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Julian Barnes: “I do believe in grudge-bearing”

In a rare interview, the novelist Julian Barnes talks about politics, euthanasia, his time on the <em>NS</em>, Christopher Hitchens’s “corkscrew” turn to the right and why John Major should be “boiled alive throughout all eternity”.

Soumya Bhattacharya writes: In his 33-year-long career as a published writer, Julian Barnes has, in terms of themes, always been a big-game hunter. His work has concerned itself with dying, death, memory and Englishness; but the most central theme of all has been love, and what love has to do with truth. “Love and truth, that’s the vital connection, love and truth,” he writes in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.

Like his great hero, Flaubert, Barnes believes that “prose is like hair: it shines with combing”. His poised, flawlessly structured sentences glitter; they are also alive with a precision that takes us both into the heart of the matter and the matter of the heart. Not for nothing did the judges who awarded him the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for the short novel The Sense of an Ending call him “an unparalleled magus of the heart”.

Think of the destructive obsession born of love in the early novel Before She Met Me; the love triangle that plays out with frightening consequences in the diptych of novels Talking It Over and Love, etc; the chapter about love and betrayal titled “Pure Story” in Flaubert’s Parrot; and think, most of all, of the unforgettable half-chapter, “Parenthesis”, in A History of the World. The contradictions of love, its many perplexities, have preoccupied Barnes. This is from “Parenthesis”: “One of the troubles is this: the heart isn’t heart-shaped.” And: “You can deal with the brain, as I say; it looks sensible. Whereas the heart, the human heart, I’m afraid, looks a fucking mess.”

His latest book, Levels of Life, is an extraordinarily powerful distillation of this theme. It comprises three sections – a historical essay, a short story, and a remarkable memoir about Barnes’s own grief and mourning (yes, the two are different, and we are told how).

The coda for the book turns up in the first section: “So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic.” The final section is cauterising. “Every love story is a potential grief story,” Barnes writes, because one of the loved ones has to be taken away from the other. It is inexorable. The concluding section, the most personal piece of writing he has yet offered, is likely to become a classic text of bereavement.

But it is, above all, a celebration of the love between Barnes and his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008. “You put together two people who have not been put together before . . . Sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed . . . I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart.”

Mindful of the occasion, would you like to talk about your time at the magazine in the 1970s?
I was there in the mid-to-late 1970s, as deputy literary editor (first to Martin Amis, later to David Caute) and also as television critic. I’d been a jobbing freelancer for a few years and this was my first desk job in Fleet Street.

I was thrilled. I’d written a piece for the NS a year or so previously about the US Senate hearings into the CIA, which Tony Howard had liked and printed. Odd that I first appeared in the front half of the paper.

Tony was a very benevolent boss. He liked to appear tough and businesslike but, at heart, he was very sentimental and proud of what he called “his boys” – and they were mainly boys. The youngest was Patrick Wintour, who was put in charge of a column called Student Forum and is now a great political panjandrum at the Guardian.

The office at Great Turnstile was a very companionable and busy place – there were always freelancers and reviewers coming by.

It seems to me that journalists were more colourful characters back then: the NS film reviewer, for instance, was a wonderful old boho called John Coleman, who in his university days had had more poems in Cambridge Poetry than either Ted Hughes or Thom Gunn – then he was sent down and went off to Paris and wrote pornography for Maurice Girodias.

When occasionally in charge of the back half, I would look up at the poetry overmatter hook and there would be poems by Hughes, Heaney, Larkin, and so on.

I felt deep loyalty to the magazine and couldn’t believe my luck that I was working for it. There was even a ping-pong table in the basement.

I remember you once describing the drinking there (in the afternoon as well as on weekday evenings) as generous. Could you recount some of those stories?
Fleet Street as a whole still had a heavydrinking culture in those days. It was also much more centralised and there was a big social overlap between newspapers and magazines. The New Statesman, the Spectator, the Times, the Sunday Times, the TLS and the Observer – not to mention the New Review, where I used to freelance – were all physically proximate and had an overlap of contributors.

I found it a friendly and collegiate world, if over-male; and, yes, where you were going to drink was a daily subject of debate. There were a lot of functioning (and not-really-functioning) alcoholics in journalism back then. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had a very light head in those days and was easily reduced to a state of smiling catatonia.

