BORN: 1946, Leicester, England
Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters (1989)
England, England (1998)
Julian Barnes. Barnes, Julian, photograph. Pierre Verdy / AFP / Getty Images.
Julian Barnes writes clever, humorous novels in which he examines such themes as obsession, self-discovery, and personal suffering. He has been praised for his confident tone, verbal proficiency, and irreverent wit. Barnes attracted wide critical attention with Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), a book that takes as its topic a stuffed parrot supposedly owned by nineteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert. The book masterfully blended fiction, biography, and literary criticism. This blending of genres marks much of Barnes’s work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Knowledge of French and Law Studies. Julian Patrick Barnes was born in Leicester, an industrial city in England’s East Midlands, on January 19, 1946. His parents, Albert Leonard and Kaye Scoltock Barnes, taught French. The family moved to the London suburb of Northwood when Barnes was quite young. He attended the City of London School on a scholarship, commuting on the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground—an experience that inspired Barnes’s first novel, Metroland. He studied languages at Magdalen College, Oxford, taught in France from 1966 to 1967, and received a bachelor of arts degree with honors in 1968. His fondness for France, and especially French novelist Gustave Flaubert, is reflected in his books Flaubert’s Parrot, Cross Channel, and Something to Declare. Back in England, Barnes took a job as editorial assistant at the Oxford English Dictionary. Because he worked mostly with women, he explained in a 1989 interview with Amanda Smith, he was assigned most of the ‘‘rude words and sports words.’’
In 1972 he moved to London, where he studied law and passed his final bar exams. He also became involved in journalism, reviewing novels and then serving as assistant literary editor and television critic of The New Statesman, contributing editor of the New Review (where he published under the name ‘‘Edward Pygge’’), deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times, and television critic for The Observer (London). During this period he also wrote a restaurant column for the Tatler under the pseudonym ‘‘Basil Seal.’’ He left The Observer in 1986 to become a full-time writer and wrote the ‘‘Letter from London’’ column for The New Yorker for five years. Barnes still reviews and comments regularly for such journals as the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. Since 1979 he has been married to Pat Kavanagh, a prominent literary agent. His pseudonym Dan Kavanagh—under which he has written several crime novels—seems to be a tribute to his wife, to whom many of his novels are dedicated.
Thatcherism. Barnes rose to success as a novelist not long after Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister of England in 1979. A conservative leader, Thatcher was known for opposition to both the Soviet Union and powerful trade unions within England, as well as her support of the free market. Thatcher has been criticized for increasing both unemployment and poverty in England during her terms as leader. Some topics with which Thatcher is associated, such as opposition to the European Union and staunch free-market capitalism, play an important part of Barnes’s 1998 satirical novel England, England, in which the most important parts of England are transported or recreated on a small island that becomes its own sovereign nation as the original England falls into decay.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Barnes's famous contemporaries include:
Philip Larkin (1922-1985): English novelist, poet, and jazz critic, named England's ''best loved poet'' and named the country's poet laureate, an honor he declined.
Joyce Carol Oates (1938- ): Novelist, playwright, poet, literary critic, editor, professor, Oates's interdisciplinary approach and impressive output has made her a major figure in the literary world.
Carlos Fuentes (1928- ): Respected Mexican novelist and essayist who has exerted an influence on contemporary Latin American writers and English-language authors alike.
Bernard Pivot (1935- ): French journalist and interviewer, known for his use of an adaptation of a questionnaire originally developed by Marcel Proust.
Works in Literary Context
The Traditions of English Poetry. Barnes’s first novel, Metroland, published in 1981 when Barnes was thirty-five, owes a great deal to the language and traditions of English poetry. The plot centers around a young Englishman, Christopher Lloyd, who visits France during the revolts of 1968 and has a brief affair with a young French woman. The novel immediately demonstrates Barnes’s aptitude as both meticulous stylist and careful recorder of closely observed detail. Its three balanced scenes, which echo Flaubert’s Sentimental Education in many ways, are equally vivid and imaginative. They include the adolescent pranks of clever schoolboys Chris and his friend Toni; Chris’s belated and intelligently unsentimental sexual initiation in Paris; and the suburban idyll of Chris’s subsequent marriage, to which Toni’s rather phony iconoclasm is compared.
