You say what you have to say; it takes as long as it takes.

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.

Barnes lecture 1
Before the event

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.

Barnes lecture 7

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.)

45369He 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.

Barnes lecture 4If 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Walking a fine line between chance and control…” On the narrative of abstract art

My friend Sharon Drew is showing two paintings in the 2016 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I’ve watched Sharon’s art develop over many years. You don’t have to be an expert to spot the confidence and versatility of her work. At each annual Open Studio event I find a different style, and there is never anything tentative about the way she uses colour. More abstract work can need more thought, so we discussed parallels between the visual arts and writing, and between viewers and readers, and it’s helped me open up a world that I hope you will enjoy too. 

Reculver, Thanet 2015

Reculver, Thanet  2015 (Watercolour landscape study) size 15 x 25cm

Obviously the familiar “Old Masters” tell a story (eg the nativity), but do you think more modern, perhaps abstract paintings can do so as well?

SD: Abstract painting can make a direct connection with the emotions, like listening to classical or contemporary music.  It can create a mood, atmosphere or sensation and also transport one to another place and time.

Abstraction also has a place within the narrative of 20C history of art.  Modernism, in this case, focuses on process and materials and lack of recognisable imagery. This links with similar attitudes in architecture and design as well as literary and performing arts of the time.

JN: So the literary parallel here would be with writers such as Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, Faulkner, up to Beckett…where the “story” may be a different shape from a conventional narrative, but themes and forms emerge and words play with each other to make another kind of sense.

Do you think it’s important that viewers “understand” a painting straight away? Are you concerned about providing an approachable way in? Does it matter to you if their interpretation is different to yours?

Each person brings their own experience to the work – I cannot predict or control how others interpret my work – I like this! I’m often told that my paintings remind people of something they have seen or even a particular time in their life, which I could never have imagined. As far as I’m concerned this type of response enriches my experience as an artist. I also use fairly open titles such as Undercurrent or Conceal in order not to completely pin down the meaning.

Way Through 2web

Way Through(2)  2016 (acrylic on canvas) size 64 x 76cm

Some viewers are able to engage with abstract paintings without any introduction to the work, maybe in terms of colour and surface, others see an association or meaning. Some people need more background to the work to help make connections. Others may prefer figurative and representative imagery to suggest symbolism, scenario or narrative to satisfy their curiosity and analytical skills. Imagination and interpretation are key to viewing most artworks – (JN: just as they are for fiction, poetry and theatre).

Technical skill can be harder to identify compared to a realistic image and so abstract paintings can easily be dismissed, hence the comment … “my 4 year old could do that!”

Can you describe the process of getting ideas for a new canvas? How might a painter’s planning differ from or resemble that of a fiction writer?

There are many different approaches. For me it’s often a particular process, such as a decision to work with diluted paint or the gestural brush mark, that is the starting point. I usually work in a very intuitive way, walking a fine line between chance and control, deciding to intervene and making adjustments or just leaving things as they are.

I regularly travel to the North Kent and West Cornish coasts and make sketchbook drawings and paintings out in the landscape. On these occasions I am working from reality – sea, cliffs, clouds etc., and these studies record my observations, like a visual journal. Back in the studio I’m not aiming to reproduce these studies but perhaps the sketches and the sensation of being out there inform my paintings in terms of light, colour, space, and rhythm. JN: The writer’s notebook as used by the artist…

The Island, St Ives (2014)

The Island-St Ives  2014 Sketchbook (Watercolour)

As I am based in East London the urban landscape also feeds into my work creating, at times, a clash or fusion of the two contrasting environments.

JN: I also found on your website this quote which could just as well be about writing: Surprisingly perhaps creativity can come from regular daily practice. It’s no good just waiting around for a brilliant idea, it is much more likely to come through consistent work.

Do you know on starting a painting whether it will stand alone or be part of a series?

The best advice I was ever given was to work in a series. This helps to build up momentum and get into the flow and also to be my own critic as each work informs the other and assists in resolving problems. However ultimately I want each painting to be able to exist alone, unless it’s intended as part of a diptych or triptych.


There are no “characters” in your paintings as such – or are there?

The paintings do have different characteristics – i.e. strident, understated, brash, excitable, energetic, mellow etc., and so can directly affect the energy, atmosphere and mood of a space.

Clodgy Point(2) 2015

Clodgy Point, St Ives  2015 (oil on paper) size 17 x 23cm

Is there a narrative to how your work has developed? Does it have to be linear?

Definitely not linear! I follow my instincts and do not worry if a new process seems to be taking me in another direction, it is something I welcome and enjoy the difference. Having said that I do see that colour has been a constant presence in the work, and also my intermittent sketchbook drawings and paintings of the garden and coastal landscapes have been produced throughout.

Very early on I pulled away from representation into semi-abstract painting with abstract shapes, colours and textures with flower motifs. Then I became interested in more formal grid structures and bands of colours before breaking out into free-form flowing paintings made of highly diluted paint. During my MA at Central Saint Martins I made a departure to installation which I felt was a meeting point of painting, sculpture and installation. After this I went back to painting and for the past few years I’ve been particularly interested in light, colour, space, and rhythm and the use of the expressive, gestural painted brushstroke.

The two painters who have influenced me since my Art School days are American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning and British colour abstractionist Patrick Heron, so in that sense I feel very rooted to this tradition of painting.

I know you were recently part of a narrative yourself, when your paintings were used as the work of an artist whose story was being told in a film, “Art Is…”.  Can you describe your feelings about having your work “fictionalised” and apparently painted by someone else?

Yes, a rather surreal situation of being simultaneously detached and intensely involved. To be surrounded by my paintings and the contents of my studio, but in the middle of a film set, the boundaries of art and life were constantly blurred. I also loved the way the different teams – lighting, sound, set – dressing, costume etc. – worked together with the Director to produce his vision for the final work. Such a contrast to my situation! One of the main things I remember is the sense of real time disappearing, especially as the film shoot is not made in chronological order, day and night get very mixed up.

Great also meeting Paul McGann, Gary Kemp and Emily Beecham … so lucky!

St Ives Boats(2) 2015

St Ives Boats (2)  2015 (oil on paper) size 15 x 21cm

There are glorious visuals in children’s books and I think adults need them too. Could you see yourself collaborating with a writer? I don’t want to use the word illustrate, as I’m thinking more in terms of two people telling the same story side by side but independently and with equal status. 

Always open to suggestions of collaboration!

Thank you so much, Sharon, for helping me to elucidate parallels which I always knew were there but had never managed to put into words. You can find out more at Sharon’s website, her Open Studio coming up on 25/26 June in London, and of course see those two paintings at the Royal Academy.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016