I met a man who wasn't there

Julian Barnes is hard to pin down. He can see you coming from a mile off. So, just how autobiographical is his new novel, Love etc? And what about that rift with Martin Amis?
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It's a little unnerving to interview Julian Barnes. This is not because there's anything remotely intimidating about his manner - which is watchfully courteous and manages to suggest that the rituals of publicity are a matter of noblesse oblige. It's more that he's become the English brand leader for a certain kind of intellectual sportsmanship. His fictions are unusually prone to argument, often anticipating objections and interruptions on the part of the reader. And, by and large, he always wins the arguments. So, as you sit there clearing your throat, you can't help wondering whether your questions will make it through Customs.

It's a little unnerving to interview Julian Barnes. This is not because there's anything remotely intimidating about his manner - which is watchfully courteous and manages to suggest that the rituals of publicity are a matter of noblesse oblige. It's more that he's become the English brand leader for a certain kind of intellectual sportsmanship. His fictions are unusually prone to argument, often anticipating objections and interruptions on the part of the reader. And, by and large, he always wins the arguments. So, as you sit there clearing your throat, you can't help wondering whether your questions will make it through Customs.

It isn't much easier to write the conversation up, either, because he's also a writer with an exacting eye, one who likes to tease and toy with a cliché before expertly breaking its back. He may be one of our most playful novelists - a man capable of giving a major speaking role to a sardonic woodworm - but he is serious too, at least when it comes to received opinions and verbal indolence.

Which is why it feels safer to move briskly past the descriptive furniture of the conventional interview. With what do his blue eyes sparkle? With appraising intelligence. What do his clothes reveal? A man indifferent to fashion but not to sartorial finish. How does he guard his privacy? Pretty closely - and probably more closely still since an eagerly reported falling out with Martin Amis over the latter's decision to dispense with the services of Barnes's wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Amis has subsequently written about the breach in his memoir Experience but Barnes has maintained a vow of silence on the matter.

And he's cautious in other respects - we were originally to meet in a pub to talk about his latest book, Love etc, but when this proves impractical he agrees to let me come to his house on the condition that I don't use its contents as a form of domestic psychological sketch - the world of Julian Barnes's interior is not open to the public.

Only a fool would try to reverse a question about the row with Amis through an opening this narrow and well-guarded - but for an awkward few moments in the middle of our conversation I am that fool, venturing a few clumsily generalised questions about male friendship (the new book is, in part, an account of the soured relationship between two men) in the hope they might pay off. This interrogative juggernaut mounts the pavement, scrapes against a wall, rocks a bollard - hissing and shuddering as its sweating driver attempts to get the angle right - and all the while Barnes looks on like a passer-by who knows it's never going to fit, but finds the spectacle too diverting to intervene. The closest we ever get is a gnomic reference to "other interferences" when I ask him whether he resents the press interest in his private life.

He has fought a steady rearguard action against the autobiographical fallacy - the ineradicable conviction of many readers that novels are essentially disguised confessions. This is not so much of a problem, obviously, when Barnes writes about a Victorian lady traveller, as he did in one of the stories in A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, or about a deposed communist ruler, as he did in his concise and brilliant novella The Porcupine. But his accounts of love, marriage and sex in north London prove more of a stimulant to confusion between the "I" of the novelist and the "I" of the character - and I get some sense of his tenderness on the subject after I ask him whether he resents the adjective "clever", a word which faithfully dogs him through the press cuttings. "Better than being called stupid, isn't it?" he replies. This is true, but doesn't "clever" often take away as much as it gives in English usage? He concedes the point and after a brief wrangle about whether the concealed insult is one of intellectual frivolity or emotional chilliness I note that Oliver - one of the lead characters in Love etc - offers a fine example of the hazards of cleverness. "Oh yes," Barnes agrees, "you're meant to have quite sharp reactions to Oliver - but he's not based on me." His tone is suddenly admonitory, as if he wants to stamp this kind of thing out before it gets out of hand.

As it happens I hadn't made any such assumption, though it's understandable that he might be on his guard. For Love etc, geographically at least, comes much closer to home than his last book, England, England, a fantasia set on the Isle of Wight. The latest novel is oxymoronic. It is both very funny and very bleak, a departure and a return: a departure from the studious variegation of his publications' list, and a return to the characters and plotline of his 1991 novel Talking It Over. (This was the book in which Oliver, Stuart and Gillian took turns to tell a story of infidelity and marital breakdown.) "I thought I had given Talking It Over an ending, but it became clear I hadn't - because people gave me their interpretations of what happened afterwards and they were often radically different. I knew that I had enjoyed writing a book where I was as absent as I could possibly be, where the character and the readers were left alone in very close company."

The exact degree of that authorial absenteeism proves a bit more tricky to establish. When I suggest that the sequel (a word he uses himself) finds itself in a time of frenzied self-exposure quite different from that of the original, he gets up suddenly without saying anything and walks over to the book shelves. What he reads out is a passage from Talking It Over in which Gillian deplores the hysterical candour of the age. "I thought at the time that I was writing in a climate of psychopathic confessionalism," Barnes says wryly, "but now you get these emotional chain-letters. Someone you've never heard of's marriage collapses. They write a column about it. The column becomes a book; the divorced husband or wife reviews it; the best friend says 'Oh well that wasn't true either'."

The difference with Love, etc, of course, is that Barnes does all the voices, with marvellous fidelity to incompatible perspectives: Oliver's curdled flâneur wit, wilting badly in middle age; Stuart's humourless common sense; Gillian's wary, defensive observations. The latter include a funny and acute account of the comfortable rut of marital sex, but when I suggest that this, at least, must have some roots in personal experience (if it's revealing for a mere reader to acknowledge its accuracy, then surely the writer can't get off scot-free) he digs his heels in.

"No, the ability to imagine is part of what being a fiction writer is about. And it is why a fiction writer is qualitatively different from a journalist's confession of how her husband buggered off, it seems to me. Fiction involves being able to make a scene out of something that may not have happened to you at all, that you have observed, that you've heard about or that you've experienced a tiny bit of and that you then expand."

This is not a wrangle I am likely to win - mostly because Barnes has the better case but also because he doesn't yield a point easily. "I'm very competitive when I play sport," he admits at one point. "I struggle to behave well." So where is his own literary game at its strongest, then? He laughs at the question: "This is the point in the interview where you turn into the professional footballer and say: 'Well I think Barnesy's strengths are...'." But the answer is revealing all the same. "I think I have an ease with the reader - you're talking about readers who like you, of course - but I think I feel quite relaxed in the reader's presence in the books." But, if he won't budge an inch on the question of authorial revelation, he readily concedes that this meeting must be an intimate one. "Fiction is as intimate as sex," he says. "A reader in the presence of a completely absorbing book is, it seems to me, intertwined as closely with the writer of that book as anyone is in bed, and responsive in probably more ways."

It's only when it's too late to ask that I wonder how you can be intimate with someone who supposedly isn't there at all.

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