This book is a comprehensive introductory overview of the novels that situates Julian Barnes's work in terms of fabulation and memory, irony and comedy. It pursues a broadly chronological line through Barnes's literary career, but along the way also shows how certain key thematic preoccupations and obsessions seem to tie Barnes's oeuvre together (love, death, art, history, truth, and memory). Chapters provide detailed reading of each major publication in turn while treating the major concerns of Barnes's fiction, including art, authorship, history, love, and religion. Alongside the ‘canonical’ Barnes texts, the book includes discussion of the crime fiction that Barnes has published under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. This detailed study of fictions of Julian Barnes from Metroland to Arthur & George also benefits from archival research into his unpublished materials.
De-scribing Imperial identity from alien to migrant
Timothy Brennan argues that following the Second World War, English social identity underwent a transformation based on its earlier imperial encounters. Edward Said has maintained in Culture and Imperialism that the imposition of national identity is implicit in the domestic novel in its boundaries, exclusions, and silences. A common opinion has been that, post-Independence, the British sense of Imperial and economic failure was projected on to migrating peoples, as aliens, immigrants, foreigners. In 1960, Doris Lessing and J. P. Donleavy contributed to a book entitled Alienation, which offers a series of personal views of England from people born elsewhere. The repeated phase of alienation was playing itself out as farce, and Anglo-Indians themselves began to explore new identities based less on displacement, homelessness, and exile than on migration and relocation.
Appraising the work of a living writer is unlikely to cover the entire oeuvre because fresh works may appear. In the case of Julian Barnes, it is also true that he prefers not to be written about by critics, partly because it makes him feel entombed rather than a living voice. As pertinently, Barnes would prefer not to be mediated by the entire book industry. The belief in the importance of ‘the words’ alone is a viewpoint that Barnes shares with the nineteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Barnes's fiction reflects a wide array of approaches but settles on a combination of social satire, Swiftian irony and experimentation. For the most part, Barnes is a comic novelist. Ironic comedy and false memory are two of the poles around which Julian Barnes's work revolves.
One of the few unsurprising steps that Julian Barnes has taken in his literary career concerns the subject of his first novel. His first novel Metroland (1980) is a rich three-part analysis of emotional growing pains in the suburbs. It focuses on one suburban schoolboy's artistic temperament alongside his significant life-experiences, from adolescence through to young adulthood and parenthood. The story is told by the protagonist Christopher Lloyd, looking back on periods of his life, borrowing some of the texture and geography of Barnes's own youth.
Before She Met Me (1982) is a study of uxoriousness just as much as jealousy in an otherwise unremarkable marriage. Barnes's second novel can be read on its own as a darkly comic story of paranoid love leading to violence and self-destruction. It is also an attack on the view that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was uniformly liberating. Its central characters constitute a triad of a kind that will be familiar in Barnes's novels: a woman and two men. The main themes of the novel concern the relationship between reason and passion at a particular point in social history, advocating how the 1960s changed sexual manners but not feelings, and emphasizing how difficult it can be to control primitive but unwanted emotions.
Flaubert's Parrot (1984) inasmuch as it is Braithwaite's story is a poignant study of loss and displacement completing a trilogy of novels that could be said to focus on common preoccupations of youth and middle age, both early and late, married and bereaved. Flaubert's Parrot is a novel at one remove: partly a novel about a novelist, partly a novel about a man obsessed with a novelist, and partly a novel about the business of novel-writing. It is also a strange kind of life-writing about the real Gustave Flaubert, a portrait of whose life becomes ever more complex as the identification of his parrot becomes more complicated, and the fictional Geoffrey Braithwaite, whose life-story slowly emerges in glimpses, but in a way that leaves the reader with questions, as Braithwaite has of Flaubert.
Staring at the Sun (1986) is an examination of the virtue of courage that is extraordinary. Barnes's fourth novel records moments in the life of an ordinary woman, Jean Serjeant, up to a flight she takes in 2021, on which she twice sees the sun setting. The metaphor of the book's title implies that human beings have to stare courageously at the fact of a godless universe: stoically face life as chaotic, but beautiful and marvelous, and death as final, without the consolations offered by religion. The book shares thematic concerns with much of Barnes's other work in its interest in the nature of death and truth; but in this novel, the connections with the shape and course of one individual's life are clearer than in most of his writings. In the book's imagery, Jean is like the mink: tenacious of life.
A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters (1989) aims to insinuate more of the ordinary and the exceptional into other people's orbit. From the opening story, told from the position of an animal stowaway, to the final summation of an average life, the book focuses on people whom history would seldom highlight but who illustrate its processes and vagaries: Lawrence Beesley, Miss Fergusson, and Kath Ferris. Barnes's fourth novel has love as its chief stowaway. Love, which intrudes into this book most conspicuously in its half-chapter, opposes history and orthodoxy because its story is individual and personal, though not necessarily happy. It purports to argue that truth lies in the need to believe in illusions such as free will, that survival resides in the need to love despite the failures of love, and that objective history rests on the need for collective silence over the certainty of fallacy.
Barnes's love-triangle novels Talking It Over (1991) and Love, etc (2001) delineate three undistinguished interlinked lives, once more adhering to a fictional preoccupation with the ordinary over, for example, journalism's almost exclusive focus on the extraordinary. Stuart, Gillian and Oliver are the principal narrators and take turns to tell aspects of the story from their own point of view. In the first novel, Stuart and Gillian marry and the unfolding story follows the loquacious and erudite Oliver's growing obsession with Gillian, who eventually leaves Stuart for his best friend. The sequel throws this process into reverse as the practical and dogmatic Stuart tries to win Gillian back; it concludes with Gillian still married to Oliver, but pregnant by Stuart. An open ending underscores Barnes's own resistance to conclusions, certainties and categorizations that distort the particularities of life and art in the search for grand narratives.
The Porcupine (1992) is a spotlight on a post-Soviet satellite country that Euro-American press coverage had little touched. It is the political fable of liberalism's lack of conviction before ideological certainty, set in an East European country moving from communism to liberal democracy, and is informed far more by Bulgarian history than by that of any other country. Its human story centres on the overthrown Party leader Stoyo Petkanov, who is brought to trial for prosecution by the ambitious and aggrieved Peter Solinsky. Barnes became interested by Bulgarian politics on a book tour and enlisted the support of local people to help him research and situate the novella. In brief, Bulgaria was a Balkan country of about eight and a half million people under control of the USSR at the end of the 1980s.