said: ‘My next book is less experimental-looking than Flaubert’s Parrot and this one.’1 Published two years later, Talking It Over presents a fairly conventional triangular relationship but applies an original narrative technique. It was well received by reviewers and won the Prix Fémina for a foreign novel in France in 1992. The novel contrasts two friends: dull Stuart, an investment banker, and brilliant Oliver, a teacher of English to foreigners. Stuart meets Gillian, a picture restorer, and marries her, but soon afterwards, Oliver falls in love with Gillian, who gets a divorce from Stuart and marries Oliver. Stuart is desperate and leaves for the United States while Gillian and Oliver move to the South of France and have a daughter. Ten years later, in Love, etc, Gillian and Oliver have moved back to London and have two daughters, but Oliver has had a nervous breakdown and is jobless. Stuart comes back from America where he has made a fortune, remarried and divorced again, and he decides to help Gillian and Oliver financially by having them go back to the house where he and Gillian lived when they were married, and getting a job for Oliver. It appears, however, that Stuart is also here to win Gillian back. The first novel is funny and witty, especially thanks to Oliver’s virtuoso interventions, while the sequel is much more bitter, cruel and dark.
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Eight. Politics and Fiction: The Porcupine (1992)

Abstract
After addressing the question of the elusiveness of truth through a polyphony of voices entangled in the web of love in Talking It Over, Julian Barnes approached the issue of truth again a year later in The Porcupine but from a completely different perspective, that of politics and ideology. This brief novel, or novella, takes place in an unnamed country of Eastern Europe in January and February 1991, and deals with the trial of Stoyo Petkanov, a former Communist Party leader, who is opposed to Prosecutor-General Peter Solinsky, a proponent of democracy and capitalism. The trial is relayed on television and a group of students react to the proceedings. Petkanov is eventually convicted but retains his arrogance and honour, while Solinsky is portrayed as inept, and mocked for his shameless ambition and spitefulness. The Porcupine is the only novel by Barnes which is dedicated not to Pat Kavanagh but to ‘Dimitrina’, i.e. Dimitrina Kondeva, his Bulgarian publisher and translator, who helped him with the novel.
Vanessa Guignery

Parenthesis

The Brilliant Essayist: Letters from London (1995), Something to Declare (2002), The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003)
Abstract
In A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, the half-chapter is a ‘Parenthesis’ which consists of an essay on love and history, in which the author seems to step in from the wings and speak in his own name without the mediation of a narrator. In this Guide in 10½ chapters, our half-chapter or parenthesis will temporarily move away from Julian Barnes’s fiction and focus instead on his production as a brilliant essayist. Barnes’s talent in that respect is visible not only in the three volumes of essays, in the many uncollected essays published in newspapers and magazines, and in various introductions or prefaces, but also within the novels themselves, which are marked by a recognisable essayistic quality. Critics constantly refer to this characteristic feature of Barnes’s prose — he was called ‘a novelist of ideas’ by John Walsh1 and James Wood,2 and was sometimes criticised for scattering too many ideas in his fiction: ‘Some people don’t like finding ideas in a novel…. They react as if they’ve found a toothpick in a sandwich. I probably come across personally to some interviewers as aloof and ideas-ridden.’3 While Mark Lawson agrees that ‘Barnes has certainly used the essayist’s techniques more than most novelists — the urbane dissertation, the sardonic commentary’, he suggests that a ‘favourite way of slighting the novels of Julian Barnes has been to mutter that he is essentially an essayist’.4
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Nine. The Simulacrum of National Identity: England, England (1998)

Abstract
In 1998, six years after The Porcupine, Julian Barnes published his next novel, England, England. Even though the two books are very different in content and form, Barnes remarked that both belonged to the genre of the ‘political novel’.1 In the interval between these two novels, in 1995, Barnes published Letters from London, in which the essay entitled ‘Fake!’ may have foreshadowed the central theme of England, England: ‘The British are good at tradition; they’re also good at the invention of tradition’ (p. 27). In its structure, the new novel echoes Metroland and Staring at the Sun in that it is divided into three parts in chronological order. The first one, ‘England’ (23 pages), focuses on Martha Cochrane as a teenager, fond of jigsaws, suspicious of religion and of the mechanisms of memory. The second part, ‘England, England’ (210 pages), is set in the near future and presents a fantasy: media mogul Sir Jack Pitman and his associates (amongst them a cynical and sceptical Martha approaching middle age) turn the Isle of Wight into a gigantic theme park called England, England, in which one finds replicas of England’s best known historical buildings, sites and figures. The Island Project is a great success while the mainland suffers a vertiginous decline.
Vanessa Guignery

Chapter Ten. In Search of Lost Time: Cross Channel (1996) and The Lemon Table (2004)

Abstract
Julian Barnes once admitted: ‘A story is harder than a novel to write, [there is] less room for manoeuvre,’1 and yet his achievement as a short story writer is as impressive as his accomplishment as a novelist. Cross Channel is a series of ten short stories, ranging across several centuries and presenting the British in France, which were composed between 1990 and 1995, while The Lemon Table comprises eleven short stories about the theme of ageing and the fear of death, which had been published independently in magazines from 1996 to 2003. Examining Barnes’s collected short stories thus entails looking back on 14 years of literary creation.To these two volumes, one should also add a few short stories which have remained separate. ‘A Self-Possessed Woman’ (1975) was Barnes’s first publication as part of The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories. Along with twelve other short stories, it had been selected from several thousand entries in a ghost story competition organised in the spring of 1975 by Jonathan Cape in conjunction with The Times newspaper. The judges of the competition were the novelists Kingsley Amis and Patricia Highsmith (1921–95), the actor Christopher Lee (born 1922), John Higgins of The Times and Tom Maschler, the editorial director of Cape. In a hilarious piece published in the Guardian, Barnes recalls meeting Tom Maschler at a literary party a few weeks before the publication of the anthology.
Vanessa Guignery

Conclusion

Endings and New Beginnings: Arthur & George (2005)
Abstract
Some twenty years after the tremendous success of Flaubert’s Parrot, which celebrated a French author, Julian Barnes has chosen to devote his tenth novel to the figure of the British writer who is famous for his creation of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to link him with another, lesser-known real-life figure, the Birmingham solicitor George Edalji (1877–1953), who was wrongly convicted of horse mutilation and whose name Doyle helped to clear.While the title of his 1984 book included the author’s surname, the title of the 2005 novel, composed of two Christian names, proves more enigmatic. Divided into four parts, Arthur & George logically starts with ‘Beginnings’ (46 pages), which relates the two boys’ separate childhoods and early adulthoods at the end of the nineteenth century.The narration alternates between two periods as George was born 18 years after Arthur, and between a comparatively static and a peripatetic way of life as George remained in Wyrley in England throughout his childhood and studied in Birmingham, while Arthur moved from Edinburgh to England to Austria and back to Edinburgh, before qualifying as a doctor, sailing in the Arctic and near the west coast of Africa, and settling in London. As in Talking It Over and Love, etc, where each monologue is preceded by the first name of the protagonist who intervenes, so, in Arthur & George, each narration, focusing on one or the other protagonist and presenting the events from his perspective, is preceded by his first name.The narration thus moves from one point of view to the other, which brings variety, and occasionally presents the point of view of a secondary character.
Vanessa Guignery
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