I can think of many reasons for ejecting a dinner guest: injecting heroin between courses, using a dessert spoon for soup, throwing up on the host's cat.
Julian Barnes has an even lower tolerance for bad behaviour. When one guest bad-mouthed Ford Madox Ford's novel The Good Soldier, Barnes sprang into action. "I four-lettered him out of the house," he told Hermione Lee in the first of their rollicking two-parter, Ford Madox Ford and France.
With its unreliable narrator and its intricate structure of flashbacks, The Good Soldier, published in 1915, is a very modern novel, and Lee's deft exposition of its plot sent me scurrying to Amazon (with apologies to all good bookshops). But the bulk of a fascinating programme dealt with the man himself – a beached whale, a behemoth in grey tweeds, a porcine Falstaff, as his friends described him (heaven knows what his enemies said).
He was also an unreliable narrator himself, claiming to have led a battalion over the top in the Great War (he was a transport officer behind the lines), helped Marconi send the first radio signals across the Atlantic, and been told by Escoffier that he could teach the great chef a thing or two about cooking. He did, however, as editor of The English Review and then, in Paris, the Transatlantic Review, discover or champion the likes of Lawrence, Hardy, Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, Rhys, William Carlos Williams and Basil Bunting.
He had no reason to fabricate anything about his tortuous and tangled love life (he spent 15 days in Brixton jail, for example, when his wife sued his lover for libel). Anyway, it all left me panting for more in part two.
If The Good Soldier helped usher in the modern era, there was also the sense of frontiers being trampled in Case Study: The Man Who Was Disappointed With What He Saw, which told the tale of Sidney Bradford, blind since he was three months old. In 1959, when he was 52, a corneal graft restored his sight – and his case revolutionised our ideas on visual perception.
His plight – for plight it was – showed how expectations and context affect how we see. When he examined a piece of machinery he felt it all over. "Now I've touched it I can see," he said. Traffic, though, became terrifying – he felt handicapped for the first time in his life. Friends' faces were a mystery to him. Looking around him, all he saw was dirt and peeling paintwork. He became clinically depressed and killed himself.
Compare his case with that of Mike May, whose sight was restored a few years ago. When he opened his eyes, his wife was smiling – he knew that because her cheeks were "bunched-up". Since then he's worked to develop a visual library of clues to help his brain interpret visual information. You knew from the programme that he'll be fine, unlike poor Sidney Bradford.Reuse content