Julian (Patrick) Barnes Biography
Pseudonym: Dan Kavanagh. Nationality: British. Born: Leicester, 1946. Education: City of London School, 1957-64; Magdalen College, Oxford, 1964-68, B.A. (honours) in modern languages 1968; also studied law. Family: Married Pat Kavanagh in 1979. Career: Editorial assistant, Oxford English Dictionary supplement, 1969-72; contributing editor, New Review, London, 1977-78; assistant literary editor, 1977-79, and television critic, 1977-81, New Statesman, London; deputy literary editor, Sunday Times, London, 1980-82; television critic, the Observer, London, 1982-86; London correspondent, The New Yorker, 1990-94. Lives in London, England. Awards: Somerset Maugham award, 1981; Faber Memorial prize, 1985; Médicis Essai prize (France), 1986; American Academy award 1986; Gutenberg prize (France), 1987; Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy), 1988; Prix Fémina (France), 1992; Shakespeare prize (Hamburg), 1993. Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1988. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.
Metroland. London, Cape, 1980; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1981.
Before She Met Me. London, Cape, 1982; New York, McGraw Hill, 1986.
Flaubert's Parrot. London, Cape, 1984; New York, Knopf, 1985.
Staring at the Sun. London, Cape, 1986; New York, Knopf, 1987.
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. London, Cape, and NewYork, Knopf, 1989.
Talking It Over. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1991.
The Porcupine. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1992.
Cross Channel. New York, Knopf, 1996.
England, England. New York, Knopf, 1999.
Novels as Dan Kavanagh
Duffy. London, Cape, 1980; New York, Pantheon, 1986.
Fiddle City. London, Cape, 1981; New York, Pantheon, 1986.
Putting the Boot In. London, Cape, 1985.
Going to the Dogs. London, Viking, and New York, Pantheon, 1987.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The 50p Santa" (as Dan Kavanagh), in Time Out (London), 19December 1985-1 January 1986.
"One of a Kind," in The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, edited by Malcolm Bradbury. London and New York, Viking, 1987.
"Shipwreck," in The New Yorker, 12 June 1989.
Letters from London: 1990-1995. London, Picador, and New York, Vintage, 1995.
Introduction, The Reef by Edith Wharton. New York, Knopf, 1996.
Contributor, The Mammoth Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, edited by Peter Haining. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1998.
Contributor, The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays, edited by Ian Hamilton. London, Penguin, 2000.
Translator, The Truth About Dogs, by Volker Kriegel. London, Bloomsbury, 1988.
Understanding Julian Barnes by Merritt Moseley, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1997; Language, History, and Metanarrative in the Fiction of Julian Barnes, New York, Lang, 2000.
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The much-quoted glowing tribute paid to Julian Barnes by Carlos Fuentes has given him the reputation—by no means entirely undeserved—of being the most literary, the most intellectual and above all the most international of British contemporary novelists. Barnes's fluency receives frequent acclaim, and indeed, this prolific writer's most successful experiments in literary form can be most closely compared to his Italian, French, and South American contemporaries. Yet along with such international strains, however, there is something specifically English deeply interfused in his work.
His first novel, Metroland, published in 1981 when Barnes was 35, owes a great deal to the language and traditions of English poetry. Philip Larkin (himself later to praise Barnes) is quoted on occasions and the poet's steady, empirical temperament and suburban stoicism can be sensed behind the narrative. The plot centers around a young Englishman, Christopher Lloyd, who visits France during the revolts of 1968 and has a brief affair with a French girl. The novel immediately demonstrates Barnes's aptitudes as both meticulous stylist and careful recorder of closely observed detail. Its three balanced scenes, which echo Flaubert's Éducation sentimental in many ways, are equally vivid and imaginative: the adolescent pranks of clever schoolboys Chris and his friend Toni; Chris's belated and intelligently unsentimentalized sexual initiation in Paris; and the suburban idyll of Chris's subsequent marriage, to which Toni's rather phony iconoclasm is compared. These values may seem anti-extremist to the point of being smug, but the scenes are very convincing.
Graham Hendrick in Before She Met Me ditches his safe, non-sexual first wife for a sportier, younger model (Ann) who suits him better at first, until her previous life as a minor, sexy starlet soon becomes the subject of his obsessive fascination. While reminiscent of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, Hendrick is also a typical Barnes protagonist, rather academic in temperament (he might be Chris Lloyd 10 years on) and catalogues Ann's past life and celluloid affairs meticulously until the supposed trail leads him back to the brash novelist host Jack Lupton at whose house he has first met her. This fact finally makes Hendrick lose his cool and leads him to the carefully planned murder and suicide he has devised in order to punish her.
