The view from here: Julian Barnes and the art of reading

November 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada

Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”

France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.

Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).

Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).

As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.

Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.

The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

In her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman points to all the various campaigns that have been launched recently to make reading appear fun, then asks why, if reading is so much fun to begin with, people have to work so hard and spend so much money to promote its pleasures to a reluctant public. In North America, publishers, libraries, and governments invest much time and effort (not to mention dollars) on campaigns with names like “Get Caught Reading,” “Live with Books,” and “Books Change Lives.” Each year, the CBC holds an annual week-long “battle of the books” – Canada Reads – which pits five works of CanLit in a Survivor-style elimination contest featuring celebrity panellists. And Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch repeatedly reiterates that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, readers can buy all five Giller shortlisted books. Pace Brottman, the juries have all spoken, and they are unanimous: reading is an enjoyable, enlightening, and engrossing activity.

So why do I feel so depressed at the moment?

I have now finished two of the five books shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, and am well into a third. (Relax: roundups are coming.) And my verdict at the midway point is as dispiriting as it is surprising: I don’t want to read any more. Not these books, nor anything else. The first three Giller contenders have managed to do something I never would have thought possible: robbed me of my delight in reading.

It’s not that the three books (okay, two and a half) I’ve read so far are badly written, or devoid of interest on the level of technique or story. But they all have one thing in common: whether it’s Linden MacIntyre’s sombre meditation on the horrors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Echlin’s painful recapitulation of the Cambodian genocide, or Annabel Lyon’s ardent history lessons about life in ancient Macedon, the first three Giller contenders are defiantly serious, ponderous books about weighty subjects and heavy themes. And they are all devoid of one signal quality: joy.

Now, you will argue that sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are not joyful subjects, and you would be absolutely right. However, I am reminded of John Updike’s comment about Nabokov: he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Nabokov, no doubt, treated some very dark subject matter in his fiction, but that never prevented him from delighting in the ecstasy of writing, which in turn bled over into the ecstasy of reading.

The enduring writers of the 19th and 20th centuries – Dostoevesky, Woolf, Beckett, O’Connor, Greene, Faulkner, Chekhov, and Joyce among them – all dealt with weighty subjects and posed difficult moral questions, but no matter how depressing their themes became, the experience of reading them was never itself depressing. In a similar vein, 21st century international writers like Saramago, Houellebecq, Murakami, Bolaño, and McCarthy have traced our modern, technologically obsessed malaise in a climate of post-9/11 anomic alienation without themselves becoming forces of alienation. The same cannot be said of the current Giller crop, at least three of which are sober, earnest, and seem intent on proving their literary and intellectual worth at the expense of a reader’s engagement.

What is a reader, looking for the highest achievement in Canadian writing and handed The Bishop’s Man, The Disappeared, and The Golden Mean, to do? Each book has merits, to be sure, but the cumulative effect of reading them is to inculcate the idea that our prestige fiction is portentous, plodding, and grim, filled with dirt and grime and death, and devoid of the vigour and verve that makes the best writing come alive. Any one of these books on its own might be tolerable. Together, they have put me off reading.