At the time, you were working alongside James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis at the NS. All of you were young and not yet fully embarked on your glittering literary careers. Looking back now, did things seem so full of possibility?
Well, Martin had published The Rachel Papers and was on his way and James was already the most promising poet of his generation and had also reported from Vietnam. Hitch, I think, had co-authored a biography of James Callaghan. So all three, though younger, were well ahead of me.

They were also very confident talkers. I was virtually mute in those days. I would sit through editorial conferences praying that Tony Howard wouldn’t nod encouragingly in my direction.

Any thoughts on Hitchens?
He was the most brilliant talker I’ve met and the best argufier. He had an astonishing memory and gradually taught himself to write better. At the Statesman, he was largely gay, idly anti-Semitic and very left-wing; I think he was still a member of the IS [the International Socialists].

Then ripple-dissolve to someone who was twice married and had discovered himself to be Jewish and become a neocon. An odd progress, though he didn’t do the traditional shuffle to the right; he kept one left, liberal leg planted where it always had been and made a huge, corkscrewing leap with his right leg. I enjoyed his company but never entirely trusted him.

You have always been interested in exploring a certain kind of Englishness in your writing: England, England is the title of a political novel of yours; or, rather, a novel that has more politics in it than your other ones, with the exception of The Porcupine. How do you see contemporary England – socially, economically?
That’s a nice, small question. The main changes in Britain over the past 30 years have been consistent, regardless of party: an ideological worship of the market – as quasi-religious as nature-worship – and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

There must now be voters in their midforties who have come osmotically to believe that such trends are inevitable and, therefore, right.

In the short term, is anything likely to change? Not when the Conservative Party gets 51 per cent of its funding from the City. And it was always going to do what it calls “stripping the fat out of the state”; the world economic crisis merely gave it a pretext for cutting even further. But muscle and tendon are going as well, rebranded as fat. Beyond this, it dismays me what selfish and uncooperative Europeans we have been over the past years, smugly farting away in the corner. It seems perfectly possible that David Cameron will be remembered as the prime minister who “lost” Scotland and took Britain out of Europe.

But then, this is a government with rare powers: who thought you could manage to produce a fall in unemployment combined with a triple-dip recession?

And culturally?
Culturally? This has always been a comparatively philistine country, especially in government, where even the economic argument for the arts only occasionally convinces. This has made the arts – and many artists – resilient and ingenious in the face of poverty.

Still, the mass closure of public libraries is a shocking act and is clearly the government’s responsibility, however devolved the actual decision-taking. And we continue to slip down the world league table for literacy.

Tory arts ministers tend to behave as if the job is either an embarrassment or a punishment (maybe for being caught reading a novel in the Commons canteen). I met the arts minister of Colombia recently. She was impressive – and also talking about opening new libraries.

What do you make of the Labour Party after Gordon Brown, as well as its current leader, Ed Miliband?
I’m one of the seemingly few who admired Gordon Brown’s premiership. He was such a relief after the previous occupant. I’ve always rather enjoyed the premierships of those the commentariat considers failures.

I remember Callaghan’s premiership with fondness (again, it was such a change after the weaselly Wilson) and even that of John Major – until he sold off the railways, for which may he be boiled in oil throughout eternity.

Ed Miliband first seriously crossed my radar at the Copenhagen climate conference a few years ago and I remember being impressed by him then. I would have voted for him had I been a member of the Labour Party. At the moment, he’s got the mixed blessing of a handy poll lead largely thanks to the government’s disasters.

I hope he doesn’t play it conservatively. I hope, for instance, he makes it clear exactly how he is going to take as much of the market as possible out of the NHS.

The business of dying has been a trope in your writing. For instance, I think there is a line in your book Nothing to be Frightened of in which you say that you know exactly how you will die: in a nursing home, in great pain, fussing about the imprecise use of language. What is your view on euthanasia?
Yes, I suggest that is more or less how I imagine I might die (though in a hospital, not a nursing home) –but I also add that “the pace, as well as the place, of our dying, is fortunately hidden from us. Expect one thing and you will likely get another.”

Illness, accident, murder, suicide, euthanasia . . . There are quite a few possibilities out there.

