Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.
The insight of that analysis is precise and as powerful as a Cruise missile.
Josipovici also summarised my own recent response to Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man:
While great novels deal with complex events beyond the full understanding of both the characters and the reader, too many contemporary works follow traditional plots with neat endings, he said.
Referring to graduates, like McEwan, of the University of East Anglia’s famous creative writing course, Josipovici said: “They all tell stories in a way that is well crafted, but that is almost the most depressing aspect of it — a careful craft which seems to me to be hollow.”
Its all a tad depressing having two favourite authors lowered from their pedestals, but Josipovici describes the process of disillusion with considerable insight. The criticism is timely. I have been pondering what serious novel I can read with any conviction after reading Ulysses. Joyce’s book makes so much that I planned to read paler by reflection.
I am looking forward to reading Josipovici’s forthcoming What Ever Happened to Modernism? [Via]
>There are a few artists capable of consistently constructing powerful short stories: Chekhov, Turgenev, Hemingway; contemporaries include Julian Barnes and Julie Orringer.
My Joycean summer enables me to add another to my list, though in completing Dubliners, I have completed Joyce’s short story collection. The stories in Dubliners stand shoulder to shoulder with Chekhov’s oeuvre. Is there a weak story in the fifteen that make up Dubliners? After the Race perhaps, but it may open up on future readings. My favourite three, this time around, in ascending order would have to be: Araby, The Sisters and The Dead. There is sufficient subtlety and depth in the stories to repay many readings.
Twenty years ago I was fortunate to spend part of my education in Dublin. At that time, the city and, in many ways, the people that Joyce portrayed in Dubliners were recognisable. Given Joyce’s apparent manifesto in Dubliners, to portray the city in all it’s iniquity in order to “lead to the spiritual liberation of the city”, it is arguable whether he would feel sufficient progress has yet been made. But perhaps that edginess is what is required to make great cities.
What then remains, but that we still should cry Not to be born, or being born, to die?
Like Reality Hunger, many of the best bits of David Shields earlier (2008) book are the numerous quotations. This was a whimsical purchase. A day or two after reading Reality Hunger, I spotted The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead on the LRB shelves and decided to continue my reader relationship with David Shields.
I am torn about the book. On several occasions I almost abandoned it, was tempted to throw it away. To be honest, the book which deals in a frank way about birth, ageing, physical and mental decay, death and mortality succeeded in shocking me. It catalysed me to think (however briefly) about how I live, my relationships with my wife and daughter, with friends. This is clearly A Good Thing, what we hope from literature.
The book is distressing, though there are flashes of dark humour. I found David Shields, the narrator, profoundly irritating as he veered between boasting and regretting the passing of his sports-jock days and whining incessantly about his numerous physical and mental complaints.
The writing is clunky, mixing quotations, lists and short essay-like chapters. This theme is covered more intelligently by Julian Barnes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It wasn’t a waste of time but I will not be keeping or rereading the book.
A later chapter consists entirely of Last Words and was the first time I’ve come across this sad but funny one:
Lady Astor, the first woman member of British Parliament, surrounded by her entire family on her deathbed, said, “Am I dying, or is it my birthday?”
I wonder if this could be the reason why Amis’ novels leave me cold, books written by a stranger in a strange land. I have to say the same of Will Self’s novels and those by almost every other big name in current English fiction . . .
That pair aside who would qualify as the ”big names in current English fiction?” Perhaps Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Graham Swift and Jeanette Winterson.
Novels by McEwan (Black Dogs), Barnes, Ishiguro, Smith and Kureishi would bear fair comparison with European contemporaries.
Outside of these novelists there are a handful of reasonably consistent English writers that arguably deserve to be amongst those bigger names:
Julian Barnes’s short story collection The Lemon Table provided a soft beginning for the new reading year.
Any seasoned reader of Barnes will find the themes of mortality and ageing of little surprise. Short stories are not Barnes’s ideal format but the black humour generally substitutes for a lack of depth.
Particularly poignant: Hygiene, the account of Jacko Jackson’s last pilgrimage to whore Babs. The trip to London is the old military officer’s one annual adventure. It happens to be — or is nominally supposed to be — sexual adventure, but it’s as much a rite as anything. His domestic life is settled, satisfying enough but boring; Babs is a reminder of youth and wilder ways — except that she’s aging just as he is.
