Books: Why don't we make it all up?

Steven Poole rides forth to do intellectual battle with novelist Julian Barnes, armed only with a thesaurus. He barely gets out alive ...
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The Independent Culture
Normally, reading a book without a pencil to scrawl incredulous marginalia leaves a critic feeling naked and offenceless, like riding into battle without a sabre. But halfway through our interview, Julian Barnes unfolds his limbs and, with the surprising alacrity of a recently dozing reptile, snatches his new novel from my hands. "This is where I skip through it," he mutters mischievously, "searching for 'Bloody hell, he can't expect us to believe that!' or [sneeringly] 'Question mark, question mark'." Luckily, the pages are unmarked: the great Pencil-Eating God has earned a rare oblation.

Barnes is fearsomely intelligent. What irks some people is his concomitant sense of fun, as if the exercise of intelligence ought to be a dour, Calvinist abrogation of pleasure. He kicks off one of the short stories in Cross Channel, "Experiment", with a trio of sparkling French puns. Perhaps today the celebrated author of Flaubert's Parrot is going to proffer a salver of plump, womanly fruit and ask, "Pear okay?"

But he is not so smug. "Some people don't like finding ideas in a novel," he sighs fatalistically. "They react as if they've found a toothpick in a sandwich. I probably come across personally to some interviewers as aloof and ideas-ridden."

In fact, Barnes is animated, helpful and interested. But when he is thinking hard, his blue eyes relax their focus, and his broad-hewn face takes on the glow of an ecstasist. This is his crime: Julian Barnes actually enjoys thinking. He enjoys invention, and is bemused by rampant confessionalism. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs a few years ago, Sue Lawley kept assuming that his early novels were autobiographical. "I said, 'Well, no, I'm terribly sorry, I made that up. That's what we novelists do.'" In solidarity with Barnes's robust defence of the fictional art, I resolve to make up some of this interview.

Turning my copy of his book this way and that, observing the broken spine, Barnes eventually concedes: "It looks definitely read." The same sort of lepidopterist's scrutiny is applied to questions: he picks them up between forefinger and thumb, watches how the sunlight glints off the facets, and passes literary judgment. "What a weasel question!" he will snort, or "A poisoned-chalice question!". He will repeat a line verbatim, adding satirical stresses. He will take mock offence: when I suggest that a character might resemble him, he retorts amusedly: "So you see me as this sort of tweedy, bow-tied, suede-waistcoated, donnish fop?" Just occasionally he might pronounce a question "interesting".

The splendidly enjoyable new book, England, England (Cape, pounds 15.99), is a typical Barnes novel only in that it is completely unlike any of his others. It concerns the efforts of rumbustious, self-made entrepreneur Sir Jack Pitman to set up an England theme park on the Isle of Wight. Stonehenge, black taxi cabs, double-decker buses, Devonshire cream teas, the White Cliffs of Dover, The Times of London, the King and Queen: all are transplanted wholesale to "England, England". In a series of rollicking Socratic dialogues between Pitman and his hired fusillade of academics and lawyers, it is argued that historical "authenticity" is always an invention.

This conceit is woven together with the story of the book's heroine, 39-year-old Martha Cochrane, who takes a job as Pitman's Appointed Cynic and becomes involved with a colleague. The book's dark emotional crux is whether Martha can chip away the mineral accretions of invention and memory in her own love life to arrive at something real.

Sir Jack is a fine creation, thoroughly wrong-footing the reader's expectations. He is rapacious, yet cultured and clever. "When you're dealing with these large, seemingly grotesque entrepreneurs," Barnes says, "the liberal-intellectual assumption is that they're vulgar. I mean come on, you know, we would like Rupert Murdoch to be someone who grew up with a bush hat and corks hanging from its rim - but he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford! It doesn't make it easier for us," he chuckles, before adding, almost to himself: "But then, why should things be made easier for us?"

The fascination of what's difficult. Barnes's fiction is so unpredictable because he is such an obsessively versatile stylist. "You don't want to go to the grave having not tried out every prose facility and faculty you've got," he says. From the murmured sensuality of Metroland, to the dazzling polyphony of A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters, to the fiercely sotto voce satire of The Porcupine, and the carnivalesque glee of much of England, England: there's no single, identifiable authorial style. "I think writing novels is about abnegating yourself as a person in the text," Barnes theorises modestly.

Does he think he's been influential on younger writers? "I hardly think there's a Julian Barnes school out there," he laughs. "I'd be rather appalled at the idea." (I put the question to Alain de Botton, a writer whose formally ludic work is sometimes reminiscent of Barnes's. "Other writers definitely give you a freedom to try out things," he enthuses. "Barnes is an innovator in the form of the novel, and he does have this European sensibility, which is very interesting.")

The vanishing Julian Barnes leaves only a tone behind. When pressed to describe his strengths, he eventually offers, carefully: "I think that sometimes I have a tone of voice which makes for an easy and, I hope, trusting intimacy with the reader ... I suppose I want to hook the reader with a narrative tone of voice which they're willing to go all the way with, which says: 'I know where I'm going, I know what I'm up to. Come aboard.'"

What can't he do? Long pause. "Updike's rendering of the surface of things," Barnes suggests. "His last book opened with about 10 different descriptions of snow, and it's as if he has the sensibility of an Inuit. And I know that I could stare at snow for a long time, and I could probably do ... oh, two sorts of snow, probably do a paragraph of each. But I simply don't have the eye - it's almost a skin thing; Updike of course famously suffered from psoriasis, so it's almost as if he's too sensitive to the world. But I'm a bit more thick-skinned."

One writes automatically to one's strengths. "It's not as if you think you'd like to write a novel about Derby Day and then think 'Whoops! Haven't got the talent!'," Barnes grins. "I'm describing it objectively, whereas it's inevitably much more of a question of sort of instinct and feel." This is a recurring tic: the one-time OED lexicographer prefaces the more primal, Anglo-Saxon words like "feel" (or "like") with "sort of", or else puts them explicitly in quotation marks. A distaste for potential misinterpretation.

Like most people, Barnes prefers to be in control. The ending of England, England, is extremely bleak. "Well, I think a lot of lives end bleakly, don't they?" Barnes shoots back. "The characters get the endings that the book is there to provide them." So a novel is a sausage-machine for processing characters? What about the endings that the characters might logically require? "I don't think people get the endings they logically require in life, do you?" No, but they might in books. "Well, I think books should be nearer life than a lot of books are, don't you?" Barnes finishes, triumphantly.

Perhaps this is a little disingenuous. Because in Barnes's own professed view, England, England's one weakness might be precisely that it is so removed from life's mess: that it is so exquisitely constructed, that the themes of public and private memory interleave with such gentle, mutual sparks, that the tiny symbols - a jigsaw piece here, a village fete there - explode so prettily to illuminate the structure. Still, no one reads Barnes for grimy, documentary realism. You can get that at home.

Later on, Barnes springs to life once more. He gets out a scrap of paper and scribbles the secret location of a beautiful little bed-and-breakfast he knows in deepest France, called The Egg-Hunting Father. "Le pere aux quetes d'oeuf - l'auberge," he roars happily, before dashing out onto the sunny conference-room balcony, grabbing a passing pigeon from the air and biting its head off. Blood streams down his chin and, congealing fast, plasters feathers to it at odd angles; the decapitated avian still flaps furiously in his huge hands. I switch off my tape recorder, as the interview seems to be over.

8 England, England is published by Cape at pounds 15.99

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