British writer Julian Barnes studied modern languages at Oxford from where he graduated in 1968. He has been a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, a reviewer and literary editor and a television critic and (as Dan Kavanagh), crime story novelist. He is the author of eight novels: Metroland, Before She Met Me, Flaubert’s Parrot, Staring At The Sun, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Talking it Over, The Porcupine, England England and the recently published Love, etc. His New Yorker journal pieces were collected in Letters from London. Barnes has also published a collection of short stories entitled Cross Channel. He has received numerous awards and accolades including two Booker Prize nominations (Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984 and England, England, 1998). Love, etc. is the continuation of the story of the three characters — Oliver, Gillian and Stuart — introduced in Talking It Over. Each, as well as a small supporting cast, take turns telling their story directly to the reader. As one British review observed, “A bracing meditation on memory and forgiveness and, most important, on the simultaneously primitive and sophisticated, self-serving and revealing ways in which we tell the stories of our lives.” Julian Barnes lives in London with his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh. For more on this brilliant writer: www.jbarnes.com.
Robert Birnbaum: In publicizing your talk with your friend Jay McInerny, The New York Observer referred to him as “having parlayed a best-seller into a career of writing about wine.” Is that the kind of thing that disturbs you when people write about writers? Or are you fair game for that?
Julian Barnes: No I don’t think one is fair game for it. We’re not politicians, after all. No, it’s not the sort of thing I like. Either about myself or about my friends. We’re not running for office. Also, in Jay’s case it’s rubbish to say he’s switched from being a novelist. It’s always been his passion and he’s just written a little book of articles about it. But then, he made the fatal mistake of having a hugely successful first novel…as a young man. That will, therefore, take him five or six books published to work through.
RB: He and Bret Ellis are both treated with the same high disregard.
JB: Yes, for slightly different reasons. Bret Ellis is regarded as a possibly dangerous and corrupt human being because of what he writes. Whereas Jay is regarded as a metropolitan slicker and therefore not worth taking seriously. In dealing with writers, as in most things in America, all tendencies are exaggerated. We get some of it in Britain, but then success is not as great as success in America.
RB: You do say in Love, etc. that “America is the exaggeration of everywhere else.”
JB: Well Stuart says that. I sort of agree.
RB: The wonderful thing about writing a book in which a handful of characters express a very wide range of observations and opinions is that they will all be ascribed to you, as contradictory as some might be…
JB: That’s true. There is a little page and a half in which Gillian, who has now been married ten years to Oliver, makes a resigned complaint about marital sex. I’ve noticed that people occasionally come up to me and look me in the I and say, “Marital sex,” knowingly and with complicity. I want to say, “Hang on. I’d just like to point out I am not a forty-year-old female art restorer. Actually, I’m not married to Oliver.” (laughs)
RB: Some characters’ observations and remarks you can clearly say are particular to a character. But more general observations like the one about America, you leave the particular speaker or character…
JB: Well, if you read that passage to me I would probably agree with some of what Stuart said. If there is any one thing that I am conscious of saying, with my voice chiming with Stuart’s, is the myth of America as the land without irony. Some of my best friends are ironists. The most ironic writer in the world is probably Gore Vidal. So what do they know…
RB: He’s so non-American.
JB: It’s probably not mainstream American, but the notion that irony somehow got dropped off the back of all the [ocean] liners that crossed the Atlantic is just ridiculous. Jewish irony for a start. It’s a great tradition.
RB: I wonder if the critique of Jewish writing uses the word ‘irony’. It is, but a different word is used…
JB: Yes, there’s probably a Yiddish word, I don’t know.
RB: Maybe it’s ‘schtick’?
JB: You couldn’t not say that Woody Allen doesn’t deal in irony. Does he not? His humor is pretty Jewish. On the whole the beauty of this form, for a novelist, is that you disappear as a writer. You as a controlling narrator. You leave the reader alone with views of the characters. And the reader makes up his or her own mind.
