- Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
Cape, 360 pp, £17.99, July 2005, ISBN 0 224 07703 1
According to Flaubert’s famous rule, ‘an author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.’ For most of his career, the celebrated Flaubertian Julian Barnes has occupied the opposite end of the spectrum: less a transcendent creator than a garrulous master of ceremonies, unwilling or unable to prevent himself interrupting the proceedings. As John Bayley put it a few years back, one primary object of a Barnes novel ‘is to dazzle and bemuse the reader throughout with the knowledge and reminder that this is a very clever young person writing a very clever and witty novel’. The most obvious manifestation of this is the unmistakable Barnes narrator, wheeling out a curious fact or historical anecdote, and treating us every few lines to a wry aperçu or humorous sally or teasing aphorism. Geoffrey Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) is the most famous example, but the voice that gives the lecture about Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) is almost identical; as is the narrator who speaks as ‘Julian Barnes’ in the ‘Parenthesis’ about love in the same book.