Julian Barnes Q&A: “I might have made a useful priest, perhaps in rural France”

The novellist talks life at the New Statesman 1975-1980, the French diarist Jules Renard and Brexit.

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Julian Barnes was born in Leicester in 1946. His novel “The Sense of An Ending” won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. He worked as a literary editor and TV critic for the New Statesman in the 1970s.

What’s your earliest memory?

I deeply mistrust all my supposed “earliest memories”. The first authentic memory I have is being held up by my father to watch the funeral of Queen Mary go past.

Who are your heroes?

“No monsters, no heroes” was Flaubert’s slogan – though he was talking more about subjects for the novel. Of course, it’s safest to have dead heroes and heroines, who can’t suddenly disappoint.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Probably Yanis Varoufakis’s Talking to My Daughter About the Economy – though my previous understanding of economics couldn’t exactly be described as “thinking”.

Which poliical figure, past or present, do you look up to?

As the great French diarist Jules Renard put it: “Politics ought to be the finest thing in the world: a citizen in the service of his or her country. Yet it turns out to be the lowest.” But I much admire Garibaldi.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Life at the New Statesman 1975-1980.

What TV show could you not live without?

The first two series of Heimat; the first two series of Mad Men; the first two series of Borgen. Of late, the Six Nations rugby.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lucy Mackenzie, who specialises in tiny still lifes, but has done portraits. As the picture would be very small, I couldn’t be accused of vanity if it hung on my wall.

What’s your theme tune?

Far too often during the Six Nations it is “Flower of Scotland”. Also, recently, Bob Lind’s “Elusive Butterfly”. I don’t boast of these auditory apparitions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“You must allow others the right not to like your books.” And: “Remember that as we grow older, we get hardened in our least acceptable characteristics.” I can’t say I’ve done very well with either so far.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit, and the delusional incompetence of those supposedly in charge of it. The deliberate running-down of the NHS. Increasing extremes of poverty and wealth.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’ll opt for some time in the future, in some quasi-Scandinavian reality, where the previous question will have been sorted out and the next has become the norm.

What would make your life better?

To know I was only halfway through it.

When were you happiest?

You’ll have to apply to my (posthumous) biographer for the answer to that.

In another life what job might you have chosen?

I might have made a useful priest – perhaps in rural France in the 19th century. Looking, listening and seeking to understand, like a novelist. But I might have been tempted to take notes in the confessional.

Are we all doomed?

In the short term, yes. In the longer term, definitely. But to quote Renard again: “We’re put on earth to laugh. We shan’t be able to in purgatory or hell. And it wouldn’t be fitting in paradise.” And those who laugh live longer. 

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, “The Only Story”, is published by Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special