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

Through the Window - review.

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.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis