The truth about fiction

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story), by Julian Barnes, Vintage, RRP£10.99, 256 pages

I’ve always felt that more can be told about an author from his non-fiction than his fiction. His tastes, proclivities – the general drift of his mind – will be on display in ways that they are not in novels, where everything is muffled by plot requirements, character development, and the rest of it.

So Kingsley Amis reveals himself as a womanising alcoholic in his books and essays on drink and James Bond. Graham Greene’s attitudes to sin and death are on display in his film reviews, though he overstepped the mark with Shirley Temple and received a libel writ. Iris Murdoch wrote critiques of philosophy, and Anthony Burgess published textbooks about abstruse languages and alphabets.

Coming nearer to the modern era: AS Byatt’s non-fiction is fuddy-duddy and academic – fair warning for her bluestocking novels. Paul Bailey has composed memoirs of homosexuals – Three Queer Lives (2001) – and edited a volume about Quentin Crisp. Martin Amis persists in showing off his arrested adolescence. As for Julian Barnes, the clue is to be found in his appreciation of Penelope Fitzgerald.

Barnes shared a train journey with Fitzgerald, a seemingly unworldly woman who “used tea bags to dye her hair”, and found himself delighting in her “clear moral sense” and in her way of registering “a sharp dismissal of those she found wanting”. Through the Window, Barnes’s blissfully intelligent gathering of literary essays, exhibits similar astringent virtues – though I can’t go as far as to verify whether Barnes’s golden locks have benefited from a dab of Earl Gray as I have never met the fellow in the flesh.

As in his novels, there is a mood of deceptive mildness – the tone of Barnes’s prose is always muted, cagey, crafty, close – and then suddenly, almost without our noticing it, a person is put very firmly in their place. He mistrusts flamboyance and refuses to be bamboozled, for example, by the epigrams of Oscar Wilde or Cyril Connolly, which are “just a look-at-me piece of verbal prestidigitation”.

I particularly relished the way the hitherto unimpeachable Orwell is dismantled with remarkably little fuss. Orwell didn’t shoot an elephant, didn’t attend a hanging, and his documentary pieces are full of rhetorical tricks and a pompous laying down of the law. Eric Blair, the man behind the mask, was an Old Etonian after all. And not only that, he was “a disgrace to Eton College”.

Barnes is eagle-eyed when it comes to spotting sleight-of-hand. But he isn’t always puritanical and disapproving, making a steeple of his fingers and giving a sharp intake of breath. He loves displaying his knowledge of the technicalities of being a writer, of what’s going on (so to speak) under the bonnet, with the spark plugs and battery cables. He discusses Arthur Hugh Clough’s use of italics, Penelope Fitzgerald’s placing of the word “the”, and compares and contrasts six different versions of Madame Bovary, seeing it as a matter of life and death whether “son canif” is translated as “his penknife” or as “his little knife”.

France, indeed, “indulgent, fantastical, credulous”, looms large in Barnes’s mind – no wonder the French government has awarded him many prizes and medals. Barnes knows his Chamfort, Mérimée and Houellebecq (“very French”), and he has spent hours with the yellow Michelin map unfolded on his lap. The author of the The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003) rhapsodises about the “aubergines, garlic, peppers” of Provence, and there is a fascinating chapter about Kipling touring the République, making notes on the roads and the hotels, like “a RAC inspector of toilets and letter boxes”. Kipling was “always happy in France”, and once made a long detour to sample pigs’ trotters.

Then the skies darken. Kipling is on holiday no longer. His son is killed at Loos and France becomes a place for “ceaseless, detailed work for the War Graves Commission”. In Through the Window, too, the themes become bleak. There is a description of John Updike’s death and how the last stories were about biopsies and CAT scans. Barnes is grimly amused by the intimation behind the medical phrase “pre-cancerous”, because if you think about it the term embraces the young and the healthy too.

Barnes then discusses Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about bereavement – the great emotion, madness and lacerating pain of losing a spouse, and what it is like suddenly to have all this leftover time when the “settled course of sentiment and action is stopped”.

This book is dedicated “To Pat” – Pat Kavanagh, Mrs Barnes, who died in 2008 from a brain tumour. Read between the lines, Barnes’ civilised collection is a portrait of a marriage, intimate and confiding. The long trips to France, meals eaten, books enjoyed, particularly Ford Madox Ford. If Barnes was not one for “the hysterical clamouring of gangs and groups”, ie literary London and high bohemia, it was because he was happy and content and fulfilled at home.

I hope he’ll not object to my laughing out loud at the stages of grief he implies he has undergone: “anger, denial, bargaining, Häagen-Dazs, rage.”

Roger Lewis is author of ‘What am I Still Doing Here?’ (Coronet)

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