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.

Sense of a happy ending for Barnes

October 19, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

“I didn’t want to go to my grave and get a Beryl,” said Julian Barnes yesterday, after accepting the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. After three previous kicks at the can (Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur and George), Barnes can now rest easy, knowing that he does not share the fate of his late compatriot, Beryl Bainbridge, who was nominated for the lucrative literary award five times and never won. Bainbridge was “honoured” posthumously by a “Best of Beryl” award, given to a title selected from a shortlist of the author’s previously nominated books. (Chosen by the public, the winner was Master Georgie.)

“Beryl was a very gracious non-winner,” said Ion Trewin, who administers the Man Booker Prize. The same could not always have been said about Barnes, who once referred to the prize as “posh bingo.” Although Barnes claims his view of the prize has not changed, he told the Guardian that winning the award was an indication this year’s jury were “the wisest heads in literary Christendom.”

Not everyone shares Barnes’s high opinion of this year’s jury. The 2011 Booker shortlist created quite a stir among British literature aficionados for being too populist in spirit and composition. Sarah Crown, for example, pointed to what she called the “unBookerishness” of this year’s shortlisted titles:

Where last year we had Damon Galgut’s auto-fictive travel-novel, In a Strange Room, and Tom McCarthy’s post-structuralist, anti-humanist discourse on language and technology, C, this year, we have a Moscow murder mystery, an offbeat Western and a novel featuring a talking pigeon.

And this, it seems, was absolutely the plan. On announcing the shortlist, chair of judges Dame Stella Rimington said “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books.” Fellow-judge Chris Mullin echoed the sentiment, saying “What people said to me when it was announced I would be on the judging panel was, ‘I hope you choose something readable this year.’ That for me was such a big factor. They had to zip along.”

From a purely economic standpoint, it would appear that Dame Stella and her fellow jurors have discovered a winning formula: this year’s crop of Booker shortlisters is the highest-selling group in the prize’s history, with that Moscow murder mystery, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops, the undisputed heavyweight at the cash register.

Begging to differ, however, is Jeanette Winterson, who took the opportunity to reiterate her objection to what she calls “printed television.” In a piece for the Guardian, Winterson, an unabashed advocate of challenging writing, lays out the case for literature that is more concerned with language than with plot or setting:

Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.

The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. James Joyce is hard work. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read. Schools teach language-friendly versions of Shakespeare.

Ali Smith’s There But For The is a wonderful, word-playful novel, ignored by the judges this year because it doesn’t fit their idea of “readable.” It is better than anything on their list. Why? It expands what language can do and what fiction can do, and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective. That is what literature is supposed to do.

Winterson’s test for what constitutes literature – “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?” – seems like a good one, but it’s also notable, in the excerpt above, that she chooses to put the word “readable” in quotation marks.* The wholesale separation of writing that is challenging and writing that is readable seems a false dichotomy. I could answer Winterson’s question in the affirmative about any number of books that are – in my opinion, at least – compulsively readable. This is one reason (among several) I was a bit taken aback when Rabindranath Maharaj, one of the jurors for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, suggested that the authors shortlisted for that prize are “innovative in the sense that their books are more accessible – it’s more reader-friendly in many ways.” Novels that are “reader-friendly” are not necessarily the same as novels that are easy or facile, which is the suggestion too often floated in these discussions. (Indeed, Winterson points out that the most “unreadable” novels she’s encountered recently are Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.)

Julian Barnes, for instance, has a history of writing books that I consider very “reader-friendly,” yet they are also challenging works of literature. Now that he’s finally been honoured by the Man Booker Prize, I suppose I should get down to reading his latest.

*Sorry, Winterson’s British: inverted commas.

Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

So, how was everyone’s summer?

After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.

I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?

Right?

In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:

  • The Free World, David Bezmozgis
  • The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
  • The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  • The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
  • Solitaria, Genni Gunn
  • Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
  • A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
  • The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
  • Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
  • The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Touch, Alexi Zentner

Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.

As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.

As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:

  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)

Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:

  • Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
  • The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
  • Fauna, Alissa York

Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?