undefinedPhotograph by Ellen Warner


Julian Barnes lives with his wife Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent, in an elegant house with a beautiful garden in north London. The long library where the interview was conducted is spacious and quiet. Overlooking the garden, it has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a comfortable sofa and chairs, an exercise bike in a corner (“for the winter”), and a huge billiard table. On the walls are a series of cartoon portraits of writers by Mark Boxer—Philip Larkin, Graham Greene, Philip Roth, V. S. Pritchett, among others— “some because they are very good cartoons, others because I admire the writers.” There is a superb photograph of George Sand in middle age, taken by Nadar in 1862, and a short original letter by Flaubert, a present from Barnes’s publishers when they had sold one million copies of his books in paperback. Barnes works down the corridor in a yellow-painted study with an enormous three-sided desk, which holds his typewriter, word processor, books, files, and other necessities, all of which he can reach with a swivel of his chair.

Barnes was born in Leicester in 1946 and soon after the family moved to London, where he has lived ever since. He was educated at the City of London School and Magdalen College, Oxford. After university he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary and then read for the bar, while writing and reviewing for various publications. His first novel, Metroland, was well received when it was published in 1980, but it was his third book, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), that established his reputation as an original and powerful novelist. Since then he has produced six novels, including A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters(1989) and The Porcupine (1992); a collection of short stories, Cross Channel (1996); and Letters from London (written when he was The New Yorker’s London correspondent). At the time of the interview his latest novel, Love, etc. had just been published in England to good reviews; it will be published in the States in February of 2001.

Tall and handsome and very fit, Barnes looks ten years younger than his fifty-four years. His well-known courtesy and charm are enhanced by acute intelligence and mordant wit. From the beginning, a passionate love of France and French literature, specifically Flaubert, has informed his work. Reciprocally, he is one of the best-loved English writers in France, where he has won several literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis for Flaubert’s Parrot, and the Prix Femina for Talking It Over. He is an officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

 

INTERVIEWER

You are very European, which is unusual for an English writer, but also very English, especially to a foreigner. In France, for example, they think of you as quintessentially English. Where do you place yourself?

JULIAN BARNES

I think you are right. In Britain I’m sometimes regarded as a suspiciously Europeanized writer, who has this rather dubious French influence. But if you try that line in Europe, especially in France, they say, Oh, no! You’re so English! I think I’m probably anchored somewhere in the Channel.

INTERVIEWER

Sartre wrote an essay called “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?” What is literature for you?

BARNES

There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain. For example, I don’t feel any particular ties with the world of Queen Victoria, or the participants of the Civil War or the Wars of the Roses, but I do feel a very particular tie to various writers and artists who are contemporaneous with those periods and events.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “telling the truth”?

BARNES

I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, groundbreaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art.

INTERVIEWER

Literature, then, can take a lot of forms—essays, poetry, fiction, journalism, all of which endeavor to tell the truth. You already were a very good essayist and journalist before you started to write fiction. Why did you choose fiction?

BARNES

Well, to be honest I think I tell less truth when I write journalism than when I write fiction. I practice both those media, and I enjoy both, but to put it crudely, when you are writing journalism your task is to simplify the world and render it comprehensible in one reading; whereas when you are writing fiction your task is to reflect the fullest complications of the world, to say things that are not as straightforward as might be understood from reading my journalism and to produce something that you hope will reveal further layers of truth on a second reading.

INTERVIEWER

Did you want to be a writer at an early age?

BARNES

Not at all. It is an abnormal thing to want to be an artist, to practice an art. It is comparatively normal to practice an interpretative art. But to actually make things up is not something that, well, usually runs in families or is the recommendation of a career master.

INTERVIEWER

Yet England has produced some of the greatest writers, and perhaps the greatest literature, of the world.

BARNES

That is a separate truth. But there is nothing when you are growing up, even as a reasonably well-educated person, to suggest that you have an authority to be more than, say, a reader, an interpreter, a consumer of art—not a producer of it. When I became a passionate reader in my teens I thought writing was something that other people did. In the same way, when I was four or five I wanted to be an engine driver, but I knew that this was something other people did. I come from a family of schoolteachers—both my parents were teachers—so there were books in our house, the word was respected, but there was no notion that one should ever aspire to write, not even a textbook. My mother once had a letter published in the London Evening Standard and that was the maximum literary output in our family.

INTERVIEWER

What about the Amises, the Waughs . . .?

BARNES

They are self-evident abnormalities, like Fanny and Anthony Trollope. Writers are not like royal pastry chefs, handing down their talent and their badge of office from generation to generation.