RB: That seems to be an abiding concern of yours. I read an article on you where a quote from Flaubert’s Parrot was resurrected asking why people focus on the writer and not the writing? I understand the claims about the burden of celebrity. It seems to be a very human and appropriate thing to want to know how people go about their lives doing various things, the baseball player, the surgeon, the explorer…That’s not what you reject, otherwise would we even be sitting here together?
JB: (Chuckles) No. I have, obviously, a divided position on it. As a writer, I want my books to be read as something separate from myself. I produce them as crafted objects out there. To which the reader may respond in what ever way he or she wishes. As a reader of an impressive book I have a natural human curiosity about who made it. On the other hand I think I know enough — seen enough of the dealings of modern biography to be very protective of my own life and of those around me. There is a danger that celebrity, even the small celebrity of being a writer, joins you on to a different way of behaving and a different way of being behaved to. And as I said we are not running for office. You don’t like me. I don’t mind. You don’t like my books I don’t mind.
RB: You really don’t mind if people don’t like your books?
JB: I prefer people to like them, of course. For everyone who likes my books there will be someone who doesn’t. Fine, read someone else. Sorry I didn’t convince you. But that’s it, you know.
RB: I take that to mean if some people didn’t like your books, okay. If nobody liked your books, you would be very troubled.
JB: I would not be here. (laughs) I would be deeply troubled, of course. There is nothing nicer — when you come to America for a week or two weeks — what happens (which happens maybe once in four or five years in England) is someone comes up to you and shakes you by the hand and says, “I really like your stuff.” Which might become repetitive if I was American, and lived in America. I remember walking around Ann Arbor with Jay McInerney when Bright Lights, Big City was being made into a movie. People were popping out from behind the hedges and shouting, “Michael J. Fox” and stuff like that. Whereas in England, it’s a different culture. They keep their distance. You occasionally notice on the London Underground, they cop you with one eye. They know who you are, but that’s enough. Obviously, I like that, but it’s nice to get the contrast here for a week or two.
RB: Once again you note the truism of two cultures separated by a common language. Happily, I made regular use of my dictionary in reading Love, etc. and a word that came up was Oliver’s repeated use of ‘crepuscular’…which primarily refers to twilight. But it seems that Oliver weighs it with more negativity.
JB: Oliver tends to move it away from its merely pictorial sense of the falling shades of evening…towards shades of darkness.
RB: In the American Heritage Dictionary there is reference to night crawlers, things that come out from under the rocks…
JB: He’s not quite using it in that sense. Crepuscule is French for evening, twilight. Oliver, now having reached his forties and his life clearly not taking off, is already beginning to feel a bit of chill of an evening that might not be too far away.
RB: What is redemptive about him?
JB: I don’t know if redemptive isn’t too big a word for some characters in some novels. He is a character I know irritates a lot of people immediately. One of the interesting things in this novel and in Talking It Over is that because there is no author there mediating it, because there is no third-person narrator introducing Oliver as a character, readers tend to respond much more quickly to the characters in the book. And they come to judgement much more quickly. Because the membrane between readers and characters is so thinned, that if it works, is like meeting real people. So people say, “I really hated Oliver. And then towards the end I got rather touched by his plight.” This is a bonus that I hadn’t exactly counted on when I started working with the technique. If it was a third person narrator people would probably think he [Oliver] was pretentious and irritating. But he must be here for a purpose because he has been introduced to us and I’ll wait and see…
RB: Are you saying that you couldn’t do as well writing about him as he does for himself?
JB: No. Because these characters are so close to you as a reader, instantly, you respond to them as you would if you met a guy like Oliver in the a bookstore. And he was using fancy long words and looked a bit shabby and you thought he was pretentious. And you think, “I don’t want to have anything to do with this guy.” That is something you have to conquer as the writer. So, what’s redemptive about him is even when he is irritating he knows stuff and tells you stuff. Even when he’s showing off. For example, in the first chapter he plays that game, you know, name me six famous Belgians. And then he gives you the answer. On the one hand you might think, “You showoff.” On the other hand you might find it interesting. You might be entertained by him to a certain point. And then as the book goes on I hope, his plight as it develops…I hope it moves you. That’s all I can say.
