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Julian Barnes, Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and One Short Story) – TLS

29/11/2012

The Index to Julian Barnes’s new collection of essays strikes a playful note, a whimsy meant to undercut any danger of pomposity in his writing, by drawing attention to it. For instance, his repeated instruction about the many matters that “should serve as a warning to aspirant novelists”, becomes, in the Index, a knowing wink to his own pedantry (all five entries under “young writers” begin “should”). Similarly, there are judgements indexed in the manner of a teacher’s withering report: “Peter Ackroyd: fails to impress”, “Truman Capote: always promising”.

The job of a critic, however, as Barnes himself has said, is not to diminish but to explain and celebrate. And in the main that’s what he does, writing about people whose work he admires, making a case for the patronized, unfashionable or, to the English, possibly unknown (“our insular fault for not translating enough”).

Barnes’s Francophilia is well-advertised and, as one might expect, his criticism divides between England, France and America, with some canny interplays, so there is ‘Kipling’s France’ as well as ‘France’s Kipling’, (Ford Madox) ‘Ford on Provence’, an essay on English translations of Madame Bovary, and an Introduction to Edith Wharton’s The Reef, considering its Racinian qualities.

The essays on Chamfort, the “complicated, divided” moralist and maxim writer, Prosper Mérimée, taxonomist and preserver of buildings (necessitated by the Revolution’s annexing of them), the “aesthete-anarchist” Félix Fénéon and his fait divers newspaper columns, and Michel Houellebecq’s increasingly dubious “literary insolence”, together comprise a solid primer on modern French history, culture and taste.

Paul Signac, ‘Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Colours, Portrait of Félix Fénéon in 1890’

Among English-language writers he extols Penelope Fitzgerald’s quietness in delivering complexity (against “male diminishment” and her own self-disguise as a “harmless jam-making grandmother”), the modernity of Arthur Hugh Clough in representing unpoetical times (against Matthew Arnold’s reading of his poetry as “not natural”), and late Updike (“undervalued, and at times insultingly reviewed”).

What he admires perhaps most in these “professional observers of human beings” is their penetration of the ordinary. And it is on the matter of professionalism or generic competency that his attacks turn: replaying the debate about Orwell’s fictionalizing of his journalism, questioning Houellebecq’s representation of Islam on the grounds of narrative credibility (“a clever man who is a less than clever novelist”), and finding against Joyce Carol Oates’s account of her bereavement for “breach of narrative promise”. Her deception is of an entirely different order to the “benign wrong-footingness” he so admires in Fitzgerald.

One of Barnes’s favourite coinages is “Frenchly”, but it is the Englishness of his interests and tone of which one is continually aware. His recurrent themes are summed up in that didactic Index : “cowardice: more interesting than courage”, “failure: more interesting than success”, “kindness: its paradoxicality”.

This review appeared in the TLS on 10.11.12.

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