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.
Besides, the author is nearly always conspicuous, whatever the mode he is writing in. Consider this passage from Talking It Over (1991), spoken, as it were, to camera, by Oliver, one of the novel’s trio of main characters:
Have a cigarette? You don’t? I know you don’t – you’ve told me before. Your disapproval still flashes in neon. Your frown is worthy of the mother-in-law from Katya Kabanova. But I have puckish news for you. I read in the paper this morning that if you smoke you’re less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than if you don’t. A hit, a veritable hit? Go on, kipper your lungs and keep your brain intact. Isn’t life bedizened with jaunty contradictions? Just when you think you’ve got it straight, along comes the Fool with his pig’s bladder and whops you on the nose.
Barnes has said that some readers don’t like Oliver, because he’s a smartarse. I can’t imagine getting as far as disliking him: the passage, with its studied artificiality of address, its stagey rhythms, its improbable turns of phrase, seems designed precisely to prevent the reader believing in or thinking about anything other than the author’s prose. Even his elderly ladies tend to employ Barnesian aphorisms. ‘More an aide-memoire than a hair colouring’, Janice thinks of her friend’s bottle-blonde hairdo in the short story ‘The Things You Know’ – an intrusion that seems less deliberate, but no less disruptive to the texture of the fiction.
Like many writers of his generation, Barnes committed himself to formal experiment. His gamble, essentially, was that it was worth stripping away many of the traditional pleasures of the novel, and replacing them with the Barnes persona: his sly address, his twinkly perspective, his jokes, his thoughts. For some of his contemporaries, the experimental gamble paid off, but in Barnes’s case, I don’t think it did. His tone is often mannered, smug and pedantic; he’s quick and clever, but the underlying thoughts often seem insubstantial and unoriginal. His tics can be irritating. The schoolmasterly question and answer sessions, for instance: ‘Let’s start at the beginning. Love makes you happy? No. Love makes the person you love happy? No. Love makes everything all right? Indeed no.’ Or the chortling riffs and trills that infest his writing, and tell us very little: ‘How do you turn catastrophe into art?’ he asks in the Gericault section. ‘Nowadays, the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We’ll have a play on the London stage within the year. A president is assassinated? You can have the book or the film or the filmed book or the booked film. War? Send in the novelists. A series of gruesome murders? Listen for the tramp of the poets.’ He also has a tendency to glib paradox, facile opposition and neat inversion. At its best, this can be lightly amusing: ‘Truth mostly does not out. It mostly ins.’ At its worst, as in the refrain ‘the heart isn’t heart-shaped,’ from the lecture about love, it represents a twee repackaging of the very obvious. As James Wood has pointed out, Barnes likes to insist on life’s complexity and opaqueness in the most simplistic, cut-and-dried terms.
The charge usually levelled against Barnes is that he’s an essayist rather than a novelist; that he writes from the brain not the heart; that he feeds off fact instead of full-blooded invention. In principle, these ought to be false dichotomies. Some of the best writing of recent years takes up comparable positions, between discourse and narrative (Sebald is just as essayistic), between history and fiction (think of the ‘factional’ territory inhabited by many American writers like DeLillo or Mailer, or V.S. Naipaul’s semi-autobiographies). But the comparisons make the point: really good books dissolve old genres and create new ones. A History of the World in 10½ Chapters doesn’t, because it’s just not good enough as an imaginative achievement or as a piece of writing.
Barnes has always seemed an unlikely experimental writer. Imagine that he belonged to a less restless generation – that he was a contemporary of Larkin and Kingsley Amis, for instance. Would we have lost much? Metroland (1981) would have been very similar (though probably angrier): a traditional but spirited coming-of-age novel. Flaubert’s Parrot would have been a straight essay. It would have had the same erudition, the same deft touch, the same gentle obsessiveness, even the same tone of voice. It would have lost only its fictionalised narrator, long recognised as the thinnest part of the book. Novels like Talking It Over would have been more honestly what they are: comedies of sexual manners, squarely descended from the sort of novel that Kingsley Amis wrote, with fewer of the laboured exercises in point of view, and more attention to the plausibility of scene and character. Some of his best short stories would remain more or less as they are: they already have that glum 1950s English atmosphere.
Barnes is often called a postmodernist. This seems doubtful – or at least, it seems doubtful that the statement means very much. He may have a liking for pastiche and unreliable narrators, but his world is old-fashionedly solid. Think of his real concerns: the past is irrecoverable; the present is not necessarily an improvement on what went before; your wife might be cheating on you. Great themes, but hardly the discoveries of Lyotard et al. His two distinctively postmodern books are A History of the World and England, England (1998): the first a medley of approaches to the idea of shipwreck and survival, the second a story about a theme-park version of England that gradually supersedes the original, à la Baudrillard. Both books are the work of an artist at war with himself – and not in a particularly productive way. ‘A novel which hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbits,’ reads Barnes’s blurb on the back of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised (2001), an exhilarating novel of grand sociological conjecture, bold pseudo-science and anonymous sex. Barnes himself is a natural miniaturist: Flaubert’s Parrot and his short stories are the best things he has written. He is at heart a bunny-shooter; but he likes to goes after the big beasts – history, identity, love. The result is that he gives us Noah’s Ark from the perspective of the woodworm; or a big, conceptual story about Little England. It could work, but it often doesn’t.
The most obvious manifestation of this is at the level of tone. Despite the prominence of the voice in his writing, there always seems to be a deep-seated ambivalence about pitch. One of his most characteristic manoeuvres is the clash of registers: moving suddenly from cultured, slightly Continental speculation to blokey deflation. In one of his short stories, Barnes describes an unconsummated dalliance of the elderly Turgenev. He records that the writer called it ‘the last burst of flame’; the narrator then butts in, asking: ‘Does he mean he almost got an erection?’ Like the use of different styles throughout his work, this aims at virtuosity but expresses something completely different: the terminally self-conscious voice of English fiction; condemned to facetiousness, to trifling forms of cleverness and irony. In England, England, something similar happens at the level of genre. The novel is written in at least three different modes. It contains a clever satirical parable about national identity; a fairly realistic story about divorced parents and difficult relationships; and a sexual burlesque, occupying the literary wing of the Carry On tradition. The realism muddles up the argument of the satire; the burlesque trivialises both. And a novel which very nearly said something about English identity ends up as a broken-backed mess.
His new novel, Arthur & George, is also a sort of parable of English identity (Barnes has suggested that it might be interpreted as an English version of the Dreyfus Affair). And, like many of his previous books, it deals in fact – but here the treatment of fact is different. Arthur & George is a sustained, uninterrupted exercise in quasi-documentary fiction, prefigured only by Barnes’s most untypical work, The Porcupine (1992), which is set in Bulgaria and reminiscent of Koestler. Arthur & George is an apparently literal re-creation of the lives of two ‘unofficial Englishmen’: the Irish Scot Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, the son of a Parsee Church of England vicar, two men whose paths crossed during the strange story of the Great Wyrley Outrages. The style is a brisk, telegraphic pastiche, remarkable for the almost total disappearance of the Barnes voice – give or take the first lines and a few asides buried deep in the period detail. As Barnes the bloke might say, it makes the novel much less wanky than its predecessors.
At the beginning of the last century, the Reverend Shapurji Edalji, vicar of Great Wyrley in deepest Staffordshire, starts to receive anonymous letters, which say ‘wicked things’ about his family, and evince some form of religious mania; sinful words also appeared chalked on nearby barns. Then the hoaxes begin. Advertisements appear in local newspapers, announcing that the vicar is starting a match-making business. A curate from Norfolk appears at the vicarage, summoned ‘all the way to Staffordshire on a matter of spiritual urgency, perhaps requiring exorcism, of which the vicar’s wife appears quite ignorant’. The Edaljis receive vast quantities of miscellaneous unwanted goods. Like the poison-pen campaigns that erupt periodically in charming English villages, it seems like a viciously inventive form of folk art: ‘Next the maid-of-all-work is called to Wolverhampton in order to inspect the dead body of her non-existent sister, which is supposedly lying in a public house.’ The vicar reports the annoyances to the Staffordshire Constabulary; strangely enough, he finds that his young son, George, is regarded as the culprit. Then the letters and the hoaxes suddenly stop.
But years later – when George is a solicitor in Birmingham, a lonely man who finds fulfilment in the recherché field of railway law – the letters start up again. George is pleased when an order form for his tome, Railway Law for the ‘Man in the Train’, is delivered to him. Only, ‘the sender has asked for 300 copies, and filled his name as Beelzebub.’ And now the hoaxes are accompanied by mysterious, motiveless attacks on animals, which are ‘ripped’ in the stomach, and left to bleed to death or to be put down. All England is up in arms; the good name of Staffordshire is besmirched. A scapegoat must be found. With a horrible inevitability, the bumbling and sinister forces of the law pin the blame on George. And, in a miscarriage of justice that Barnes re-creates brilliantly from the trial reports, he is found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. But many are outraged, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, made rich by Sherlock Holmes, second only to Kipling in his influence on England’s vigorous young men – yet in the doldrums because of his consumptive wife’s death, and his love for another woman. For the first time, Arthur accepts a challenge that is often laid down: to use his Holmesian deductive skills to solve a crime, aiming to clear George’s name in the process.
Chesterton summed up one great appeal of the Holmes stories when he said that ‘the thread of irony which runs through all the solemn impossibilities of the narrative’ makes them ‘a really brilliant addition to the great literature of nonsense’. With Arthur & George, Barnes has done something comparable. He re-creates the period sympathetically, and does not patronise its attitudes, but has an excellent eye for its straight-faced and sometimes rather malevolent absurdities. One of the many terrific set-pieces is a politely ferocious after-dinner encounter between Arthur and Captain Anson, the chief constable of Staffordshire. The captain advances his theory as to George’s motive:
‘I am merely proposing that a mixing of the blood produces a tendency, a susceptibility under certain extreme circumstances to revert to barbarism. To be sure, many half-castes live perfectly respectable lives.’
‘Unless something triggers them …’
‘As the full moon may trigger lunacy in some gypsies and Irish.’
‘It has never had that effect on me.’
‘Low-born Irish, my dear Doyle. Nothing personal intended.’
The core of the novel – the dark goings-on in the shires, the miscarriage of justice, Arthur’s attempts to right wrongs – is a monument to unobtrusive skill, perceptive characterisation, humour and sheer hard work. The story is all the more suggestive because, most of the time, Barnes resists the urge to comment and interpret as he goes along. But oddly enough, in throwing off the long-standing urge to intrude, Barnes seems to have gone too far the other way. There is simply too much of Arthur & George. We learn far more than we need to about the sights that Arthur and his first wife took in during their courtship; too much about what his second wife wore at her wedding. The narrative seems perched uneasily between biography and fiction: not complete enough to be one and too blankly incidental to be the other. The chances are that readers will be gripped, charmed and amused – but may feel a nagging ‘so what?’ loom as they near the end. Lucky, then, that the book finishes with another excellent set-piece. Arthur has long been both an atheist and a spiritualist, bearing out the adage that ‘when men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.’ After Arthur’s death, George attends a grand séance in his memory at the Albert Hall. Like much of the novel, the scene nicely balances sympathy and ironic distance. As the organ pounds and the medium shouts ‘He is here!’ a doubtful George finds himself fleetingly convinced by this display of organised charlatanry – an appropriate ending to this honourably confused and impressive novel.