RB: By himself, it might be easier to see Oliver as a sympathetic character. But juxtaposed to Stuart his former best friend and the first husband of his wife. Well…Stuart seems to have grown up. Perhaps even admirably. Not an outstanding individual, not world historical but he has moved from point A to point B in his life. Which is a respectable thing and perhaps the most you can expect from most people, that there’s some growth and that they have learned things.
JB: So the fact that Oliver patronizes him irritates you? (laughs)
RB: Yes, yes. And there is this Rashomon aspect here in the way that you have constructed the story.
JB: Yes that is another aspect which I hope makes it, I hope, immediately, like life. There is no human interaction let alone emotional involvement that doesn’t usually come with two versions.
RB: At least.
JB: At least, yes.
RB: You have Stuart saying, “Trust invites betrayal.” It seems that trust may be a sufficient condition and a necessary condition?
JB: Stuart is saying that because in the first book he has been deeply and emotionally trashed and betrayed by the two people he most loved, his best friend and his wife. So that’s why he comes to that particular conclusion. Depending on who’s version you believe, the boot is on the other foot in this book, as Stuart is then trusted by both of them and Stuart also betrays trust in taking his revenge. I agree with you, it’s a necessary condition for betrayal but not a necessary consequence. You can’t be betrayed by the street-crossing person. If Russia had attacked the US with nuclear weapons it wouldn’t have been a betrayal. It would have been an expected consequence.
RB: The issue of the truth value we assign to fact and fiction is, I think, becoming more interesting and regularly challenged. One of your characters states, “The story of our lives is never autobiography, it’s a novel.”
JB: Fiction is the supreme fiction. And everybody’s autobiography is a fiction but not the supreme fiction. I work as a novelist, and I also work as a journalist. And I am very conscious of the essential difference of the two skills. When I write a piece of journalism I want it to be completely understood at first reading as all journalism should be. In order to do that, you, of necessity, elucidate and simplify. And so the world appears more comprehensible. When I metaphorically move to the other part of my desk and write fiction, I am aware that my task is to represent complication and the fullness of the world. And to write the book, while certainly comprehensible and I hope enjoyable on first reading, would leave something in the reader’s mind to invite them back. I do keep this distinction firmly in mind. It’s easy, if you are doing both, for them to coalesce in some ways.
RB: Some would hold that journalism frequently involves manipulating facts and images to get to a preconceived conclusion…
JB: As a journalist, I deal in checkable fact, and I will produce an appealing assemblage of facts which will lead to a conclusion which either I will draw or will be clearly implicit. It’s quite opposite with a novel where you are not dealing in facts but dealing in truth. And at the same time you are not leading the reader to a particular conclusion. Especially in this book, you are leading the reader to a place where he or she can make up their own mind. So they are fundamentally different paths though the forest.
RB: What is the urgency about identifying things as true or the truth?
JB: It’s deep within most of us. The places where the truth comes from are now less various than they used to be. Especially with the decline of the truth of religion as generally not believed anymore. The truths offered by the state seem much less reliable than they used to. And the truths of journalism are a bit hit-and-miss, as we know. And also often hugely influenced by established and corporate money. That seems to me to leave us with the truths of art. To which I cling to both as someone who lives by the arts in both senses.
RB: What do you make of reality TV? Survivor, Temptation Island, Big Brother, Real World…
JB: It has its alarming side. Because the people in that house [Big Brother] which wasn’t a real house, became celebrities afterwards. The nastiest one, Nasty Nick and everyone hated him and it was picked up by the tabloids…Whereupon he hires a press agent and does his image over and shows he is not really as nasty as all that. He writes his autobiography…it’s five minutes of fame or whatever it was taken to an extraordinary degree. The only nice human thing I know about these shows is that when they did Big Brother in Spain, the ten Spaniards said, “We like one another very much. We’re not going to vote out anybody. We’re going to stay here.” Nice to see some national difference still. Whereas in competitive Northern Britain they are voting each other out of the house straight away.
RB: I wonder if my discomfort with this newest version of TV crapola is generational. That is, is there a developmental stage where one rejects innovation and novelty out of hand, that one is out of step with progress? Or is this stuff inherently junk?
