A Talk With Julian Barnes


Julian Barnes’ latest book is called “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters” (see review, Page 3). Here is a history of the man himself, similarly dissected.

(1) Barnes has a fondness for playing around with form, for itemizing and annotating, analyzing and decoding. Yet his books and his manner are anything but professional. He has charm. He has wit. He has . . .

(2) Beetles. What is it with this man and beetles? Virtually the only continuing character in the new book, apart from an unseen and rather ham-handed God, is a woodworm. In the first chapter, we have a woodworm’s eye-view of the Ark--Noah and all that.


“After ‘Flaubert’s Parrot,’ ” he says, smiling at me with the faintly aquiline (parrotine?) look he has, “I was so fed-up with being given wooden parrots and inflatable parrots that I thought, ‘Woodworm--I’m pretty safe with them.’ ”

(3) But is that the whole story? Here, in front of us, on a table in Barnes’ spacious, happily cluttered, north London study, is a glass case containing what looks like the work of a mad taxidermist or perhaps a sculptor with an entomological fixation. A mass of insects makes its way round the spiral road of a plaster hill, trying to reach the top.

“Cicadas--I picked them up in Washington. They climb up trees, then they grip the tree and their cases split and the flying things fly off. I made that in 1976. I call it ‘London Literary Life.’ ” This makes him laugh. “The idea is that you start off and it seems like a steady, slow slope and you go round, then you reach a point on the right-hand side where the road runs out, and you can only get to the top by climbing on the backs of other people. Then, when you get to the top, you’ve no time to admire the view because you’re too busy trying to stay there. This was when I was a free lance.”

(4) Barnes’ work as a free-lance, particularly his TV criticism for the “Observer,” first demonstrated his sharp and sparkling wit. His novels--”Metroland,” “Before She Met Me,” “Flaubert’s Parrot” and “Staring at the Sun”--have won him literary prizes in England, France, Italy and America. Indeed, the pleasure he takes in kicking structuralist footballs around might place him firmly inside the French intellectual penalty area, were it not for the hugely debunking nature of his humor.

“I’m very interested in form and in seeing what happens when you bend traditional narrative and fracture it. And deciding to write a book which begins in the Ark and ends in heaven and doesn’t have any continuous characters except a woodworm is obviously stretching it to the point at which you hope the chewing gum doesn’t snap.”

(5) But there is a darker side to Barnes, a mean street down which he walks when not concerned with parrots and bestioles, history, God and stretchable chewing gum. As Dan Kavanagh (the surname borrowed from his wife, agent Pat Kavanagh), he has written four “Duffy” thrillers, featuring a cocky, bisexual detective whose corrupt, violent but often bloody funny London milieu may owe as much to the emotional exorcism of the cicada sculpture as to the likes of Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson.


(6) Perhaps the straightforward storytelling of the “Duffy” books frees Barnes to experiment more widely with his more literary books?

“I had an idea,” he says, “after ‘Flaubert’s Parrot,’ that the narrator of that, who’s a sort of crusty fellow called Geoffrey Braithwaite, was too good a narrator to lose, and I was going to write ‘Geoffrey Braithwaite’s Guide to the Bible.’ Which would be the entire Bible, restructured for handy modern use, with the boring bits cut out, written by an agnostic skeptic rationalist. It’s another of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, and then you realize, ‘Perhaps not.’ But something of that idea obviously transmuted itself into a woodworm’s account of the Ark.”

(7) Not that the entire book revolves around woodworm. Its premise, that our lives are shaped by a sort of unconscious myth of voyage and return, is explored in various contemporary settings alongside the historical yarns. A sleazy television journalist-cum-celebrity becomes enmeshed with terrorists on board a cruise-ship; a young Australian woman sets sail, or dreams that she does, in order to escape nuclear devastation; a gum-chewing astronaut hears the voice of God on the moon and sets out to find the site where the Ark landed, back on Earth.

“All the narrators,” says Barnes, “are meant to be touching in their aspirations, even if often proved to be foolish and deluded.”

(8) Tucked roughly halfway through Barnes’ “History” is a fold-out reproduction of Gericault’s 1918 painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” which, Barnes says, was one of the two main starting points for the book. “At one point, I was toying with just doing a book about that painting, about how you turn a catastrophe into art.”

And the Gericault chapter is almost like a book in itself, in that it gives us an account of the shipwreck on which the painting was based, then analyses what Gericault did and--more significantly--did not paint. The effect is brilliant, challenging our preconceptions of art, of history, of experience, and tying virtually all the major threads of the novel.


It perhaps also raises questions about what Barnes himself did not write about. His let’s-upset-the-applecart version of history is still very much a male-dominated affair, and his God has all the Sunday School characteristics of wrath, beard and incompetence, with not a mention of Buddhism, Zen or Islam--though, as Barnes admits, “I’m not in the mood to take on the Ayatollah’s successor at the moment.”

( 1/2) So why 10 1/2 chapters? Why not nine or 11?

“It doesn’t have a cabalistic significance,” says Barnes. “The truth of the matter is, there was always going to be a half-chapter or a parenthesis in it, and I knew it was going to be a chapter about love. It’s meant to be direct and simple. That’s the thrust of that chapter--what do we put against this horrible 24-wheeler called history that’s thumping along with a tiny little trailer called politics behind it? And if we don’t think that religion is true, it would be very nice, because we’re novelists, to think that art was the answer. But art doesn’t work for everyone, so love seems to be the one you accept.

“You have all these masks as a fiction writer and every so often you think, ‘Well, actually, no, I’ll just write the truth.’ The analogy is with the El Greco painting, where there’s just one character in a lineup who’s actually looking out at you, and that’s meant to be El Greco himself, saying, ‘I did this. You’ve got any complaints, look at me. This is what I did, this is what I feel. I’m responsible.’ ”

(9) Is love important for Julian Barnes? There is a quality in his books, I suggest, that seems to come out of emotional security rather than from a point of crisis.

“I suspect you haven’t read my second book, ‘Before She Met Me,’ ” he says, laughing. “You might think that that was written out of an emotional crisis or something! I think I work better when I’m emotionally secure, but I don’t know. I don’t think I’m going to be very useful on this question.”

(10) So what is the point of it all? “A History of the World” ends with Barnes’ vision of heaven--”which is pretty much like life, with lots of shopping”--and the impression that’s left is that our limitations are our minds. Just as they open the door to all the wonder and majesty of the universes, they slam it in our faces again. Is this the theme of the book? “Well, this is certainly the woodworm’s point of view. The woodworm says, ‘You know, the trouble with you human guys is that you’re very unevolved as a species. We are what we are, you know, we’re evolved--but you humans still have quite a long way to go. It still surprises you that snow falls in winter, that money corrupts and that guns kill.’ I think that man is obviously measured by the rate of moral progress, not scientific progress.”


But have we made any? “I don’t know.” Barnes smiles. “You never live long enough to make the comparison, do you?”