|Wednesday 13 December, 2000
Julian Barnes: The Truthful Liar
The British novelist Julian Barnes presents an intriguing paradox. He is an elegant and witty wordsmith, who has won awards, not only in Britain, but also in America and France, for his literary fiction that is alive with word games, intricate jokes and references.
But however entertaining the style in Barnes work, the subject matter is surprisingly dark. In titles such as Before She Met Me, A History of the World In 10 1/2 Chapters and Flaubert's Parrot, Barnes is preoccupied with obsessive love.
In Meridian Writing Barnes talks about his latest novel Love Etc and explains what draws him to write about relationships and the darker side of love.
The truthful liar
Through fiction Julian Barnes has mastered the art of being a truthful liar. By combining observations on the nature of obsessive behaviour and love, with fictional characters and settings, Barnes succeeds where so many fail in creating a made up world that rings true.
It is a talent that the writer is well aware of. Speaking earlier this year, Barnes commented:
'Fiction is telling the truth by telling lies, as opposed to telling less of the truth by telling facts... When you read the great and beautiful liars of fiction you feel that this is what life is. This is true, even though it is all made up'.
A career in words
By 1996 Barnes had already sold his millionth paperback in Britain and has continued to be celebrated by fellow novelists and journalists alike. Indeed Carlos Fuentes once praised Barnes's work for being 'at the forefront of a new internationalisation of British fiction'.
Whilst his literary skills may now be recognised, Barnes was not always so confident of his talent. He grew up in the suburbs of West London, with his French teaching parents and brother Jonathan. Whilst his parents encouraged him to do well , it was never specified in what area he was to achieve in. And when a young Julian Barnes won a scholarship to Oxford University his mother was not surprised at her sons success as Barnes has recalled,
'I got home from school and a letter was waiting for me. I opened it and said, "I got a scholarship". My mother said, "Yes I thought it was that".It was a classic dampening down. Now let's not get too excited.'
After studying languages at Oxford University, Barnes spent a brief spell teaching in Brittany , before embarking on a career as a lexicographer. During a spell at the Oxford English Dictionary he has claimed to have worked in 'the sports and dirty word section'.
The only person who had ever had anything published in the Barnes family at this point was his mother, who had written a letter to a London newspaper. Barnes himself felt drawn to writing, but never believed that it could be a serious career option.
After Oxford he returned to London to study law and three years later, having completed his bar examinations, Barnes decided that the court room was not for him and began to explore the world of literary journalism. Whilst writing TV, book and restaurant reviews for the newspapers, Barnes embarked on his first novel, Metroland.
The story drew on the author's personal experience of living in the suburbs, contrasted with life in 1960s Paris. Following its publication in 1980 it won the Somerset Maugham literary prize and Barnes career as a novelist made slow, but steady, progress.
It had taken nine years from the start of Metroland to its publication, a time that Barnes himself recognised was too slow for such a short book. Of the delay he has commented:
'It was mainly caused by lack of confidence: Why should anybody be interested in anything I had to write? What did I know of the world? In that regard journalism was a help - you wrote a piece, someone read it and they published it. If you don¹t believe you have a right to be a novelist at 25 then anything that helps, helps.'
Two years later and Barnes released his second novel entitled Before She Met Me. Another two years and Flaubert's Parrot was released. Each title deals with a different form of obsession, the first a mans obsession with his lovers life before they had met, the second an obsession with literature.
Barnes is a strong believer that most people are obsessive about something, with love being no exception:
|'Love is obsessive', he explains, 'I don't get the idea of "I was a little in love with her", you either love or you don't.' |
Having written on numerous subjects including history and art, Barnes himself has exposed his own obsession of writing about love. He is drawn to the subject of love time and time again because, of the emotion's central role in life. He explains:
'I write about other things as well, but it seems to me that this is the big subject. For most people, though we like to read about voyages up the Amazon and terrible fights with bears in Alaska, the most difficult and dangerous voyage that we actually take is the voyage up the Amazon of love and its various tributary relationships. '
Love courses through the veins of Barnes¹s characters in his latest novel. Love Etc continues the story, which began in Talking It Over, of the love triangle between Oliver, Stuart and Gillian. In a departure from previous works, he breaks his own rule that novels should never have a sequel.
Written as a series of dramatic monologues each character takes their turn to whisper to the reader their version of the truth. In the absence of a narrator the reader is as close to the characters as possible and invited to make up their own minds about what is true or false.
By opening up old wounds and new plots, in Love Etc, Barnes revisits his own fixations once again. He explains:
'It is a book about the relativism of truth , as well as the obsessiveness of love ... I think I am being true to life as I see it by writing so much about obsession.'
| Further reading:
Before She Met Me, 1982;
Staring At The Sun, 1986;
A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters, 1989;
Talking It Over, 1991;
The Porcupine, 1992;
England, England, 1998;
Love Etc, 2000.
Published by Jonathan Cape.
In addition to writing under his own name, Julian Barnes has written four thrillers under the name of Dan Kavanagh.