JB: There is also a discomfort because they seem to be, they are so well presented as reality and yet you know they are deeply manipulative. So you know it must be the case that the director has gone in and said, “Nasty Nick do you think we could do that again? That bit where you said, ‘You’re a real bitch.'” It’s a much sharpened sense of the manipulativeness of TV. A heightened manipulativeness, I think that’s what we respond to with unease. I don’t view it as a sign of cultural decline.
RB: I have given up viewing everything as the end of civilization…it appears to be still standing. Good books are still being published and good movies are still being made. It is still somewhat frightening because there is so much that seems worthless. The volume of the shit stream seems to be greater than the trickle of wonderful things.
JB: I think that’s true. The English writer Kingsley Amis on some other subject, famously said, that more will mean worse. It’s certainly the case in television. At the moment English television, which has four terrestrial channels, is still pretty good and there are enough good shows being pumped out. As soon as you get up to 20, 30, 40 cable stations — apart from anything else you then channel hop. That has a distinct effect on your concentration levels.
RB: What did we do before we had remote controls?
JB: There weren’t so many channels. And we decided to go sit and watch a particular program on the whole, didn’t we? Now we more tend to think, “Oh shall we watch some television?” And then see if there is anything interesting on.
RB: Earlier you talk about your purpose in writing novels to pose some questions and perhaps answer some…do questions about your intentions for yet another sequel come up often?
JB: I’m asked that a lot, already. A thing I was not asked about the first one which came out ten years ago. And therefore I was blissfully unaware for eight years that I was going to write a sequel. But having decided to and then having deliberately made the ending as open-ended as I could with as many questions left to the reader as possible. And indeed having the characters asking the reader what they would do, I feel I should probably go back to this narrative. Though not immediately because the characters have to live enough life to be interesting. I could easily go back to London and start writing the first two or three chapters.
RB: Or you could bag it. Though if I were a betting man I would prepare myself some years hence to read about Gillian, Stuart and Oliver…
JB: If I was a betting man I would say yes. But I know what my next two or three books are probably going to be. I think it would be quite nice to wait 7,8,10 years.
RB: Was it the case that as time passed…did you reread the book? Or was the fate of these young characters in Talking It Over a lingering notion?
JB: No, it wasn’t always lingering. Usually when I finish a book it is absolutely finished and gone from me. And that’s how I felt about this one when I finished it. It doesn’t invite a continuation. Lots of people asked me about it over the years, and also they disagreed about it. I think it was their disagreement about what would happen to the marriage of Oliver and Gillian. Finding myself arguing about things I hadn’t thought of. Though that wasn’t enough in itself, I think what came back to me was the pleasure and the stimulation of using this authorless form of just not being there, Obviously running the whole but not being an obvious force in the book. I thought there was more that I could do with this form than I did in the first book. I also thought of various ways of pushing, thinning even further that membrane between reader and characters. There is a bit where Gillian addresses the reader on the assumption that the reader is in bed reading the book and thinking that maybe he or she will have sex after they finish this chapter…
RB: In the way TV shows like the Gary Shandling show removed the fourth wall and spoke directly to the audience…did you reread Talking It Over?
RB: I take it you don’t normally do that [reread], so how was that?
JB: I was rereading it with a particular purpose. I reread it for exactly what I needed. I gutted it. It would have been unhelpful for me to assess it as a book. I gutted it for the lives of these people…
RB: Looking for continuity?
JB: Sure, I was the continuity girl. And reminding myself of the way they spoke, some of their prejudices I had forgotten, some of the ways they expressed emotion and so on. Also, looking at it for questions that I left unanswered. And looking at to see who I wanted to keep and who I wanted to leave. I nearly killed off Madame Wyatt, Gillian’s mother, which would have been a serious mistake. When I was making up my mind I remembered something Evelyn Waugh said about P.G. Wodehouse. He said, “…part of Wodehouse’s genius as a writer was that he never killed off a single character.” I thought Madame Wyatt as the older and outside seemingly emotionally wise woman would be too good to waste…She provokes a different sort of thinking.
