Review: Through the Window by Julian Barnes




“Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.” – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot


One of the nice things about having a blog is that you can pretty much talk about anything you want.    Of course you could actually EARN that kind of freedom. You could become  really famous, by, say, writing a bunch of brilliant novels and winning the Man Booker Prize (finally!) and then people at The Guardian or The New York Review of Books will pay you to write about your favourite authors!

Julian Barnes has been able to do just that in recent years, and now we can read his passionate and erudite essays in a new book, Through the Window.  Barnes is one of my very favourite writers, and I love both his novels and nonfiction.  His memoir and book-length essay on death and God (it’s more fun than it sounds), Nothing to Be Frightened Of, is among my top ten books. Thoughtfulness, humour,  and an elegant prose style underscored with passionate feeling, are hallmarks of a great Julian Barnes book.

Through the Window,  a collection of book reviews (and one short story) is no exception.   The subjects range from some very well known writers (Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Edith Wharton) to lesser known (Chamfort, Feneon), or under appreciated ones (Penelope Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford).   Barnes never glides over his subject or generalizes.  You get the sense that he has not only thoroughly read, perhaps several times, the book he is talking about, but also everything else by that author (with the exception of Updike, he admits) and everything written about him or her.

Barnes’s admiration for his subjects is writerly, and from his thoughtful analyses you learn about the writer’s craft.   In writing about Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford,  Barnes declares Ford’s novel, “as modern and modernist as they come.  And now that the years have shaken down, it is Ford who makes [Graham] Greene look old fashioned.”

Of a scene in The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (whose career was “attended by a marked level of male diminishment”), Barnes writes, “I have reread this scene many times, always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding.”

In 1906, Felix Feneon, French art critic, writer and anarchist, wrote the fait divers column for Le Matin.  These were “three-line fillers” composed from wire service and provincial newspaper stories and “known in hackdom as chiens ecrases (run-over dogs).” Feneon’s mistress saved his contributions, which were later compiled into a book, translated into English for the first time in 2007 by Luc Sante.  In reviewing Nouvelles en trois lignes, Barnes highlights the authorial skill in Feneon’s compressed stories with the same respect he affords Fitzgerald, Ford, Wharton and Updike:

“‘In the military zone, in the course of a duel over scrawny Adeline, basket-weaver Capello stabbed bear-baiter Monari in the abdomen.’

Had the bear-baiter stabbed the basket-weaver, it might have been less unusual; that it happened in the military zone makes it more piquant; that the surnames imply the hot blood of the south, and that Adeline was scrawny – whether she was or not in reality is almost beside the point – make it into a miniature story…he [Feneon] knew how to shape a sentence, how to make three lines breathe, delay a key piece of information, introduce a quirky adjective, hold the necessary verb until last.  Just fitting in the requisite facts is a professional skill; giving the whole item form, elegance, wit and surprise is an art.”

The preface to Through the Window is titled, “A Life with Books”, and Barnes reveals the roots of his lifelong passion for books, both as a reader and writer.  Books provide us with a window through which we can see the layers of meaning in our lives and the threads which connect us to others:

“When you read a great book you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.  There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.  And for this self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.”















The Pleasures of Rereading: Your Books Then and Now


I like reading certain books over and over again.  I know some people feel they don’t have the time.  These are the same people who have to finish a book once started.  “I can’t just put it down, even if I’m not enjoying it,” they declare proudly.   “Once I’ve started, I have to finish.” This makes no sense to me.  Probably the same people, too, who know exactly how many books they read in a year, or a month or whatever.  What is reading for, if not for pleasure?  But some folks feel that it is an accomplishment, like mastering a difficult skill.  In that mind set, returning to a book you have read once is pointless, and throwing down a book you are not enjoying is defeat.

I have a small stack of books that I have never stopped rereading. Some are childhood favourites and some are more recent discoveries that speak to me in such a deeply personal way that I continue to revisit them.

Below, some books, old, newish, grownup and childish, I always have close by:

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

The first time I read this I was Harriet’s age, and oh, how I identified with her critical eye and lonely independence.  I still read it, and cry every time.  The  1996 film with Michelle Trachtenberg was pretty good too.  Please don’t talk  to me about the Disney version. That also makes me cry, but not in a good way.


Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

Ok, I can’t believe you haven’t heard of this one.  Actually, I can, because so many people haven’t heard of Swedish author and artist Tove Jansson’s charmingly illustrated stories of Moomintroll and his family and friends.  It has everything!  Action! Romance! Backwards talking critters!  You will be sad when it is over, just ‘cause there’s no more.  So you will have to read all the other ones and check out her subversive comic book series. Then you will hear that there is a Moomin World and will want to go to there.


Darkness Visible by William Styron

Every once in a while I need to read Styron’s beautifully written “Memoir of Madness”. Poetic, heartfelt, thoughtful and deeply moving, it’s better than any self help book on the subject of depression.


The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

The only thing wrong with Melissa Bank’s writing is that there is not enough of it. I can’t wait ‘til my signed first edition of The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing arrives at my door.  Read her prose and you will see why it takes so long to write those perfect sentences.  It’s no wonder some people have compared her to John Cheever.  There’s lots of emotion in a Melissa Bank story, but it’s usually just under the surface. Curl up, pour a cocktail, and you are in New York with Sophie Applebaum,  gaining wisdom from life’s sweet moments and bitter stings.


Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

“Smitten” was the word someone used when I started to talk, my speech replete with italics, exclamation marks, bold fonts and all caps, about Julian Barnes and this book.  Maybe.  Ok, a little.  Was it that I thought the topic needed a hard sell?  (To recommend a book about death and God at the dinner table  feels like going out on a limb.) I don’t think so though.  The enthusiasm is genuine – this book is fun, fascinating and touching.  A mix of literary history, philosophy and personal reminiscence, it’s hard to put down. And can be a comfort when sorting through loss.


One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry

Of my triumvirate of female humourists  (the other two are Roz Chast and Amy Sedaris), Lynda Barry is my favourite.  Although I’m not sure humourist is the right word.  Lynda Barry is funny, and she often uses humour in her art and writing.  But you are just as likely to be knocked out by the poignancy of her writing and emotive values and textures of her watercoloured collages. Read One! Hundred! Demons! and see if you ever look at cartoons, or head lice, or Ira Glass, the same way again.



What books do you own, coffee stained and worn with age, that continue to light your spirit on fire?  How does a book resonate differently with the presence in your memory of other books, other experiences?  Or can’t you tell because you never stopped reading it, and your relationship evolved slowly, invisible to you, like the lines on your face?