Saturday, April 13, 2013

Through the Window, by Julian Barnes

Subtitled 'Seventeen Essays and a Short Story', Through the Window reminded me both how much I love a well-crafted essay, and how deeply I admire Julian Barnes.  In these reflections on books and authors, Barnes introduced me to writers I've not yet read and illuminated aspects of books that I have read, but regrettably with less care and thought than he gave them.

In the book's opening essay, 'The Deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald', Barnes lauds an author I know only by name and moves her up several notches on my to-be-read list.
"On the whole," she told her American editor in 1987, "I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken." Fitzgerald is tender towards her characters and their worlds, unpredictably funny, and at times surprisingly aphoristic; though it is characteristic of her that such moments of wisdom appear not author-generated, but arising in the text organically, like moss or coral. Her fictional personnel are rarely vicious or deliberately evil; when things go wrong for them, or when they inflict harm on others, it is usually out of misplaced understanding, a lack less of sympathy than of imagination. The main problem is that they cannot see the terms and conditions which come attached to life: moral grace and social incompetence are often in close proximity.
I adore authors who can take an ostensibly 'ordinary' character and, without crime sprees or plane crashes, expose the drama in his everyday life, whether internal or external. Great fiction needn't be thrilling. Quirky will do quite nicely, just as in life.
One of our better-known novelists once described the experience of reading a Fitzgerald novel as riding along in a top-quality car, only to find that after a mile or so, "someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window".  
Barnes penned three essays on Ford Madox Ford and his books.  Ford is another author whom I haven't yet read.  I 'met' him in the semi-autobiographical novels of Jean Rhys -- she'd carried on an alternately torrid and sordid and disastrous affair with Ford, husband of her best friend. His character in her books is, not surprisingly, a boor.  He comes across a wee bit better in Barnes' essays, which focus instead on Ford's love affair with southern France.
"There are in this world only two earthly Paradises ... Provence... and the Reading Room of the British Museum." Provence was not only itself, but also the absence of the North, where most human vices accumulated. The North meant aggression, the Gothic, the "sadistically mad cruelties of the Northern Middle Ages" and the "Northern tortures of ennui and indigestion". Ford was a great believer in diet and digestion as controllers of human behaviour...
...South good, North bad: Ford was convinced that no one could be "completely whole either physically or mentally" without "a reasonable amount of garlic" in their diet, and equally obsessed with the malign effect of Brussels sprouts, an item of particular northern mischief. Provence was a place of good thoughts and moral actions, "for there the apple will not flourish and the Brussels sprout will not grow at all". The North was also full of excessive meat-eating, which caused not just indigestion but lunacy: "Any alienist will tell you that the first thing he does with a homicidal maniac after he gets him into an asylum is to deliver, with immense purges, his stomach from bull-beef and Brussels sprouts."
Ford sincerely embraced this philosophy, the values embedded in Provençal life. He saw himself not as a geographical writer, but as a prophet, and Barnes shares this lofty vision.
The old advice about cultivating one's garden was always moral as well as practical; nor was it a counsel of quietism. As human beings recklessly use up the world's resources and despoil the planet, as the follies of globalisation become more apparent, as we head towards what could be the biggest smash of all, the wisdom and the way of living that Ford Madox Ford -- literature's good soldier -- found in Provence are perhaps even more worth attending to.
In the essay 'France's Kipling', Barnes points out that the British author is usually associated with India and Burma, but he also had a cordial relationship with France at a time when the two chronically antagonistic nations were in a relatively civil state. This description of one squabble between them seems quaintly polite, supremely Kiplingesque.
The Fashoda Incident had recently brought the two powers to the edge of intercolonial war. To the British, Fashoda was and remains just a strange place name at or beyond the margins of memory; to the French, an event hugely magnified by propaganda and lost pride. In July 1898, eight French and 120 Senegalese soldiers arrived at a ruined fort on the Sudanese Upper Nile, having spent two years crossing the continent to get there (Frenchly, they set off equipped with 1,300 litres of claret, 50 bottles of Pernod and a mechanical piano). They raised the tricolore and planted a garden. Their main purpose was to annoy the British, and they did, a little: Kitchener turned up with a sizeable force and advised them to leave. He also gave them copies of French newspapers, in which they read of the Dreyfus case and wept. The two sides fraternised, the matter was handed over to the politicians, and six months later a British band played the Marseillaise as the French withdrew. No one was hurt, let alone killed.
The essay 'Translating Madame Bovary' is one of the most thought-provoking pieces on the topic of literary translations that I've yet read. If you think writing a book is a monumental task, Barnes suggests, try translating one.
John Rutherford's magisterial version of Leopoldo Alas's La Regenta -- a kind of Spanish Bovary -- used up, according to his calculation, five times as much of his life as it had of the original author's. "Translation is a strange business," he noted in his introduction, "which sensible people no doubt avoid."
Lydia Davis, one of the Bovary translators, defended her occasionally awkward English phrasing on the grounds that it was the more precise translation. Barnes takes exception to this, seeming to suggest that some precision can be sacrificed to retain the lyrical flow of the French prose.
This is the paradox and bind of translation. If to be 'faithful' is to be 'clunky', then it is also to be unfaithful, because Flaubert was not a 'clunky' writer. He moves between registers; he cuts into the lyric with the prosaic; but this is language whose every sentence, word, syllable has been tested aloud again and again. Flaubert said that a line of prose should be as rhythmical, sonorous and unchangeable as a line of poetry. He said that he aimed only at beauty, and wrote Madame Bovary because he hated realism (an exasperated, self-deluding claim, but still). He said that prose is like hair: it shines with combing. He combed all the time.
Translators of contemporary fiction have it easier in that they can confer with the authors to clarify certain intentions and nuances, but there is still no shortage of stumbling blocks.
Nowadays, at least, books are generally translated with less of a time lag (La Regenta was first published in 1884-5, and not rendered into English until 1984). Translators can quiz writers about what they mean, by email, or even in person: Don Delillo had a London conference for his European translators of Underworld, whose problems began as the novel does: with a sixty-page baseball game.
I was thrilled to arrive at the essay, 'Wharton's The Reef'.  I wish I had written it, rather than this comparatively fatuous commentary. Barnes identifies the novels key themes and tags them with key words:  natural, veil, life, house, luck, reef and silence.  Under the heading of 'natural', Barnes discusses the qualities of nature vs. society. This is classic Edith Wharton territory.
Her initial and prime effect is to show up the world of Darrow and Anna in all its evasive formality; it makes him reflect on "the deadening process of forming a 'lady'" in good society. Travelling to Paris on the train with Sophy, Darrow indicates the term which is the novel's polar opposite to "naturalness". Had he been in the same compartment and circumstances with Anna, he decides, she would not have been so restless and talkative; she would have behaved "better" than Sophy, "but her adaptability, her appropriateness, would not have been nature but 'tact'". Sophy strikes him as having the naturalness of "a dryad in a dew-drenched forest"; but -- regrettably, or fortunately -- we no longer live in forests, and "Darrow reflected that mankind would never have needed to invent tact if it had not first invented social complications".
Somehow I've managed to read quite a number of John Updike's books dodging the three Rabbit novels the whole time.  (This is by chance, not intent.)  Barnes' essay 'Remembering John Updike, Remembering Rabbit' was a prod to remedy this gap. If Updike's skill can drive Philip Roth to quit writing, he can certainly dissuade me from even trying!
Philip Roth, with memorably mock-aggrieved generosity, said of Rabbit is Rich: "Updike knows so much, about golf, about porn, about kids, about America. I don't know anything about anything. His hero is a Toyota salesman. Updike knows everything about being a Toyota salesman. Here I live in the country and I don't even know the names of the trees. I'm going to give up writing."
It takes more, though, than attention to the details of car salesmanship to build a classic novel. There has to be access to deeper truths. Updike is one of few authors who can merge the ridiculous with the sublime to powerful effect.
And after death? Harry's intimations, not of immortality, but of the numinous, show up more clearly on rereading. Updike said that he couldn't quite give up on religion, because without the possibility or dream of something beyond and above, our terrestrial life became unendurable.
The final essay in Through the Window is the most visceral, the most personal.  "Regulating Sorrow" is the prelude to Mr. Barnes' latest book, Levels of Life, his account of life following the death of his wife. A review in the Guardian suggests that Levels of Life is a book to re-read, re-read and re-read, and that is true of the essay, as well. Like Updike, Barnes veers between philosophy and the excruciatingly immediate and personal manifestations of grief. I have often thought about the distance at which many of us hold death, almost as if it might be an optional event.
Unless we have a religious belief which envisages the total resurrection of the body, we know that we shall never see the lost loved again on terrestrial terms: never see, never talk and listen to, never touch, never hold. In the quarter of a millennium since Johnson described the unparalleled pain of grief, we -- we in the secularising West, at least -- have got less good at dealing with death, and therefore with its emotional consequences...
Of course, at one level we know that we all shall die; but death has come to be looked upon more as a medical failure than a human norm. It increasingly happens away from the home, in hospital, and is handled by a series of outside specialists -- a matter for the professionals.
Barnes, alongside Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, both fine authors who have recently published accounts of grief, remarks that it is difficult, if not impossible, to critique these books. The writing style may show flaws, but they merely reflect the nature of the subject he says.
In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are un-falsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria. The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief.
'Regulating Sorrow' is not obsessive, repetitive nor incoherent. Like the other essays, it is astute and moving, worthy of multiple re-readings.

Through the Window added books and authors to my to-be-read list -- Penelope Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Updike's Rabbit novels -- but also fired my appetite for more of Julian Barnes' own writing, including Flaubert's Parrot, Before She Met Me, Staring at the Sun, Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, Etc., and Nothing to Be Frightened Of. This isn't his complete list, of course, just the ones I'm most keen to read. I should keep a hand-written list. It would be fill a notebook of Moby Dick proportions and would be a good reminder to me that I should not waste time when I could be reading.


  1. I love Julian Barnes' satirical writing style. "England, England" was brill. This collection of essays sounds like something I would love to read once I am done with my postgrad studies.

    1. Oh, terrific. Now I'll have to add 'England, England' to my list. Life is too short!


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