“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.”