Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat was reviewed in the LRB by Luc Sante.

Nineteenth-century​ French art, and French artists, were fortunate to have the backing of some of the best writers of the day. Stendhal, Baudelaire, Gautier, Goncourt, Zola, Maupassant, Huysmans and Mallarmé all doubled up as art critics. (The bullish Courbet took on both tasks: doing the work and the self-promotion.) It helped that there were extraordinary new artists to support, as...

The Necessary Talent: The Morisot Sisters

Julian Barnes, 12 September 2019

Many artists live with a shadow version of themselves: an awareness of how things might have been if they had done this and not that, if life had made this choice for them rather than that. The road not taken remains at the back of the mind. For some their shadow is an external presence, for others an inner haunting. Few can have experienced it more precisely, with more emotional complexity, than Berthe Morisot.

Not in a Box: Mary Cassatt as Herself

Julian Barnes, 26 April 2018

She is, largely, a painter of the great indoors, the here and now, and of women’s space within it. She does not do landscape or nature – the urban park and the boating lake are as far as that goes; nor does she give us action, history, myth, still life, houses, horses, sunsets or those forbidden parts of the Opéra. She does not do men much, though her double portrait of her brother Alexander with his son Robert, the boy sitting on the arm of his father’s armchair, their black suits blending into one and their button-black eyes popping in parallel towards some unknown object makes us wish she had portrayed the opposite sex more.

Humph, He, Ha: Degas’s Achievement

Julian Barnes, 4 January 2018

The great​ French diarist Jules Renard (1864-1910) had small interest in non-literary art forms. When Ravel approached him wanting to set five of his Histoires naturelles, Renard couldn’t see the point; he didn’t forbid it, but declined to go to the premiere. He sat through Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and found it a ‘sombre bore’, its plot...

Diary: People Will Hate Us Again

Julian Barnes, 20 April 2017

The day after the vote, I was walking in my local park when a man cycled towards me straight over a NO CYCLING sign. I gave him a routine, unthinking glare, to which he responded with a shout of ‘Oi, Flaubert, where are you now?’ A rare North London cry of Brexiteering triumphalism. The following day, the English rugby team beat the Wallabies in Australia. An Australian newspaper headlined the result: ‘Now Another Continent Hates You As Well.’ We shouldn’t underestimate this reaction to our current national trajectory.

Among​ the Russian novelists, poets, composers, actors and thinkers on display in last year’s compact but intense loan show from the Tretyakov Gallery to the National Portrait Gallery, Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, were two pictures of famous collectors. The first was of Pavel Tretyakov himself, painted in 1901 by Ilya Repin, showing its tall, willowy...

This​ has been a rich time to explore 19th-century Scandinavian painting. Six years ago London and Edinburgh shared a revelatory show of Christen Købke (1810-48); while in 2014-15 the National Gallery showcased the less well-known but more extraordinary Peder Balke (1804-87): one of those rare artists whose pictures became smaller as he got older, and whose scraped, scratched...

The Real Thing! Visions of Vice

Julian Barnes, 17 December 2015

In​ 1849 Flaubert was in Cairo with his friend Maxime Du Camp, a rising littérateur as well as the official photographer for their tour of the Middle East. On 1 December, Flaubert wrote to their mutual friend the poet Louis Bouilhet:

This morning we arrived in Egypt … we had scarcely set foot on shore when Max, the old lecher, got excited over a negress who was drawing water...

Selfie with ‘Sunflowers’

Julian Barnes, 30 July 2015

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman.

Heart-Squasher: A Portrait of Lucian Freud

Julian Barnes, 5 December 2013

Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio, c.1629, is a small picture with a blazing message. The viewpoint is that of one seated on the bare floor in the corner of an attic studio with crumbling plaster walls. On the right, in shadow, is the doorway. In the centre, with its back to us, is an enormous easel with a picture propped on it. On the left, barely half the height of the easel, stands the painter, brush and mahlstick in hand, dressed in his painting robe and hat. He is in shadow, but we can roughly make out his moon face as he stares at his picture.