Like Jacko, characters in other stories also have to face either mortality or loss: death is the harshest reminder, but other changes (such as the mind lost to Alzheimer’s, or dreams that are remembered but that can definitely no longer come true) are similarly devastating.
Second-rate writing is also commonplace in journalism today, whether in online form or in newspapers and magazines. We can hearken back to some golden age where a writer’s virtuosity was the norm. Or we can dip into the variety of information sources available, skimming where finesse is lacking and drinking deeper where our thirst for the sublime is likely to be better quenched. Or, of course, we can abstain from all but the most exalted writing. Perhaps that is a function of maturity.
Birnbaum: The issue of the truth value we assign to fact and fiction is, I think, becoming more interesting and regularly challenged. One of your characters states, “The story of our lives is never autobiography, it’s a novel.”
Barnes: Fiction is the supreme fiction. And everybody’s autobiography is a fiction but not the supreme fiction. I work as a novelist, and I also work as a journalist. And I am very conscious of the essential difference of the two skills. When I write a piece of journalism I want it to be completely understood at first reading as all journalism should be. In order to do that, you, of necessity, elucidate and simplify. And so the world appears more comprehensible. When I metaphorically move to the other part of my desk and write fiction, I am aware that my task is to represent complication and the fullness of the world. And to write the book, while certainly comprehensible and I hope enjoyable on first reading, would leave something in the reader’s mind to invite them back. I do keep this distinction firmly in mind. It’s easy, if you are doing both, for them to coalesce in some ways.
Barnes: You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.
>T’is the season of “best-of-the-year” book suggestions. The majority are worth ignoring. Occasionally a favourite author, in this case Julian Barnes produces a useful recommendation:
Laura Cumming’s A Face to the World (HarperPress) examines the subtleties of the transaction which occurs in the self-portrait: painters painting themselves, pretending to be looking at us, knowing we’ll be looking at them. Richly thoughtful, perceptive and well written, it’s that rare item: an art book where the text is so enthralling that the pictures, however necessary, almost seem like an interruption.
Having last year greatly admired Adam Foulds’s long poem The Broken Word, I uncharitably wondered whether his novel The Quickening Maze (Cape) might allow me to tacitly advise him to stick to verse. Some hope: this story of the Victorian lunatic asylum where the poet John Clare and Tennyson’s brother Septimus were incarcerated is the real thing. It’s not a “poetic novel” either, but a novelistic novel, rich in its understanding and representation of the mad, the sane, and that large overlapping category in between.
Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.
I’ve adapted the meme to London, rather than Kate’s Toronto.
Iain Sinclair – London Orbital
Iain Sinclair – Lights Out for the Territory
Peter Ackroyd – London: The Biography
Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square
Martin Amis – London Fields
Zadie Smith – White Teeth
Robert Louis Stevenson – Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Julian Barnes – Metroland
Ian McEwan – Saturday
Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist
Will Self – Gray Area
Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere
Jules Verne – Around the World in Eighty Days
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventures of Conan Doyle
William Gibson – Pattern Recognition
Is it cheating to include two Iain Sinclair books? It would have been easy to fill half the list with Sinclair’s books. My edition of Lights Out for the Territory, with the enigmatic photography of Marc Atkins, is somewhat reminiscent of Sebald. They share the same psychogeographic territory.
Via Anecdotal Evidence, I enjoyed a 15 minute indulgence in a tweaked literary parlour game: “name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.” No apologies for for an odd mix that I wager has never occupied places in a numbered list:
Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert – Sentimental Education
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
Richard Powers – The Time of Our Singing
Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea
Alberto Manguel – The Library at Night
Søren Kierkegaard – Either/Or
Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time
Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Idiot
Christopher Alexander – A Pattern Language
Roger Deakin – Wildwood
Alan Flusser – Dressing The Man
Julian Barnes – Nothing to Be Frightened Of
J. P. Donleavy – The Ginger Man
These are the first that came to mind. Sixteenth would have been Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. Where is Philip Roth, William Gibson, Robert Heinlein? Of course, ten years ago the list would be different, as it will ten years hence. On reflection I am bemused that Nabokov and Beckett did not make the cut. In a couple more weeks, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain may prove an omission.