If these two early novels were promising in that they revealed much of Barnes's wit and psychological sensitivity, Flaubert's Parrot, being both a tribute to his acknowledged master and model, Flaubert, and one of the most outstanding contributions to British postmodernism, is Barnes's master work. This prize-winning, widely acclaimed 1984 novel combines the semi-academic protagonist Geoffrey Braithwaite and his interest in the complexities of marital love with a brilliant, well-informed, creative exploration of the French writer's life and work, which ultimately questions the philosophical nature of all history and knowledge. It is one of only a handful of novels written in England whose inventiveness in form has kept pace with what has been such an intellectually stimulating period in literary theory and criticism. The postmodern problematizing of any attempt to reconstruct historical truth is moderated, though, as the novel presents a plethora of ideas and invention that make it by no means only abstract or intellectual. If Hendrick in Before She Met Me constructs like a detective the data he obsessively imagines, Braithwaite's attempt to find the authentic parrot that sat on Flaubert's desk while Un Coeur simple was written (while at the same time rationalizing his wife's suicide), is doomed to fail, because every trace he finds is inevitably subjective. So the narrator-detective's own writing pushes more and more into the center of the novel.
Barnes's other identity as crime writer Dan Kavanagh (complete with mildly racist fictional biography) was the worst kept literary secret of the 1980s, casually announced in the cult literary magazine Quarto and then blown wide open when "Kavanagh" appeared on a front cover portrait in the London Review of Books, and when Barnes married the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. The first two immensely entertaining novels featuring his bisexual ex-cop Duffy (Duffy and Fiddle City), with the Soho sex clubs of the former and the airport smuggling of the latter providing vivid low-life detail, were as successful in their way as Metroland was in its. But by the time of Putting the Boot In and Going to the Dogs, with Flaubert's Parrot as the new yardstick, the joke and the material have worn a little thin. In the contemporary fiction scene a successful highbrow novel may well outsell a supposedly "popular" crime thriller, so profit alone is not sufficient motive. The Duffy novels (reflecting the grand topic of the impossibility of the detective putting together the single pieces to get the overall picture) helped give Barnes some "street-cred" and may also have served to keep his desire to be sensational out of his input into literature.
Structurally, Barnes's heterogeneous 1986 novel Staring at the Sun is (like Metroland) a triptych. The boldness of its form, its long time-perspectives and its compelling central metaphor (of a pilot who, due to an accident of flying, experiences sunrise twice) make it another accomplished novel of ideas. It highlights three moments in the life of Jean Sergeant: as a naive 17-year-old during World War II entering a sexually-closeted marriage; as a mother in her mid-fifties in 1984, who takes off on a trip to explore the wonders and wisdoms of the world; and finally as a widow on the eve of her 100th birthday in the twenty-first century, when all the answers to life's questions (at least those questions to which answers are possible) are stored on the General Purposes Computer within a program that (depending on your degree of credulity or skepticism) is called either The Absolute Truth or TAT.
Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (the allusion, of course, is to H.G. Wells's classic of Edwardian optimism A Short History of the World) confronts history with postmodern theories of representation to produce the most successful yet of his novels. Its ten chapters, each a tour de force, describe a succession of critical moments from our culture and history where nothing less is at stake than human survival itself. Noah's Ark from the point of view of a woodworm and then in subsequent searches for the historical record of Ararat; a semi-academic Barnes protagonist lecturing on a Mediterranean cruise but caught up in a terrorist hijack; a girl who may be inventing her story to protect herself from emotional trauma; Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, first imagined as history and then brilliantly analyzed as art, all lead up to a curiously empty achieved heaven at the end of survival's quest, in which Leicester City Football Club nauseatingly win the F.A. Cup year after year and a hearty breakfast is served every morning. Simultaneously playful and serious, yet packed with suggestive detail, the book presents a world that is imagined through the postmodern concept of "fabulation," one in which everything is subtly related to everything else by metaphor and analogy rather than by causal succession, a world only comprehensible in terms of the "primal metaphor" of sea voyage and survival. Its lush parenthetical celebration of love—the half chapter at the core of the novel—links English poetry and postmodernism since, to return to Larkin's "almost" truth: "what will survive of us is love."
Talking It Over is an effortlessly structured sequence of monologues that tells of the love triangle of the three principal speakers: boring banker Stuart; unpredictable TEFL teacher Oliver; and the rather simple-minded social-work-trained picture restorer Gillian, who comes between them. At first Stuart's schoolboy friendship for Oliver is hardly threatened by his love for and marriage to Gillian but love soon triangulates and transfers and Stuart gets left out in the cold. Though both men vigorously deny it, the male-bonding is obviously a powerful undercurrent, but love itself ("a system for getting someone to call you darling after sex," Stuart cynically concludes), the inevitability of repeated patterns, and the wonderful tendency of language (gestured at in the title) to turn something into something else are the smoothly handled themes. Talking It Over, Barnes's entry to the nineties, returns to a realistic idiom while deftly absorbing some well-documented trends in the sociology of contemporary love: frankly capitalistic and commercial metaphors; the intensification of romantic affection during a period when marital break-up is almost the norm; background details regarding telephone pornography and AIDS. It returns to many of the things Barnes has done successfully in the earlier novels and does them better still, though one wonders why he didn't have a go at writing it as a play.
The Porcupine, a novella, and Barnes's seventh work of fiction written under his own name, appeared in 1992 as a very timely response to the political upheavals that occurred in the former Eastern Bloc countries. Whilst Romania made the biggest headlines of the day, Barnes took Bulgaria as his subject and produced an economical yet convincing portrait of a society in the crisis of ideological revolution. Several aspects of The Porcupine, such as its meticulous descriptive pace, its Eastern European setting, its hints of Kafka, and the tenor of its concern with issues of gender as well as those of politics suggest a comparison with the work of his contemporary Ian McEwan. Again central, now politically crucial, is the attempt to evaluate competing claims to the truth in a postmodern cultural environment where all unitary claims are to be questioned. The two competing claims to truth in this situation are those of Stoyo Petkanov, the old party man and leader of the country for the past 33 years who now has to defend the whole of the past Communist regime and its ideals in the face of the new drive toward capitalism and its spokesman, the new Prosecutor General, Piotr Solinsky. Petkanov is the ready-made villain of the piece, but Barnes lets us in on his point of view, so that by the end of the trial we have warmed to him as a man of a certain kind of integrity and achievement. We are left in no doubt that, in the real world, politics is stronger than justice and that the best location for justice—poetic justice in its original sense—may lie in the balance and dialogue of the novel itself.
The next book to be published in 1995 was a collection of journalistic pieces Barnes had written as London correspondent of the New Yorker, where all of them originally appeared. Although the title Letters from London: 1990-1995 seems a bit odd as the last letter dates from August 1994, the book, detailed, fresh, and often funny, is another masterpiece. Covering a variety of things his American metropolitan readership might find of interest regarding Britain—Thatcher's fall, the poll tax, the Rushdie affair, and the caprices of the Royal Family—Barnes manages never to bore his readers, even when focusing on abstruse matters like chess tournaments and maze-making or on half-forgotten scandals. The letters show Barnes—as in The Porcupine—to be a sensitive political writer, concerned with the state of Britain in times of a dawning change in power. For all its freshness, however, the book also reveals a gloomy—especially towards the end—and rather weary Barnes, deploying the image of the political clock being "rehung on the wall at a completely different angle."
If France—its locations, language, and literature—figures largely in most of Barnes's books, the 1996 short story collection Cross Channel is the monumentalization of the writer's love affair with Britain's continental next-door neighbor. All ten stories link Britain to France in some way, spanning the seventeenth century to the year 2015. Barnes is at his best here, exposing the respective and mutual stereotypes in a wonderfully ironic way. The major "French" topics that appear, from amour fou to the Tour de France, are pitted against very "English" characters—the self-righteously austere composer Leonard Verity in "Interference," the frigidly lewd Uncle Freddy in "Experiment," the late nineteenth century tourist-explorers Emily and Florence in "Hermitage," and Barnes himself as "an elderly Englishman" of sixty-nine years in the concluding story "Tunnel." In this last piece, which sees the narrator, traveling on the Eurostar in less than three hours from London to Paris, torn between nostalgia and self-directed cynicism, all these different views on the notoriously problem-riddled Anglo-French relationship are eventually linked together, as the elderly Englishman leaves "the tunnel of memory," and "when he returned home, began to write the stories you have just read." Perhaps this is Barnes's answer to the question that the protagonist in the Great War story "Evermore" poses and that pervades the whole collection: "She wondered if there was such a thing as collective memory, something more than the sum of individual memories."
In his most recent novel, England, England, Barnes returned to post-postmodernist territory, though not in terms of stylistic devices, but as far as the topic is concerned. The tycoon Sir Jack Pitman, as grotesque as powerful a character, mobilizes forces to realize his one last great idea: a transformation of the Isle of Wight into a quality tourist resort, gathering all the quintessences of England—that is, replacements and replica of Stonehenge and Bronte-country, a half-size Big Ben, Manchester United, and Robin Hood. "The Project" recycles the five-star sites of England's past as simulacra in the third millennium, following exclusively the logic of the market. Sir Jack's team is busy advertising "England, England"'s quality leisure, searching for a logo or convincing the Royal Family to move to the Isle's replica of Buckingham Palace. The decline of "Olde England" into a place of yokeldom about to be forgotten by the world is the logical consequence of Barnes's dark satire. The book, however, is more interested in the effects the vast success of "The Project" has on human relationships. Martha Cochrane, the Appointed Cynic in Sir Jack's team and the protagonist proper of the novel, engages in a capital power struggle with her employer. In a world where the replica easily outmatches the original, Martha's search for real love remains futile. Yet the book ends on a note of melancholy, with Martha in the country formerly known as England, nostalgic for a past she has never known. England, England confirms once again Julian Barnes's status as one of Britain's top novelists, refined in style and controlled in structure. We can only look forward to his next delightful masterpiece.
—Richard Brown, updated by
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