High Anxiety: Fantin-Latour

Julian Barnes, 11 April 2013

Thirty-four men, 20 of them standing, 14 sitting, spread across four paintings and 21 years. Almost all are sombrely dressed, in the black frock coat worn by bourgeois and artist alike in the France of their day; the least sartorial departure – a pair of light trousers, a coat of proletarian grey, a white painter’s smock – startles. The spaces in which these men are depicted...

Badger Claws: Poil de Carotte

Julian Barnes, 30 June 2011

I own two photographs of Jules Renard (1864-1910). There is no indication of when either of them was taken, and at times I have wondered if they are really of the same man. In the first, from a series called ‘Nos contemporains chez eux’, he sits at a cluttered desk; behind him is a scruffy bookcase and a calendar showing the first of some month; on the floral wallpaper hangs a...

If you go to the website of the restaurant L’Huîtrière (3, rue des Chats Bossus, Lille) and click on ‘translate’, the zealous automaton you have stirred up will instantly render everything into English, including the address. And it comes out as ‘3 street cats humped’. Translation is clearly too important a task to be left to machines. But what sort of human should it be given to? Imagine that you are about to read a great French novel for the first time, and can only do so in your native English. The book itself is more than 150 years old. What would/ should/do you want? The impossible, of course. But what sort of impossible? For a start, you would probably want it not to read like ‘a translation’. You want it to read as if it had originally been written in English – even if, necessarily, by an author deeply knowledgable about France. You would want it not to clank and whirr as it dutifully renders every single nuance, turning the text into the exposition of a novel rather than a novel itself.

A City of Sand and Puddles: Paris

Julian Barnes, 22 April 2010

Like many Francophiles, I’ve never read a book about Paris. Not a whole one, all the way through, anyway. Of course, I’ve bought enough of them, of every sort, and in some cases the hope of their being read has extended over several years. For instance, I was almost sure I would tackle the distinguished art critic John Russell’s Paris (1960), ‘with photographs by...

On we sail: Maupassant

Julian Barnes, 5 November 2009

Maupassant is often called ‘a natural storyteller’: that’s to say, a professional, practised, unnatural storyteller. Such is invariably the case, with both the paid and the unpaid variety (think of the best anecdotalists you know in life: their effect of spontaneity is always based on adjustable tropes, prepared impromptus and trusty set-pieces).

Behind the Gas Lamp: Félix Fénéon

Julian Barnes, 4 October 2007

In 1890, the neo-Impressionist Paul Signac offered to paint Félix Fénéon, the very coiner, four years previously, of the term ‘neo-Impressionist’. The critic-subject responded with modest evasiveness, and then a proviso: ‘I will express only one opinion: effigy absolutely full-face – do you agree?’ Signac did not agree. Five months later, the best-known image of Fénéon emerged: in left profile, holding top hat and cane, presenting a lily to an off-canvas recipient (homage to an artist? love-gift to a woman?) against a circusy pinwheel of dashing pointillist colour. Fénéon, whether from vanity or critic’s pique at the artist’s disobedience, strongly disliked the image, commenting that ‘the portraitist and the portrayed had done one another a cruel disservice.’ He accepted the picture, however, and kept it on his walls until Signac died some 45 years later. But neither that event, nor the passing of time, mellowed his judgment: in 1943 he told his friend and future literary executor, the critic Jean Paulhan, that it was ‘the least successful work painted by Signac’.

Always There: George Braque

Julian Barnes, 15 December 2005

They were friends, companions, painters-in-arms committed to what was, at the start of the 20th century, the newest and most provoking form of art. Braque was just the younger, but there was little assumption of seniority by the other. They were co-adventurers, co-discoverers; they painted side by side, often the same subject, and their work was at times almost indistinguishable. The world was young, and their painting lives lay ahead of them.

Candles for the living

Julian Barnes, 22 November 1990

Sunday night at the Hotel Bulgaria in central Sofia. Until the next electricity cut arrives, it is cabaret time. A succession of competent, Westernised acts unwind before a small, mute audience who have paid five levs each for the right not to applaud. On come four muscular, blond-rinsed girls, who go through a mixed routine, from rough-hewn disco-dancing to some Isadora Duncan stuff. They are well-drilled, energetic, and a long way from tickling the erotic; there is also something not quite right about them. Then, abruptly, one girl goes up on her left foot and slowly raises her, right leg out sideways. When it reaches nine o’clock, she hoists it with her hand and sweeps it up to the implausible vertical, cocking her foot horizontally across the top of her head. All is suddenly clear: the girls are ex-gymnasts, as they now confirm by ball-juggling, running round with streamers on sticks, and so on. The act ends, the small Bulgarian public exercises its right to be unimpressed, and a Western observer draws an inviting conclusion. Sport is no longer state-coddled in Eastern Europe, so here are four gymnasts, deprived of coaching and steroids, earning their corn as a Sunday night cabaret act – a living demonstration of the switch from communism to capitalism. What sort of progress is this? Hard to tell; but it looks a neat image for the strange and extreme transformation Bulgaria is currently undergoing.’

Flaubert’s Bottle

Julian Barnes, 4 May 1989

Alcoholism softens the flesh – or at least, the 19th-century French variety did. When Verlaine died, Mallarmé watched a cast being taken of the face of this staunchly self-destructive drinker. He reported to the poet Georges Rodenbach that he would never forget ‘the wet, soggy sound made by the removal of the death-mask from his face, an operation in which part of his beard and mouth had come away too’.’

The Salinger Affair

Julian Barnes, 27 October 1988

Listen to Jeffrey Robinson, American biographer of figures such as Sheikh Yamani, describing how he goes to work:

Diary: Burning Letters

Julian Barnes, 7 July 1988

When policemen first started to look ridiculously young, I can’t say it bothered me (besides, it’s good for them to be younger – fitter, keener, less cynical). I found the problem came when airlines began employing pilots whose voices hadn’t yet broken. There you are, huddled in your seat, trembly with fear and booze, and instead of being greeted by unflappable, grey-haired Captain MacIntyre, noted survivor, you get the reassurances of someone who graduated only last week from Lego to a 747 cockpit simulator. At such moments time moves with a charmless jerk. It did the same the other week while I was reading the personal ads in Private Eye. In what we may as well call ‘the old days’ there used occasionally to be coded pleas from girls needing money for an abortion. Nowadays they’re advertising for everything, and requesting sums it’s less easy to unravel. In this issue of the Eye, for instance, there was a ‘handsome’ student seeking £1,999 o.n.o.; a ‘desperate’ ex-RN officer wanting £10,000 sponsorship for a degree; a similarly ‘desperate’ Kate also needing £10,000; a ‘good-looking, tall, slim, erudite gentleman, 28’, trying to raise £20,000 to save himself from the effects of the Wall Street Crash; a musician who had fallen over his drums requiring £450 for a ‘new mouth’ (this was the only one that made me feel briefly Gettyish); and £300 wanted – sex and precise reason unstated – to ‘save face’.’

Diary: On the Booker

Julian Barnes, 12 November 1987

In Madrid the other week a literary journalist told me the following joke. A man goes into a pet shop and sees three parrots side by side, priced at $1000, $2000 and $3000. ‘Why does that parrot cost $1000?’ he asks the owner. ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in Spanish,’ comes the reply. ‘And why does that one cost $2000?’ ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in English and in Spanish.’ ‘And the one that costs $3000, what does he recite?’ ‘Oh, he doesn’t say a word,’ explains the pet shop owner: ‘but the other two call him Maestro.’

Philip Roth in Israel

Julian Barnes, 5 March 1987

Philip Roth’s new novel is marvellously rich, boisterously serious, dense, fizzing and formally audacious. More than with most novels, to review it is to betray it. This isn’t inappropriate, since one of Roth’s abiding themes is fiction’s betrayal of life and the novelist’s treachery to those who surround him. But prudent readers may prefer not to discover The Counterlifes intricate surprises in advance.

Dear Mole

Julian Barnes, 23 January 1986

Flaubert’s Correspondence (which Gide kept at his bedside for five years in place of the Bible, and which hoisted even Sartre into grudging admiration) is one of the great documents of French literature: so it’s surprising how much of it isn’t there. The novelist made letter-burning pacts with his two longest-serving male friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, who with an irritating rectitude kept their side of the bargain: Du Camp burnt all but 24 out of a ‘considerable’ number of letters, which he had already annotated for posterity, and Bouilhet all but 81; while Flaubert himself, perhaps signalling unease about the agreements, kept 141 of Du Camp’s replies in existence, and 498 of Bouilhet’s. Ernest Chevalier, who in youth had shared Flaubert’s delight in scurrility, but later entered public life and dwindled into a husband, cautiously destroyed many letters in which he thought l’esprit gaulois had been taken too far. Both sides of the correspondence with the intriguing governess Juliet Herbert – friend? mistress? fiancée? – have gone missing (though Jean Bruneau, introducing the first Pléïade volume of the Letters in 1973, was still hoping to locate them). And even when the Correspondence gets into its stride, it is sometimes forced to hop: Flaubert’s brilliant letters to Louise Colet were carefully preserved, but her replies were deliberately destroyed (by the writer’s niece, it seems), thus effectively disenfranchising her.’

Cobbery

Julian Barnes, 2 May 1985

On a damp October evening last year this man robbed me of £15,000. The sum was tax free, so you could round it up to £20,000. Wineglass in hand, black tie at the throat, he also robbed four other novelists of the same sum – four others also musing, no doubt, on kitchen extensions, snooker tables, deep freezes and pulsing foreign holidays (though what we piously say to the press, of course, is ‘We need the money to make the time to write the next book in’). A cool £100,000, whisked away in a few seconds by this modern Raffles. Reading A Classical Education, I would occasionally start, and think: ‘Hey, this guy stole my snooker table. And my air tickets.’ Odd, then, to keep returning to the book with benevolence and admiration.’

Theroux and Through

Julian Barnes, 21 June 1984

A couple of years ago there was one of those Barry Humphries TV specials in which the Australian entertainer teases an audience of notables to the edge of humiliation. The guests attend to the act warily, poised between the pleasure of being official celebrities and the fear of being publicly ridiculed. After tormenting various patsies in a way that must have made them wish there was an RSPCA for humans, Dame Edna (for it was she) suddenly spotted Melvyn Bragg. ‘And there’s little Melvyn!’ she yelped. The erstwhile chairman of the Arts Council’s Literature Panel grinned no more easily than any of us would have done in his place. ‘Hands up,’ demanded Dame Edna, ‘hands up anyone who’s read one of Melvyn’s novels.’ For whatever reason, not a single hand was raised: whereupon Edna came over all sympathetic and chiding. ‘Now don’t you go writing any more of them, Melvyn, until we’ve all had time to catch up.’

Story: ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’

Julian Barnes, 18 August 1983

Six North Africans were playing boules beneath Flaubert’s statue. Clean cracks sounded over the grumble of jammed traffic. With a final, ironic caress from the fingertips, a brown hand despatched a metal globe. It landed, hopped to reveal a small moon-crater, and curved slowly in a scatter of hard dust. The thrower remained a stylish, temporary statue: knees not quite unbent, and the right hand ecstatically spread. I noted a furled white shirt, a bare forearm, and a blob on the back of the wrist. Not a watch, as I first thought, not quite a tattoo, but a transfer: the face of a political sage well thought of in the desert.

The Pouncer

Julian Barnes, 3 March 1983

I’ve been having these bad dreams about David Plante recently. Sometimes, I am slumped on the lavatory, glued there by gin and self-pity; sometimes, I am watching The Sound of Music on television and bawling shameful tears; sometimes, I am driving bad-temperedly through the Tuscan countryside, railing foolishly at the world’s treatment of me. Always Mr Plante is at my side: on his face a winning smile, and behind his back a betraying notebook.

In Abel Gance’s film Napoleon there is a brilliant sequence in the Revolutionary Bureau of Indictments. The walls are stacked to the ceiling with the files of known, suspected, possible and deeply fanciful enemies of the Revolution; some are bulky, well-researched dossiers, others the constructions of dishonest, mean-spirited score-settlers. This key office of the new masters exudes smugness, oafishness and fear (might it be their turn next?). Every so often, a clerk is winched up towards the ceiling on a precarious pulley system, a file is taken down, and another execution is assured. Once your dossier has reached the Bureau there is no way of avoiding the tumbril – except one: in the corner of the office sit a pair of humble, twitchy, freedom-loving scriveners, who are quietly eating their way through one of the indictments.

Double Bind

Julian Barnes, 3 June 1982

This book is mad, of course. Admirable but mad – to abduct Sartre’s own phrase about Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. A work of elucidation couched in a lazily dense style; a biography seemingly concerned with externals but in fact spun from inside the biographer like a spider’s thread; a critical study which exceeds in wordage all the major works of its subject put together … ‘On n’arrête pas Voltaire,’ de Gaulle said of Sartre in 1968; and perhaps those down at Gallimard imagined they heard a pun. One does not arrest Voltaire … and you can’t stop him either.

Story: ‘One of a Kind – a story’

Julian Barnes, 18 February 1982

I always had this theory about Romania. Well, not a proper theory: more an observation, I suppose. Have you ever realised how, in various fields, Romania has managed to produce one – but only one – significant artist? It’s as if the race only has enough strength for one of anything, like those plants which channel all their energy into a single bloom. So: one great sculptor – Brancusi. One playwright – lonesco. One composer – Enescu. One cartoonist – Steinberg. Even one great popular myth – Dracula.

Hating dogs

Julian Barnes, 17 September 1981

In October 1971 the Italian Government made one of its ritual announcements that it had raised enough money to save Venice, by protecting it from pollution and installing a new sewage system. Simultaneously, John Sparrow was also turning his attention to the plight of the stricken city. In one of his major letters to the Times, the then Warden of All Souls addressed the urgent question of Venetian dogshit. He noted with regret the inadequacy of the local decree which insisted that dogs ‘when out of doors … shall be muzzled – but (alas!) at one end only’. The enforced wearing of a second, matching retro-muzzle was clearly one solution, but even this, the Warden implied, might not be the end of the matter. He balefully remarked on the way the dogs ‘fight and philander in no very decorous manner up and down the calli in every quarter of the town … Even the most pacific and the least libidinous cannot but contribute their quota of defilement that makes even the shortest of walks in Venice today a hazardous and unsavoury experience.’ Sparrow, unlike the Rome government, declined to trifle with a mere new sewage system for the offending canines; nor, as he might have done, did he argue for the development of an Integrated Triple Muzzle. His recommendation was absolute: ‘a very simple legislative measure, providing for the absolute exclusion from Venice of the dog … to put out of action once and for all this disgusting engine of pollution’.

Late Capote

Julian Barnes, 19 February 1981

Start at the back: with the photograph. Traditionally, author’s vanity and publisher’s lethargy combine to make a writer look much younger than he is. Truman Capote’s portrait does the opposite, and for a particular reason. Study recent press photographs of Mr Capote, or those published last year in Andy Warhol’s Exposures, and what do you see? A plump, jowly figure in the flush of vital middle age, capering into Studio 54 on the languid arm of a heavily beringed dress designer: a man, it appears, of active sensuality verging on self-indulgence. Now compare the Irving Penn photograph for the back jacket of Music for Chameleons. Emaciated fingers delicately support a frail skull: without their help, you feel, the head might simply snap off. One hand, indeed, supplies the vertical hold, the other the horizontal. The skin looks as if it might tear if grazed by a butterfly’s wing. The eyes stare hauntedly out. It cannot be a living author, let alone a man of 55. It reminds one most of those perfectly-preserved bog people dug up in Scandinavia and described by P.V.Glob. In other words – or rather, in words – Mr Capote is announcing his Late Period.

Letter

Hurricane Craig

12 November 1987

SIR: Others before me have known the dubious privilege of being labelled ‘my friend’ by Craig Raine in the correspondence columns of LRB. I name a hurricane after him; he calls me a pisspot. If this is ‘my friend’ Craig Raine’s grasp of proportionate response, then we should all be glad he hasn’t yet acquired a driving licence. And what is to be done about our uprooted...
Letter
SIR: In ‘America and Libya’ Edward Said cites American resentment at their bombers being obliged to ‘fly round France’ (and, by extension, Spain). But according to serious French rumour, they didn’t: they took the obvious short cut. As Le Canard Enchaîné characteristically put it, ils ont surviolé les Pyrénées.
Letter

Literary Magazines

7 November 1985

SIR: I am disappointed that the discussion in your columns about the business efficiency of the New Review appears to have died out. Ian Hamilton (Letters, 21 November 1985) promised to get back to us after dinner with his chum Clive James and report if the latter’s new-found financial acumen had impressed him. But silence … My own memories of the New Review’s commercial methods...

Even among the loudest and most insistent personalities of fin-de-siècle Paris, the mild-mannered Dr Pozzi more than held his own. And he knew everybody, or at least that small segment of the population...

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Zanchevsky, Zakrevsky or Zakovsky? Julian Barnes

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 18 February 2016

The two great preoccupations of Barnes’s Shostakovich are his own character weaknesses and his relationship to the Soviet regime.

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Julian Barnes invites us to visit what he calls a ‘tropic of grief’ that is wilder and bleaker than anything in the pages of Lévi-Strauss’s great memoir. But Barnes does...

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Stupidly English: Julian Barnes

Michael Wood, 22 September 2011

Julian Barnes specialises in Englishness the way some doctors specialise in broken bones or damaged nerves. Like many actual English people, he’s not a chronic sufferer from the complaint,...

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‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’: Julian Barnes

Thomas Jones, 17 February 2011

The 21-year-old narrator of Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland (1980), suggests that ‘everyone has a perfect age to which they aspire, and they’re only truly at ease with...

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Twinkly: Beyond the Barnes persona

Theo Tait, 1 September 2005

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...

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Julian Barnes’s new book of short stories is concerned with old age and death. Barnes – who was born in 1946 – should have a few years to go before he experiences either...

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Tell us about it: Julian Barnes

Alex Clark, 24 August 2000

Ironies accumulate in the work of Julian Barnes, like – well, perhaps we’d better not attempt to say what they are like, since Love, etc contains several admonitions on the dangers of...

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The title of this novel is a contraction (of the famous phrase from W.E. Henley’s ‘Pro Rege Nostro’, ‘What have I done for you,/England, my England’). The...

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It was Wittgenstein’s objection to Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that the procedure might be impressive, but why did interpretation have to end just there, what was to stop it...

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Sausages and Higher Things

Patrick Parrinder, 11 February 1993

‘It seems to me the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains.’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the source for this epigraph to the best-known British novel of the...

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Oliver’s Riffs

Charles Nicholl, 25 July 1991

Julian Barnes is a writer of rare intelligence. He catches the detail of contemporary life with an uncanny, forensic skill. His style is a model of cool and precision. He is often very funny, and...

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Stowaway Woodworm

Frank Kermode, 22 June 1989

About a century ago Henry James remarked sadly that, unlike the French, the English novel was not discutable. It had no theory behind it. Its practitioners were largely unaware that ‘there...

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Real Questions

Ian Hamilton, 6 November 1986

Julian Barnes once trained to be a barrister and he’s been asking questions ever since – questions, mostly, about questions. In Before she met me, the hero of the book actually...

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Irishtown

D.A.N. Jones, 1 November 1984

These novels, all in the literary-prize-winning league, tell us of areas with which we are probably unfamiliar. William Kennedy’s Ironweed is about Albany, capital of the State of New York....

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Submission

Robert Taubman, 20 May 1982

The voices in A Chain of Voices are those of 30 characters, Boer farmers and their hired labourers and slaves, in the Cape in the early 19th century. The voices are ‘all different yet all...

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Looking back

John Sutherland, 22 May 1980

The Victorian practice of antedating is enjoying a revival with contemporary English novelists. Every so often, it would seem, fiction becomes broody, retrospective, and responsive to...

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