Postmodernism. Barnes’s A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters (the allusion is to H. G. Wells’s classic of Edwardian optimism A Short History of the World) confronts history with postmodern theories of representation to produce the most successful of his novels so far. Its ten chapters describe a succession of critical moments from our culture and history where nothing less is at stake than human survival itself. Simultaneously playful and serious, yet packed with suggestive detail, the book presents a world that is imagined through the postmodern concept of ‘Tabulation,’’ one in which everything is subtly related to everything else by metaphor and analogy rather than by causal succession, a world only comprehensible in terms of the ‘‘primal metaphor’’ of sea voyage and survival. Its lush parenthetical celebration of love—the half chapter at the core of the novel—links English poetry and postmodernism, since, to return to Larkin’s ‘‘almost’’ truth: ‘‘what will survive of us is love.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Flaubert's Parrot centers around an academic's energetic quest for information that the typical person might find insignificant. The book examines the relationship between such a researcher and his or her subject. Other books that focus on academic quests and the researchers who pursue them include:
Pnin (1957), a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. A Russian-born professor at a New England college tries gamely to preserve some small happiness and pursue his interests in this masterful work by Nabokov.
Possession (1990), a novel by A. S. Byatt. Like Barnes, Byatt blends genres in this work about two researchers pursuing information about the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets.
Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005) a novel by John Crowley. This work is about the discovery of a lost novel by famed British poet Lord Byron.
Works in Critical Context
The much-quoted glowing tribute paid to Julian Barnes by Carlos Fuentes has given him the reputation—by no means entirely undeserved—of being the most literary, the most intellectual, and above all, the most international of British contemporary novelists. Barnes’s fluency receives frequent acclaim, and indeed, this prolific writer’s most successful literary experiments can be most closely compared to his Italian, French, and South American contemporaries.
‘‘Julian Barnes,’’ wrote Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Merritt Moseley, ‘‘is one of the most celebrated, and one of the most variously rewarding, of Britain’s younger novelists.’’ His work, the critic continued, ‘‘has been acclaimed by readers as different as Carlos Fuentes and Philip Larkin; reviewers and interviewers sum him up with praise such as Mark Lawson’s claim that he ‘writes like the teacher of your dreams: jokey, metaphorical across both popular and unpopular culture, epigrammatic.’’’ In addition to novels such as Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters, and The Porcupine, Barnes has also won a reputation as an essayist and writer of innovative detective fiction. ‘‘Since 1990,’’ Moseley concluded, ‘‘he has been the London correspondent of the New Yorker magazine, contributing ‘Letters from London’ every few months on subjects such as the royal family and the quirkier side of British politics.’’ Barnes was also one of many writers—among them Stephen King and Annie Proulx—invited to read from their works at the first-ever New Yorker Festival in 2000.
Barnes’s detective fiction also looks at times and characters for whom life has gotten out of control. The title character of Duffy is a bisexual former policeman who was blackmailed out of his job. ‘‘The thrillers are active, louche, violent, thoroughly plotted,’’ stated Moseley. ‘‘Duffy shows the result of serious research into the seamy world of London’s sex industry; in Duffy, as in its successors, the crime tends to be theft or fraud rather than murder, though Barnes successfully imbues the book with a feeling of menace.’’
Flaubert’s Parrot. It was with the publication of Flaubert’s Parrot, however, that Barnes scored his greatest success to date. In the book, amateur Flaubert expert Geoffrey Braithwaite muses on his subject’s life, and his own, as he tracks a stuffed parrot that once inspired the famous author. Barnes ‘‘uses Braithwaite’s investigations to reflect on the ambiguous truths of biography, the relationship of art and life, the impact of death, the consolations of literature,’’ explained Michael Dirda in the Washington Post Book World.
Far from a straightforward narrative, Flaubert’s Parrot blends fiction, literary criticism, and biography in a manner strongly reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, according to many critics. Newsweek reviewer Gene Lyons called it ‘‘too involuted by half for readers accustomed to grazing contentedly in the best-seller list,’’ but recommended it to readers ‘‘of immoderate literary passions.’’ Other reviewers stressed that, although it is a complex and intellectual work, Flaubert’s Parrot is also ‘‘endlessly fascinating and very funny,’’ in the words of London Times contributor Annabel Edwards. Dirda concluded that this ‘‘delicious potpourri of quotations, legends, facts, fantasies, and interpretations of Flaubert and his work... might seem dry, but Barnes’ style and Braithwaite’s autumnal wisdom make the novel into a kind of Stoic comedy. ... Anyone who reads Flaubert’s Parrot will learn a good deal about Flaubert, the making of fiction, and the complex tangle of art and life. And—not least important—have a lot of rather peculiar fun too.’’
