‘A man of heart, goodness and sensitivity’

Julian Barnes, Through the Window: Seventeen essays (and one short story)

Vintage, 256pp, £10.99, ISBN 9780099578581

reviewed by Alexis Forss

Julian Barnes may bristle at the attempt at maxim-coining, as he does at those of Connolly, Wilde, and La Rochefoucauld, but the attempt shall be made nonetheless: an author finding himself in possession of the Booker Prize shall also find himself in possession of a soapbox. That this soapbox may be experienced as more of a station of the cross than a venerated pulpit is borne out by the recent example of double-winner Hilary Mantel, whose comments on the Duchess of Cambridge were subtle and ironic enough to be doomed ipso facto to the ensuing maelstrom of philistinic animadversion. Take this as typifying the status of intellectual life in our country and contrast it with this anecdote, superbly rendered by Barnes, from the 1894 trial of art critic and ‘committed anarchist, by both word and deed’, Félix Fénéon:

Part of the evidence against him was that a police search of his office had turned up a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing eleven detonators. Fénéon added to the history of implausible excuses by claiming that his father, who had recently died and was unable to corroborate his evidence, had found them in the street ... When the presiding judge put it to him that he had been spotted talking to a known anarchist behind a gas lamp, he replied coolly, 'Can you tell me, Monsieur le Président, which side of a gas lamp is its behind?' This being France, wit did him no disservice with the jury, and he was acquitted. The following year, Wilde was to discover the downside of courtroom wit.

This is but one of several instances in which Barnes’ vaunted Francophilia is its own justification. Numerous such vignettes and anecdotes are to be found throughout the 17 essays which make up Through the Window, a collection of reviews and occasional pieces spanning 1996 through to 2012. The canniness with which these are employed attest to his gifts as a novelist: where in novels like Flaubert’s Parrot (Jonathan Cape, 1984) the erudition was deployed in the service of the exposition of theme and character, throughout these essays his skill at vividly rendering personality and mounting a scene serve the purpose to which he has put his post-Booker soapbox (earned for 2011’s The Sense of an Ending). The present enterprise in assembling these diverse pieces between two covers is made continually apparent by Barnes’ displaying of the Updikean virtue of thorough but not excessive quotation. Indeed, one such quotation, from the poet Henri de Régnier on the aforementioned Fénéon, can be appropriated to describe the author of these pieces: ‘a man of heart, goodness and sensitivity, belonging wholly to the world of the eccentric, the disfavoured, the down-and-out.’

Bathos notwithstanding, Barnes is most eagerly alive and galvanised with purpose when expounding on the forgotten and neglected. Fénéon is a case-in-point: even those familiar with him as the ardent promoter of Georges Seurat and the coiner of the term ‘neo-Impressionism’ could hardly be braced for Barnes’ review of Novels in Three Lines, the collection of 1,220 three-line fillers composed by Fénéon over the course of several months for the newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Barnes does Fénéon the courtesy of providing choice examples of his innovation in so limited a format (‘A policeman, Maurice Marullas, has blown out his brains. Let’s save the name of this honest man from being forgotten’) whilst defending him from the over-pleading of his compiler and translator, Luc Sante. Barnes convinces us that the interest in these micro-narratives lies in their elegant variation, ironical euphemism, and dandiacal detachment; Sante’s claims for their proto-Surrealism and kinship with Futurism are dismissed as ‘daft windbaggery’, and one is inclined to agree. A similar proselytizing instinct courses through his essay on Prosper Merimée (‘mainly remembered as the author of the novella from which Carmen was drawn’), which earns its near-hyperbolic title ‘The Man Who Saved Old France’. Merimée, as I had no idea before reading this essay, salvaged France’s monumental and architectural patrimony from a state of near-collapse while Inspector General of Historic Monuments from 1834 to 1860. What makes this particular piece so thrilling is its account of how ‘a young man who had put everything into trying to write like Voltaire and dress like Beau Brummell became the most diligent of bureaucrats and the most zealous of archaeologists’ and how Barnes makes a life dedicated to administration and public service seem not only admirable, but even heroic. ‘Modern tourists ... should pause and give thanks to the man without whom one French town after another might have ended up looking like Carpentras.’

