Try as he might, Julian Barnes' personality keeps breaking through

Through the Window - review.

Julian Barnes after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2011
Julian Barnes after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Through the Window
Julian Barnes
Vintage, 256pp, £10.99

In this collection of essays on “fiction and its related forms”, Julian Barnes does a convincing impression of regal self-assurance but another personality keeps breaking through. This shadow is a reminder that Barnes earned and consolidated his reputation with autobiographical novels in which he presents a version of himself as rivalrous, gossip-minded and passive-aggressive. In his fiction, Barnes manages to forge some ironic distance from this perspective; but writing in his own voice, he is confined to it, with unpalatable results.

Even the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye-pokes. While exploring George Orwell’s relationship with Englishness and the English language (in “Orwell and the Fucking Elephant”, an incisive and original piece), he interrupts proceedings for a footnote: “Airport novelists irritated by their lack of status (a spectacle as comic as literary novelists moaning about their sales) habitually invoke one of two comparisons to prove their own worth: Dickens, who would have applauded their broad appeal, and Orwell, who would have approved their ‘plain’ (ie banal) style.”

In the course of praising Penelope Fitzgerald, he makes various detours to disparage those who disparaged her, never troubling to explain that his knowledge comes from Fitzgerald’s own letters, hardly unbiased testimony. Barnes offers a first-hand account of a “young male novelist” whose “turkey-cocking” apparently “disfigured” Fitzgerald’s memorial meeting. The passage comes under the index entry for “anonymity, writers granted”, but if it really is Barnes’s intention to protect Philip Hensher from the scorn of Fitzgerald lovers, then “young male novelist” is both sexist and ageist, employed to prejudice the jury and to strengthen his case against behaviour he refuses to identify.

Hensher is far from Barnes’s only nameless victim. Sebastian Faulks, identified only as a “better-known” English novelist, receives a dressing-down for liking Fitzgerald in the wrong way. Kazuo Ishiguro is knocked twice – first in a wonderfully well-informed but predictable essay about translations of Madame Bovary, where he is the “British novelist” who tries to “make things easier” for his Scandinavian translators; then in one of the three essays about Ford Madox Ford, where Barnes recalls an encounter with “one of our better-known literary novelists, whose use of indirection and the bumbling narrator seemed to me to derive absolutely from Ford”. (Note the difference in phrasing between this allusion to The Remains of the Day and a subsequent reference to “my friend Ian McEwan”, who “unconsciously borrowed” the names of Ford’s characters in his “brilliant novella” On Chesil Beach.) Ishiguro apparently pleaded with Barnes to “‘pretend I haven’t read The Good Soldier’”. It seems that he was willing to grant – to use his verb – an injunction but not a super-injunction.

The desire to bring Ishiguro down a peg or two is consistent with a more general reluctance to praise younger writers. Lorrie Moore was 40 years old when Barnes wrote: “I hesitate to lay the adjective ‘wise’ on one of her age.” And Michel Houellebecq would have had the half-smile wiped clean off his face on learning that he was “the most potentially weighty French novelist to emerge since Tournier”, a description that confines Tournier to being potentially weighty. In Barnes’s view, the greatest critical crime, except for knocking a writer he likes (how dare Forster call Ford “fly-blown”?), is to be premature or excessive with praise, but while he has altered the Ford essay to reveal the Ishiguro Injunction, he hasn’t taken the opportunity to update us about Moore’s wisdom or Houellebecq’s weight.

The book’s preface sets down a number of large claims – “Fiction . . . explains and expands life . . . Novels tells us the most truth about life . . . Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin” – but Barnes has difficulty justifying them, primarily because his strength lies in his learning rather than his intuition, and in historical evocation rather than critical analysis. Once background and biography are dealt with, he has little to say; his usual solution is to invoke the negative examples of anonymous straw men. Offering the reader passages from Fitzgerald’s novels, he asserts that “almost any other novelist would have . . .” and “another novelist would have been content to write . . .” Ford Madox Ford is applauded for setting a failing marriage against the First World War, in Parade’s End, where “more conventional novelists might have set the madness of war against the calm and balm of love and sea.” (It isn’t true, as Barnes maintains, that Ford never uses the word “subconscious”.)

Sometimes the flattering comparisons are named and shamed. Chamfort is compared favourably to Connolly, La Rochefoucauld, Wilde and Quotes of the Week. Ford makes Graham Greene “look old-fashioned”. Before describing the joy he experienced on rereading Updike’s Rabbit books, Barnes takes a pop at a writer whose work doesn’t, or probably wouldn’t, hold up well: “When a writer you admire dies, rereading seems a normal courtesy and tribute. Occasionally, it may be prudent to resist going back: when Lawrence Durrell died, I preferred to remain with 40- year-old memories of The Alexandria Quartet rather than risk such lushness again.” Is that prudence, or just presumptuousness?

A particularly odd example of Barnes using contempt as a tool of praise occurs in the Fitzgerald essay, when he complains that her final novel, The Blue Flower, was excluded from the 1995 Booker shortlist, “the prize going that year to Keri Hulme’s The Bone People”. When the Fitzgerald essay appeared in the Guardian, the reference was cut, presumably on the grounds that the prize went to Keri Hulme’s The Bone People a decade earlier. The actual winner, Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, isn’t an accepted object of metropolitan ridicule and wouldn’t have served the same intended function, of raising Fitzgerald’s omission from the shortlist to the level of self-evident injustice. Barnes might have pointed out that the 1995 jury only used five of the six possible shortlist places but he went for the suavely cut corner instead.