RB: There is a bittersweetness about her point of view…her continental complexity. Is it possible that every ten years of your life you may go back to this group?
JB: No, I think not. I really think a third one will do it. In the first book they were at the end of their twenties just turning thirty. Life was still fresh. Life still had its hopes. In this book they just turned forty. They are each aware in a different way that it’s — not exactly last-chance time — but it’s a time at which certain key things if they go one way or another are going to affect the rest of their lives. You live in a country that’s much more optimistic that mine. Believes in constant renewal, constant redemption and so on…
JB: …which we tend not to do so much in Europe. In your forties, that’s when things are going up or down that’s how they are going to continue. It’s time to call for the bill.
RB: I saw an interview with Billy Bob Thornton and his closing remark was, “It’s never too late.” Isn’t the fascinating possibility with Oliver that he ultimately does redeem himself albeit much later in life than anyone might expect.
JB: He might get a streak of luck, but luck also runs out. It’s true that in your country people think nothing of…whenever I see those U-Haul trucks going across the country I think of them as a metaphor for America and American’s attitude toward life. There are times when you pack all your emotional and moral baggage into them and you move off to an other part of the country. Instead of being an academic you become a realtor or you become a judge. This couldn’t happen in England or most of Europe. Or maybe it would happen once. Just as people get divorced much less in Britain whereas the idea of tearing up your life and going off in a completely different direction several times is almost inconceivable to most British people.
JB: (long pause) We’re more conservative. It’s not in the…even though we have become more Americanized in the last twenty years and attitudes have changed radically and it’s much more of a winner take all devil take the hindmost society than it was when I was growing up, one part of Americanization that hasn’t happened is this belief in endless renewal.
RB: Is this an alternative view or definition of freedom? Is this about freedom?
JB: It’s about freedom and optimism. It could almost be written into your constitution: “Everyone has the right to change their career and their emotional and moral status several times.” Everyone has the right to be forgiven. That’s another thing that is deeply American. You love forgiving people. You love executing them as well. You love killing them and you love forgiving them.
RB: Is it because people are better taken care of in social democratic countries?
JB: It’s not the case in Britain. It’s been the case in social democratic Europe that increasingly working hours have been shortened and retirement age has been brought forward and so on. I don’t think it’s anticipation of retirement that stops people changing their job. It’s deeply engrained in the culture that at a certain point between 10 — preferably as early as possible — and 25 you will decide what you want to do and so it’s an affirmation of your personhood. Therefore it’s a denial of self and it would amount to a crisis of some sort and an admission of defeat [to change careers]. I also agree with Stuart when he goes to America and remakes his life and talks about it mainly in terms of his marriage. In Britain you would say my marriage failed. In America you might say my marriage ended. That’s maybe about forgiveness as well. And there is the tyranny of orthodoxy that continues. There is an assumption that the end of a marriage means a failure of some sort. Whereas it doesn’t necessarily at all.
RB: Stuart refers to marriage as the most difficult human enterprise.
JB: Does he? I can’t remember that. But I’m sure you’re right. They talk about it so much…well it is a very difficult…
RB: Stuart calls it “the ultimate challenge”
JB: It is. I don’t want to sound like a marital soothsayer. It is easy to have sex and easy to fall in love and it’s hard to keep it fresh. Raymond Chandler wrote a letter to a friend of his who was getting married which was full of advice. At the end it said, “Always remember that marriage is like a newspaper, it has to be made fresh every damned day of every damned year.” That’s very difficult and it demands…apart from basic questions of love and sex…it demands tenderness, thoughtfulness and giving of space and also knowing what you want and respecting what the other person wants and so on and so forth. Also, it necessitates a continuing interest in the other person. One of the wisest things that great Ford Maddox Ford said at some point, “You marry to continue the conversation.” Which I thought was brilliant…I think they do change, but as long as there are still conversations. The way I visualize it is or would dramatize it is when you meet someone and fall in love with them it’s as if you are at opposite sides of the restaurant looking at one another, feeding on one another as well as the dinner and looking at one another. As you go on you end up at one of those tables where you are sitting side by side, looking out at the world. But you are talking to one another about the world and you have a whole bank of shared assumptions from previous conversations. So it does change, but the conversation must go on.