Ernest Hemingway is dealt with by way of the one short story included: ‘Homage to Hemingway’. Named and structured after Hemingway’s ‘Homage to Switzerland’ and originally published in The New Yorker in 2011 it is, alas, the least convincing of the entries. I am not familiar with the Hemingway short story from which Barnes’ piece derives its tripartite structure, but one assumes it isn’t encumbered by the pleading, repetitiousness, and paucity of narrative and development which encumber the work under consideration. It ultimately falls into the sink-hole which Barnes commends Updike’s short fiction for circumventing: the offering of little more than ‘just the technicality of fast-forward and rewind, freeze-frame and wide shot.’ Coming from the author of the short stories gathered in 1996’s Cross Channel, it is a disappointment; and the protagonist wants for Geoffrey Braithwaite’s dynamism of insight, so abundantly on display throughout Flaubert’s Parrot. Given the author’s proven ability to have sustained our interest in a dilettante’s ruminations on Flaubert over the course of a full novel, the failure of this meditation on Hemingway is the more perplexing. Perhaps the trick lies in not being caught doing it.

Fortunately, familiarity does not breed resentment throughout: interest in the subject is sustained across a triptych of essays on Ford Madox Ford – a charming narrative of Ford’s love of Provence flanked by appreciative glosses on The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. That dedicating 40 pages to the man doesn’t feel surplus to requirements attests to Barnes’ genuine fascination by and compassion for the writer whose obscurity was described by Hugh Walpole the greatest literary neglect in England. Barnes has clearly found a fellow traveller and Francophile in Ford: it is plain to see the attraction that Ford – who ‘had a great contempt for fact and a countervailing belief in the ‘absolute accuracy’ of impressions’ – would hold for the author of The Sense of an Ending, a novel in which memory is characterised by what emerges a distinctly Fordian tenor. I cite another of Barnes’ à propos quotations: ‘Faced with Ford’s multitudinous fabrications, his biographer Max Saunders rightly concludes that it is a question of “asking less whether what Ford means is true, and more what it means”.’ This same attitude of empathetic scepticism is applied to George Orwell, whose national treasure status and dogmatism are given the due that they themselves invite before Barnes ends by affirming them. Why? ‘Because he’s Orwell [and] sometimes the naive reaction is the correct one.’ Poignant salutes to Penelope Fitzgerald and John Updike might deservedly win new readers for the authors; and a piece on Michel Houellebecq’s Platform, his third novel and follow-up to the notorious Atomised, finds a rare but welcome tone of admonition as Barnes summarises the novel’s failure:

Fictional insolence is a high-risk venture: it must, as
Atomised did, take you by the ear and brain and frog-march you, convince you with the force of its rhetoric and the rigour of its despair. It should allow no time for reactions like, Hang on, that’s not true; or, Surely people aren’t that bad; or, even, Actually, I’d like to think this one over. Platform, fuelled more by opinions and riffs and moments of provocation than by thorough narrative, allows such questions to enter the reader’s head far too often.

There is also, needless to say, a piece on Barnes’ beloved Gustave Flaubert. His long and fruitful relationship with the French language and its literature has clearly refined his perceptions. As he weighs the relative virtues of no less than six different translations of Madame Bovary (‘If you want a freer translation, Steegmuller is best; for a tighter one, go to Wall,’ in case you were wondering), one is impressed by the depth of his knowledge, the breadth of which has already been abundantly displayed throughout the rest of the pieces. The tone here is one of easygoing authority: we’re told that Lydia Davis’s translation, for example, ‘works best when the Flaubertian sentence is pain and declaratory, and we’re inclined to believe him; he later upbraids Davis for ‘a clunkiness which is imported, rather than faithfully transmitted, and quite un-Flaubertian,’ and it’s clear that Barnes, to quote Daniel Dennett, likes nothing less than a bad argument for a view that he holds dear. The articulation of those views, on figures both familiar and previously unknown, is the source of much pleasure and illumination in this elegantly produced volume.