To readers of the New Yorker, Julian Barnes writes measured letters from London. To Martin Amis, he writes an intemperate, flailing epistle of rage. Whatever happened to a cold fish?
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THERE IS a party game which occasionally throws up spectacular insights. It is simply this: a room of people is required to define a person present by writing one word each on a piece of paper. The result might go like this: headstrong, pusillanimous, irksome, considerate, monstrous, lost, pernickety, frayed. To the embarrassment of the subject and the glee of the party, the list is then read out. There is usually some sort of consensus in the adjectives, but occasionally you get a wild disparity, which may say a little about the party, but always more about the subject.

Play the telephonic version of this game with Julian Barnes as the subject and what you get is this: "Um... Julian... Yes... Well, Julian. Frightfully loyal; bit of mystery; very polite, funny... err... I don't know - Julian's Julian." That was one of his friends a couple of weeks ago who, seeing that he was fresh out of aptness, asked to remain anonymous. Admittedly, this may not be a good moment to play the game with one of the premier names of English fiction, since most of his contemporaries, while not exactly at each other's throats, have been driven into a sort of edgy Balkanisation by Martin Amis's famous half-million-pound advance: on this, more later. Still, even in more peaceful times one suspects that Julian Barnes perplexes his friends. From an initial survey he is: reserved, cool, wary, private, fastidious, pertinacious, francophile, resistant, attentive and amused. ("Stuck up", being two words, didn't count). But these only work as approximate coordinates. Barnes remains elusive, and apparently happy about it.

I met him in his publisher's offices in Chelsea, not at the large Victorian house in north London which he shares with his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. He is a young 49, trim and, one guesses, not easily tempted by excesses of drink, food or intimacy. He has a curious face: a profile as distinct as Wellington's and a rather monkish, ascetic formality, head- on. He has pale eyes and pale skin - in fact, the pallor of the scriptorium. He dresses carefully, with a touch of schoolmaster-in-suprising-holiday- gear. And, like schoolmasters one has known, he does not go in for the conversational convention of allowing things to pass: he wants detail and challenges sloppy questions. This is definitely a man with a tidy desk, a person who is likely to wash his hands a lot.

At the beginning of his career he had two writing persona, Julian Barnes and Dan Kavanagh, author of four thrillers about a bisexual investigator called Duffy who seems to spend a lot of time in unlikely clinches. Under his own name he has written seven novels, but these do not actually help with the coordinates that we are after, because the novels seem to have none of the consistent personality that you find in the work of most authors. It is as if he wrote them wearing surgical gloves, like a safe-cracker who won't allow his fingerprints to connect up the jobs.

They are all of them clever, and by far the cleverest is Flaubert's Parrot, a hybrid of incidental biography and fiction. Many of the facts are real, but the obsessive doctor in pursuit of Flaubert is Barnes's own marvellous creation. It is a book for the sophisticate who has learnt to mistrust the motives of writers and biographers, and it makes the point that we should not rely on the evidence that the past has left us. Barnes makes us doubt what we know about Flaubert but at the same time clamps his jump- leads on to Flaubert's genius.

Then there is the A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters, which takes roughly the same essayistic form as the Parrot and rejoices in all sorts of dazzling wit. It is scholarly and exciting and deft and unforgettable; but little doubts may form in the reader's mind: "Is Barnes being straight with me? Have I missed something? Why do I feel unsettled and foolish?" The reader may turn to the author's photograph on the dust jacket and examine Barnes's poker smile, trying to fathom if he's hiding something. But there's no clue: he just looks pleased that you've bought his book.

Barnes is clever and is also obsessed with cleverness. One of things clever male novelists do is to portray women - Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, Flaubert and Emily Bovary. Barnes has applied himself to this task in Staring At The Sun, with the character of Jean Serjeant, and with Gillian in Talking It Over. Both books strain to capture an intimate female voice but do not do so in a way that I recognise. Still, there is the gift-wrapped prose to divert you and, later, when you've finished the book, the absorbing question of what the hell he's been up to. You can't help but admire the bravura, but where are the themes? What connects his first book, Metroland, with his most recent novel Porcupine? Taken as an oeuvre the novels leave you, or rather me, impressed, but baffled. I reach for crazy explanations: perhaps Julian Barnes is a pseudonym for someone else? Or perhaps the books have been written by different members of a Julian Barnes collective, and the person who sat opposite me at the publishing house was a front man for some huge literary hoax? This is why his collected pieces from the New Yorker magazine, Letters from London 1990-1995 (published by Picador on Friday) are welcome. For here is Julian Barnes nakedly performing the role of reporter, without the benefit of disguises or literary gimmicks, in a magazine which is famous for its fact-checking and which will therefore have made doubly sure that Barnes has written all that he says he has.

The formality of working for the New Yorker, especially under the magazine's previous editor, Bob Gottlieb, appealed to him. Barnes is, after all, a man who likes to punctuate, and while it would be going too far to call him a pedant, one can imagine him enjoying rather specialised questions about syntax. These would have been conducted mostly on the phone, because New York is, incidentally, a place he cannot abide: "It makes me paranoid. It makes you feel completely unimportant. It's an extreme projection of the basic values of Western society. It's scary and noisy."

He also warmed to the project of explaining England to an American audience. "The strange thing was knowing that you were writing for a highly intelligent and cultured readership, who were on the whole likely to be anglophile, but yet were equally likely to be ignorant beyond what is described in posh American newspapers: the Royal Family, Mrs T, the Frederick West killings and so on. So I was quickly aware that a lot of things I would take for granted with an English audience would have to be explained. It never irritated me because it was technical problem, I had to objectify things - to use the jargon, defamiliarise them.

"Isn't it the case in journalism that you are saying things are understandable, reducable, whereas the propulsion of the novelist is to say things are less comprehensible, more chaotic, more anarchic than we like to believe them to be? You could crudely say that a novel asks questions and journalism tries to give answers - not to the same questions of course." He can be a good reporter, thorough and measured, which is perhaps surprising for a former television and book critic. His previous journalism was spirited stuff composed at a desk, never requiring much in the way of a reporter's note-pads, tape-recorders and difficult telephone calls. I said that there was something that reminded me of the butterfly- collector in his work. He looked impatient, but I pressed on: I saw him going out netting these facts, bringing them back and, after due attention, mounting them in a cabinet. It seemed to me that he didn't just net facts but also precisely rendered sensations. "Surely that's what all writers should be doing. All journalists ought to be going out and finding out not only the true facts, but what the resonant facts are. The facts that illuminate," he said huffily. He is a polite man, and if he disagrees with you he looks away. At one point I asked if he ever lost his temper. "Very rarely, and never with fact-checkers," he said, disarming my intrusion.

COLLECTIONS of pieces, written for a foreign audience, have the makings of humungously dull tomes. But reading Letters From London I found myself surprised by some of the things Barnes had retrieved from our national life, things that I had forgotten, or which had been overwhelmed by newspaper coverage at the time. For instance, I had completely forgotten the fact which he uses in a piece about the departure of Mrs Thatcher: that she won 204 votes in the first ballot of the leadership contest in 1990 while John Major was only supported by 185 Conservative MPs in the following week. And his article on the Lloyd's dbcle is a model of narration and selection, one of the best accounts of the affair that social historians of the future will have.

He is good at spotting what he calls resonant facts, which give off a sort of radioactivity. He uses the technique in his novels, too, deploying interesting finds from Flaubert's life or the painting of The Raft of the Medusa by Gricault (A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters) which have spooky glow to them.

One of the qualities of his work (or is it a lack?) is his neutrality on moral and religious matters. He isn't a man for answers, but rather someone who reports on the problems of humanity in a world which for him has no meaning. "No, I don't have any religious sense at all. But I am interested in religion, as how can you not be when most people in the world for most of the history of the world believed? It would be nice if it were true. It would be very nice if when we die we were swept up by a loving god who gave us eternal life and forgave us our sins. But I think we are a bit short of evidence that this is the case. I don't look forward much to the prospect of eternal non-existence - it scares the hell out of me."

Is this why you write, I asked, to leave something behind?

"Perhaps, at some deep psychological level. But if you accept that you're heading for an eternity of non-existence, at some point down the length of eternity, even Shakespeare will appear banal, incompetent, and no one will perform his plays. So the idea of writing novels to somehow perpetuate yourself into eternity is ludicrously grand."

The same question is discussed by the two writers in Martin Amis's book, The Information. The character Gywn Barry, who is said to have something of Barnes in him, replies: "Isn't that what we scribble away for? Immortality? Anyway, I think my duty to literature is plain." In a way this rings true of Barnes, who probably does feel a duty to literature - or is it a duty to himself? Either way, he seems bent on displaying his virtuosity, jumping from one style to another and inventing new forms. Barnes can't just say a thing. Like Tom Stoppard, he must always lead you through a hall of mirrors first. And of course the other conspicuous advantage of this sort of agility is that it doesn't allow people to pin you down easily.

By all accounts Julian Barnes's life is moored between his writing, a close group of friends and his wife Pat Kavanagh, who makes a regular appearance in the dedication at the front of his books. She is his literary agent, and he is fiercely loyal to her, although she has a reputation of being well able to look after herself. She is a little older than he is, but they have a successful marriage, based on admiration of each other's strengths and a sort of we-two-against-the-world pact. They have had some rough times, but their basic understanding has survived. Last year she had an operation, and Barnes was the model of attention, giving up work to nurse her through her convalescence.

Barnes needs a fastness, and in his adult life has arranged things so he has always had one. Until a couple of months ago, Pat Kavanagh was also Martin Amis's agent, and the three of them were good friends, Barnes and Amis going back to their days on the New Statesman in the Seventies. The boys played snooker together, lunched, gossiped, argued and exchanged manuscripts. Between them was a rough parity of ambition, literary sophistication and winning tricksiness, although it is said that if anyone was keeping score, Barnes owed Amis because Amis gave him his first break at the New Statesman. It was there as the deputy literary editor under Amis and television reviewer that he first made a reputation as a funny writer. He also became known for playing elaborate practical jokes, one of which involved persuading the critic David Caute that he was being pursued by a group called the Agnes Varda Women's Collective.

There is a sense that Barnes's life really began at the New Statesman. He quickly became a member of the Oxford-London literary axis which also includes the poets Craig Raine and James Fenton, the travel writer Redmond O'Hanlon, the Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens and the novelists Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. For 20 years, the members of this group have more or less got on, although clearly there are different degrees of friendship and a few individually agreed treaties of mutual support within it. Then came Amis's The Information, which has proved something of a turning-point for them all.

As he completed the novel last year, Amis asked Pat Kavanagh to try to get £500,000 for The Information and a collection of short stories. The best offer she obtained was £460,000, and, in what is now an absurdly well-chronicled row, Amis fired Kavanagh, replacing her with the American agent Andrew Wylie, who duly picked up the half-mil advance.

After Amis had ditched Kavanagh, Barnes wrote him a short letter, which apparently hurt him deeply. As Barnes was defending his wife, one might reasonably imagine that it was not difficult to make Amis feel bad, but the letter he sent was more in the nature of flailing tantrum than deadly upper-cut, and the consensus is that he missed his mark. In the letter Barnes is said to have remarked that he was glad that Amis had found himself an agent, one of whose clients was under the sentence of death, another who was dying of Aids and a third who was confined to an asylum for the insane. The first obviously applies to Salman Rushdie, who had left his literary agent some years ago for Andrew Wylie; the other two must remain unnamed.

Just as things were beginning to quieten down and the two writers had retired to wonder whether their friendship was over for good, the novelist AS Byatt came bossily elbowing her way into the row and accused Amis of "male turkey-cocking". "I don't see," she said, "why I should subsidise his greed, simply because he has divorce to pay for and has just had his teeth redone." Salman Rushdie then declared for Amis by telling the New Yorker that Byatt had encouraged a media feeding frenzy and that she had been an accessory to an attempted character assassination.

Yes, this story is beginning to read like a hard-to-follow 18th-century melodrama; but one of the points to remember is that it cannot do any harm to the book sales of anyone involved. The other interesting thing has been the role of the New Yorker, which is now edited by Tina Brown, who went to Oxford a little while after Barnes's group. They still hold a fascination for her. Barnes worked for her until Christmas, Martin Amis (a former boyfriend) is her tennis correspondent and Julie Kavanagh (Barnes's sister-in-law) is the New Yorker's London editor. The past 18 months have seen profiles of Raine, Fenton and Rushdie. Brown clearly regretted missing the beginning of the spat but has made up for lost time by appointing herself as a kind of inflammatory umpire in its later stages. A few weeks ago the magazine explained the story and came up with the novel idea that Amis had been treated shamefully because he was not black.

Where does all this leave Barnes? Well, it leaves him on the outside doing a splendid impression of imperturbability. But the letter sent to Amis proves that he does lose his temper, and it makes you warm to him to know that he can do so, just as one finds the practical jokes and his dislike for certain individuals encouraging. (He has, for instance, a tremendous down on Sir Terence Conran, and no one has the first idea why.) What it all seems to indicate is that Barnes is not just Mr Perfect Punctuator. Beneath the crust there is magma which contains all sorts of unexpected characteristics. He has, for instance, a hatred of cats and a distaste for children.

When I saw him there was no hint of anguish or regret. "I mean... I don't want to talk about the Martin Amis business, but it seems to me extraordinary that in the course of all the coverage, almost no one has been interested in how good or bad a book it is. My wife says it is brilliant, and Peter Strauss, who is head of Picador and Macmillan, says it is wonderful. And that is what you have got to start with.

"Being a British writer 40 years ago was easier. A book was published, it was reviewed; it wasn't reviewed; it sold well; it sold badly." (It's odd how some writers produce the rhythm of their prose in speech. I was reminded of the passage in Flaubert's Parrot which runs: "I loved her; we were happy; I miss her; she didn't love me; we were unhappy; I miss her.")

He continued. "Something like 10 years might pass before someone came and asked you about the book. Now you find the whole process speeded up. Literary biography seems to arrive before the book." One is reminded of a passage in the Amis book in which a literary agent says: "People are very interested in writers. Successful ones. More interested in the writers than the writing. In the writer's lives. For some reason. You and I both know they mainly sit at home all day."

In the autumn Barnes will go to John Hopkins University in Baltimore to teach creative writing for three months. How he chooses to represent English fiction to the American audience will be interesting. "If you travel abroad you find they are quite interested in what is going on at the moment. There always has to be some sort of current formula. There is the one that Salman Rushdie started some years back about the empire strikes back - the idea that the British novel has been revivified by the people of Commonwealth origin. But I think this happens to be a time when there are lots of varied writers."

One critic has said of Barnes that he has a voice, but no style; an attractive tone, but not a fictional world of his own. He looked irritated when I mentioned this and failed to address the point. Instead he said: "It's always the job of the next generation of critics to try to assassinate the earlier generation of writers. When I was a critic on the New Statesman the idea that John Braine should be still publishing novels offended me. But the true assassination is carried out by the next generation of novelists, not critics, and therefore you wait to see what they do.

"I was taught a very early lesson about reviewing when my first book came out at the same time as a novel by Melvyn Bragg. They were batched [reviewed together], and one half of the reviews would say, `Beside Melvyn Bragg's mighty symphony of a novel Julian Barnes provides a piccolo quartet.' The others would say: `Compared to the lunatic sprawl of Melvyn Bragg's new work, Julian Barnes shows what control can do on a precise scale.' You think, you can't believe both of them, so you shouldn't believe either."

I asked whether he agreed with James Wood, the chief book reviewer of the Guardian, that his tone was incurably jaunty.

"I mean, it's not worth considering. Would you rather be called jaunty, or unjaunty? Sometimes I am blamed for being clever. Would I rather be blamed for being stupid? Probably on the whole I'd rather be classified as jaunty and clever."

In person he is both, so we may add these to the party game list mentioned earlier. They do not take us much further on the character of Julian Barnes and we are left with the impression that he is a perplexing individual and a bit of cold fish. But it is his books which matter, and in the final minutes of the interview he did explain why it is difficult to find the thread which runs through them.

I had spotted a remark he had made in the Eighties, when he said that he could not start a new book without in some way being convinced that it was a new departure for the novel. Not just for him, but for the history of the novel: it seemed a dreadful imposition. Did he still feel that? "Yes I do feel that. One part of your brain knows that you are writing in a literary and social continuum and that what you write is dependent on the fiction that has gone before. But in order to inhabit the novel that you're writing and make it live, you have to think of it as something completely special."

Barnes is a kind of "multi-tasker", a writer who has been absorbed by the different tests available in literature. Not content with the individual challenges of history, biography, fiction, essays, highbrow reporting, criticism and thriller writing, he has effected mergers between them. This is the way he makes each book special to him. Some have worked beautifully and his oeuvres have been great adventures in form. But how much of it all comes from the heart is anyone's guess. !