RB: Love, etc. is a slender volume that deals with big issues and ideas.
JB: Well I hope so. What I’m doing… I am trying to tell a story which encloses and describes the way people love and are friends nowadays. And what that involves and the dangers and attractions are. I wouldn’t dream of telling any but my very closest friends if they begged and bribed me for advice, I wouldn’t tell anyone what to do. I’m not that sort of writer
RB: Are Talking It Over and Love, etc. your most personal works? They seem to be so heartfelt and require authorial identification with the characters…
JB: I’m glad you said that. I have a reputation of being a chilly ironist or something like that. “It’s not true, it’s not true,” he cried.
RB: Perhaps when you have such a well-developed and specific vocabulary it might frighten people away from the heart of the matter.
JB: I’m not backtracking. But these books are not more personal than Flaubert’s Parrot, in fact. I’m as fascinated by the emotional and sexual life of people as I am by Flaubert. But this book is no more autobiographical than the Flaubert book is.
RB: I wasn’t suggesting…
JB: The assumption often is that if you write a book about a deposed Communist leader — we know that’s not autobiographical — the one about a love triangle or whatever terrible phrase the publisher uses, that’s probably really about him.
RB: Well, there is involvement and there is emotional attachment. Some things can be more of a rational exercise or an emotional outpouring…
JB: Well yes, but I think there is a lot of emotion in ideas. You can write a book — maybe I didn’t succeed — I hope that you can write a book about the dialogue and the struggle between a hard line Communist ex-dictator and a compromised liberal prosecutor which will not just be an exchange of idea and opinion but actually involve the emotions. So that you want one to win and to win in the right way. And you are upset when the one who wins, wins in the wrong way. When we talk about a novel provoking emotions we tend to think of the emotions that have to do with our own amatory life. I think that books can be emotionally exciting in many different ways.
RB: How much has what you have written determine what your future projects are? That is, because you have done this or that you avoid this or that?
JB: I try to put everything I have written in the past behind me. That’s why I never read assessments or theses about me. I don’t want to know what my books have in common. They are single jobs that I work on each time.
RB: What does the word ‘oeuvre’ suggest?
JB: It suggests I’m dead, is one of the problems. There are lots of different dangers in any artistic pursuit and vainglory is one of them. Thinking of yourself as constructing an oeuvre is dangerous. I don’t even think of myself as having a career which has a particular structure to it. I just write one book after the other. And I forget the previous ones and I let everyone else get on with it.
RB: You did allude to what you are doing next?
JB: The next main thing is a collection of stories, a second collection of short stories themed in a similar way. An also a collection of essays I’ve put together over the years on French subjects.
RB: Recently I have talked to a number of essayists who feel, perhaps self interestedly, that this is a particular time when the essay will flourish. As a practitioner of almost all literary forms what’s your take on the stature of the essay?
JB: I like the essay or the long piece of journalism, rather. What I don’t see — and it would be very good if it did expand because there’s good space out there for long investigative pieces — nowadays the pieces we used to read growing up, their function has been slightly superseded by television documentaries. And then you get the news story in the papers based on the TV documentary. Investigative journalism ought to retake some of that ground. And along side of that the reflective essay could perhaps make a comeback. Because the general tendency in the thirty years that I’ve practiced journalism is for the pieces to get shorter, paragraphs to get shorter, pictures to get bigger, attention span to decrease. I find when I publish long pieces — I did one last year about the Tour De France and drug use in the last century — readers really will stick with a piece.
RB: Doesn’t it sell readers short to assume that they won’t? There are readers and there are readers…
JB: Yes there are readers and there are readers, but magazine editors and proprietors…it may be that the old essayistic style, it’s time had come. The classic complaint about The New Yorker, there were too many pieces about the timber industry, which were interesting in themselves, but had absolutely nothing to do with what was happening in the world in the last five years. Of course, they did Hiroshima and stuff like that. Yeah, I would certainly welcome that…