Through the Window, By Julian Barnes

A spider's guide to the web

Essays are a luxury item, the preserve of big hitters who find themselves between novels with a contract to honour. That's not to say that the form can't provide some insightful gems as Julian Barnes's Through the Window, his follow-up to the Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, illustrates with precision.

In the preface to this compilation of 17 essays and one short story, Barnes informs us that this book is concerned with fiction: "how it works and why it works and when it doesn't". This is true, but as a writers' writer he gives equal force to characters who spend their lives fabricating in the hope of hitting on a truth. As Virginia Woolf put it: "Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners." Well, Barnes is something of an arachnologist and in this anthology he has pinned down a surprising selection of specimens.

The novelists who come under his glass vary from the understated, such as Penelope Fitzgerald and Lorrie Moore, to the bombastic – including Michel Houellebecq who was awarded the Prix Novembre on which Barnes judged (the Frenchman collected the cheque in "a baggy sweater and rumpled scarlet jeans"). These portraits are pitch perfect; Barnes is understandably sympathetic to a novelist's odd psychology, even one as hammy as Houellebecq's.

There are many delightful biographical and bibliographical details among the literary criticism. Ford Maddox Ford was an avid kitchen gardener and Kipling and Conan Doyle were apparently golf buddies who "once played a round together in the snows of Vermont with the balls painted red". The single short story, "Homage to Hemingway", is an oddity, a three-parter about a novelist reduced to teaching creative writing. Barnes likes to baffle and here he succeeds: it's a peculiar sketch that roughs out an idea of what it might be like to be a writer in decline.

Two recurring themes emerge from this anthology: France and death. Barnes is a keen observer of both lands. The Gallic realm shapes up as a potent muse while mortality hangs like a buzzard over many of these pages, hovering almost out of sight in the Lorrie Moore profile, swooping in for a tribute to the late John Updike, and landing, talons out in the final entry, "Regulating Sorrow". In this mournful, obliquely personal and superbly formed piece, Barnes compares the widow memoirs of Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion while considering the nature of grief. It is both wry ("Foreign travel is advised. So is getting a dog") and blunt ("It hurts just as much as it is worth"). I say obliquely personal as Barnes's wife, the agent Pat Kavanagh, died four years ago. It's a fact that he does not mention and yet his loss punctuates every line. It takes a novelist, with all his spidery web-weaving, to write an essay so touching yet so elusive.

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