My view on euthanasia? I recently became a patron of Dignity in Dying. We have become very good at expanding the duration of human life but not very good at dealing with the moral and humanitarian consequences. I don’t want to be a nonagenarian waking up with broken ribs because I have been artificially resuscitated against my will.

The job of medicine, my GP quoted to me the other day, is to keep us healthy until it is time for us to die. Exactly; and the process of dying shouldn’t be artificially prolonged simply because this is technically possible. Nor, for that matter, should people with terminal illnesses find themselves obliged to head off to some God-awful Swiss industrial estate to make away with themselves – and in the process potentially criminalise those who help them.

You have a new book out. I’d love it if you could talk a bit about that.
It’s called Levels of Life. It begins with ballooning and photography and how the two became at one point connected and what that signified. Then it proceeds elsewhere . . . But it’s very short and if I told you more, you’d have a good excuse for not reading it. Or buying it.

You’ve been almost Updikean in the rate of your publication in the past three years. There has been Pulse (2011), The Sense of an Ending (2011), Through the Window (2012) and Levels of Life (2013). Can you pin down why that is?
It’s a sleight of hand. Two of the books – the short stories and the collection of essays – were many years in the making and happened to come to ripeness at the time they did. The novel is 150 pages, the new book 117: each took me a year. Any comparison with Updike is flattering but he kept on writing long books. I don’t have any sense of speeding up; rather the opposite, when I remember that I also wrote Arthur & George in a year and that was 360 pages.

You are an avid sports fan. I remember seeing a Leicester City ashtray at your home. You follow Test cricket, rugby, football and tennis very closely. How central is sport to your life (and your life as a writer)? Meanwhile, you haven’t written a book about sport. There was that essay about the Tour de France in Something to Declare but you don’t have a sports book in the sense that Updike, say, has about golf or Mailer has about boxing or Hemingway has about bullfighting. I find that curious. Why haven’t you?
I’ve always been a big sports fan – it’s easier to count the sports I’m not interested in (basketball and table tennis and kayaking come to mind) than the ones I am. I don’t see much live sport nowadays – a couple of football matches, a day at the cricket per year – so most of it is done through television. It’s purely recreational. I think I’ve written one story about a professional cyclist and that’s it. Though I’ve been toying for decades with writing about a football linesman: the idea of a bloke (these days, sometimes a woman) who is peripheral, necessary and unappreciated.

When did you last hear a chant of “Well done, the linesman”?

Because of your refusal to have cable TV, you don’t get to watch as much sport as might be possible. Why don’t you want to pay Rupert Murdoch his pound?
Murdoch once sacked me when I was on the Sunday Times. (Actually, he – or his apparatchiks – sacked everyone else as well and then reinstated us all except for the department that he – or they – really wanted to sack. Just their way of doing business . . .)

But I do believe in grudge-bearing. Also, I think his effect on public life in this country has been malign.

The other person who keeps offering me cable TV is Richard Branson, so that’s an equally sound reason for resisting. Why doesn’t a consortium of, say, the Guardian, the Co-op and the London Zoo start a cable channel and start buying sports rights? Then I’d sign up.

Which writers from the canon do you feel the most kinship with?
Turgenev, Chekhov, Larkin, the Big F. But “kinship with” is different from “admiration for”, where the list would be more varied and not so blokeish.

What have you been reading of late?
Some new stuff (Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of D’Annunzio; Andreï Makine’s Brief Loves that Live Forever); some rereading (I’d forgotten how good Simenon was) – but at the moment it’s mainly abashed gap-filling in the ancient world.

I’ve just finished the Aeneid, Iliad and Odyssey, all for the first time. I’m reading Caesar’s Gallic wars at the moment and probably Juvenal next.

So many years down the line, does writing still give you as much pleasure as you’d like it to? Does it get harder or easier as you go along?
Oh, yes, I get just as much pleasure – possibly more, because I know more what I’m doing, so there are fewer false trails that have to be abandoned. Of course, there are losses “so many years down the line”, as you kindly put it, but there are also gains: for instance, learning, as a novelist, how better to move a narrative through time. And it’s just as much of a thrill to hold the first finished copy of a book as it was 30 years ago.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, and the author most recently of the fatherhood memoir “Dad’s the Word” (Westland). “Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes is published by Jonathan Cape (£10.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue