Sometimes a high quality experience crops up unexpectedly to enhance my life. One afternoon last week, when I was wasting time or so I thought on Facebook, up popped an advert. Julian Barnes would be in conversation with Hermione Lee, starting in four hours.
(Lucky me, to live in London and be free at short notice, with £11.50 to spare for a ticket plus the fare into Piccadilly. This is the sort of event many writers and would be writers are not able to attend. See Kit de Waal on the subject, here.)
I’ve always admired Julian Barnes’ writing. It was inspiring to see him in the flesh. Tall, spare, sardonic, dignified. He can do a lot with one raised eyebrow or a glance along his nose (not down his nose, I think). The hour began with Barnes reading from The Only Story, published on 1st February. (A similar reading is available here.) I’d read the first pages before the talk, and if I’m honest been underwhelmed by comparison with the opening to his last book, The Noise of Time. Now here were the necessary cadences to bring the prose alive, a helpful oral guide to approaching the text.
I’ve not been to many such events. I once saw Fay Weldon taking questions after a play at the Rosemary Branch in Islington. She was rumbustious, hearty and undeterred by whatever was thrown at her but I remember little of what she said.Then, not long before she died, I saw Doris Lessing take sole command of the wide National Theatre stage, unexpectedly elegiac and mild, reflecting with conviction and humour on a life interestingly lived. The Barnes event was more elegant, in the pretty little lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. It seemed more scripted, fittingly for Barnes who famously considers his choice of words so carefully and takes Flaubert as a model. There were no questions. Professor Hermione Lee has worked extensively with Barnes before. Even so, some of the observations she made took bravery, as this patrician man makes it clear when he doesn’t agree. His joke about a young man who for some reason had to walk out mid talk caused laughter that must have rung loud in the embarrassed departing ears.
The Only Story is about love going right and love going wrong. The epigraph is Dr Johnson’s definition in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. “A novel: a small tale, normally of love.” The beginning poses the question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less?” As Barnes said “The first love becomes a template for all subsequent loves – either as what not to do, or as an ideal.”
Barnes spoke of memory, age, time, and autobiography in his fiction. Memory becomes less reliable as you age, more dependent on the imagination. He can’t use his own memories in his writing for at least five or six years after the event; they have to undergo some sort of internal process first, which he likened to composting. Some memories beg to be used in fiction, but the writer must shoehorn them in carefully or they’ll jar. He asks academics who study his books to alert him if he’s used an anecdote before.
He thought (though didn’t specifically advise) younger writers need to write chronologically at first, within a short time frame, or much of their narrative can only be guesswork. The writer over seventy has the privileged capacity to handle extended time periods. But, although Barnes often sets his fiction in the “neutral” suburbia of his youth, and prefers to write about inner emotions, the reader shouldn’t assume everything is autobiographical. A reader of The Only Story had cast him as the hero, and written: “I didn’t know you had two hip replacements!” His reply, eyebrow raised, sardonic smile: “One can make things up, you know. This is fiction.”
Many in the audience nodded vigorously at the points he made, but they were mostly much younger. Some took frantic notes and others were recording Barnes on their phones – was I mistaken or was he not wholly pleased? If they were creative writing students looking for specific recipes for planning novels, his answers were slippery but amusing. I think I’ve deciphered these quotes correctly from my jottings on the Evening Standard in the tube – I was less well equipped than the creative writing students and wanted simply to listen.
Lee: Why are your books so short?
Barnes: (purses lips, picks up book and leafs through): 213 pages? Then he quoted a favourite of his, the French writer Jules Renard who in a journal of some 1000 pages said: “All novels are too long”.
Lee: Well, I mean, “compressed”, then.
Barnes: Well, you say what you have to say, and it takes as long as it takes.
(Although I wondered if some of his writing is “compressed” because he’s been honing his craft for so long he now needs fewer words to express what he means.)
He sidestepped a question about planning with an anecdote about his friend Michèle Roberts and how she develops a novel. For his part, he strolls about until ideas come (“mooching and mulching”.) But he did discuss taking care with “balance”. For example, in Arthur and George, Arthur (Conan Doyle) could have become weighted down with research material whereas George ( a young man he championed in a court case) had only an ephemeral presence in the archives. It was a challenge not to reflect this contrast in how the text showed the characters.
Lee asked how he felt about the use of his name as an adjective “Barnesian”. He said he didn’t know what it meant, partly because he doesn’t read reviews. He doesn’t object to “Dickensian” or “Larkinesque” but wouldn’t want to explore such an interpretation of his own work because it might make his writing “self conscious and limited”. Then she approached writing in the first, second or third person, but again Barnes signposted books other than his own. All I can tell you is Julian Barnes recommends Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney as the best example of second person narration he knows. Here’s The Only Story‘s narrator (possibly a mouthpiece for JB, more probably not) on settings: “The time, the place, the social milieu. I’m not sure how important they are, in stories about love…and one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather.”
If I am making Barnes sound ungenerous or exclusive, I don’t mean to. He must enjoy talking about his work because there are several interviews available online for anyone not lucky enough to be able to attend such events. But his presentation finds a subtle, precise middle ground between publicity and dignity – much like his writing style – not giving too much away, tickling the audience’s interest, retaining his own privacy. Diffidence, form, subtlety are underrated in our screeching age, and this compressed event was perfect in its understatement.
There’s been much recent discussion of diversity in publishing. Here was a white, middle class, able bodied (the hips, anyway) European male in amusing conversation, before a mainly white audience of (presumably) Londoners. No barricades will be stormed by audiences attending events like this. Yet the decorous dialogue between two establishment figures reflected the style, wit, poignancy and insight into the human condition of Barnes’ writing, with lessons for all. I enjoyed it immensely.
©Jessica Norrie 2018