Some reviewers and literary journalists suspected Flaubert’s Parrot of not being a novel at all. One line of argument was summed up by David Sexton in the Sunday Telegraph (June 11, 1989): ‘‘Barnes writes books which look like novels and get shelved as novels but which, when you open them up, are something else altogether. Flaubert’s Parrot was for the most part a set of studies of Flaubert and his parrot.’’ A burlesque by Eric Metaxas, titled ‘‘That PostModernism,’’ pretended to describe ‘‘Flaubert’s Panda,’’ by ‘‘Boolean Jarnes,’’ as ‘‘part biography, part literary criticism, part fire hydrant, and part decayed wolf’s pelt—in short, the post-modernist novel at its best.’’ Defending his claim that the book is, indeed, a novel, Barnes is quoted by Sexton as invoking the more experimental Continental novelists and showing that his work fits the definition of the genre: ‘‘It’s an extended piece of prose, largely fictional, which is planned and executed as a whole piece.’’
A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters. Of Barnes’s more recent works, A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters and The Porcupine are probably best known to U.S. readers. A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters ‘‘builds on Barnes’ reputation as one of Britain's premier postmodernists,'' stated Village Voice Literary Supplement contributor Rob Nixon. ‘‘The anti-novel that emerges attempts to double as a novel of ideas—never Brit lit’s forte. ... The principal concern of the novel, which begins with corruption on the Ark and ends in the tedium of heaven (pretty much like life with lots of shopping), is to debunk religion and that most seductive of theologies, History.’’ Barnes conceives of history in the book as a series of different, mostly unrelated events, and the connections individuals invent to link them together. ‘‘One of Barnes’s characters rather improbably describes her supposed mental condition— imagining that she has survived a nuclear disaster, which, as it turns out, she has—as Tabulation. You keep a few true facts and spin a new story about them,''' declared Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books. ‘‘This is what Barnes himself, in this book, attempts. He fabulates this and that, stitches the fabulations together, and then he and we quite properly call the product a novel.’’ ‘‘As a ‘historian,’’’ stated Anthony Quinn in the New Statesman and Society, ‘‘he is unlikely to dislodge [Edward] Gibbon or [T. B.] Macaulay; but as satirist and story-teller he has few equals at present.''
Responses to Literature
1. In his short story ‘‘Melon,’’ Barnes hints at an affair between the duke of Dorset and the queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Read a biography of Marie Antoinette and write an explanation that either takes the position that her reputation has been slandered or that the story captures the sort of person she actually was.
2. Barnes has often been called a ‘‘postmodernist’’ writer. Research the term postmodernism and discuss what qualities Barnes's writing possesses that would place him in that category. Who are some other contemporary postmodernist writers, and how do their styles compare to Barnes?
3. Julian Barnes wrote his ‘‘Duffy’’ detective novels under the pen name of Dan Kavanagh. Other established writers have also used pen names to write certain stories. Why do you think this is? Research some famous authors who have used pen names and the reasons behind their choice to do so. If you had a pen name, what would it be?
4. Flaubert’s Parrot has been accused by some critics of not actually being a novel. Discuss what you think the essential aspects of a novel are, and how much you can take away from a novel before it ceases to be one—for example, does a novel have to be fiction?
5. Barnes has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times, for Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur & George. Why is this award considered such a high literary honor? Research the history of the Booker Prize, past winners, and the qualifications to win the award.
‘‘Barnes, Julian (Patrick) (1946- ).’’ DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 194: British Novelists Since 1960, Second Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
Hunns, Derek J. Bulgakov’s Apocalyptic Critique of Literature, Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1996.
‘‘Julian (Patrick) Barnes.’’ Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed. St. James Press, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
Moseley, Merritt. Understanding Julian Barnes, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Sesto, Bruce. Language, History, and Metanarrative in the Fiction of Julian Barnes, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.
Short Stories for Students, vol. 24. Ira Mark Milne, ed. Detroit: Gale, 2007.