Saturday, July 13, 2013

Through the Window by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes always feels like a writer insufficiently lauded -- even after winning the Man Booker Prize for his last novel, The Sense of an Ending, a couple of years back, he's never had the attention of his flashier contemporaries like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie. And yet Barnes has been more formally interesting than any of those contemporaries, from brilliant and formally complex novels of his early career like Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters to less flashy but equally incisive later novels like Love, etc. through his books of stories like The Lemon Table -- he's kept writing books of short stories long after most writers abandon them for novels -- and a thread of serious non-fiction, from his Letters from London for The New Yorker to the precise mediation on death Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Perhaps it is that very facility, the breadth of his work, that has kept him from those literary-bestseller heights -- the next Julian Barnes book is guaranteed to be very different from the last one.

Through the Window keeps up that streak; it follows a collection of stories, Pulse, with a very different collection: these seventeen essays (and one closely related short story) are all about writers and writing, mostly from the prior decade and mostly from the Guardian. There are three pieces from the late '90s, but it's all relatively recent Barnes; Through the Window collects the thoughts of the mature Barnes on what we presume are the writers most important to him, or the ones he had the most to say about. (That's likely more of a presumption than we should make; Barnes was writing, in all of these cases, for a specific editorial purpose and time, rather than planning the book from scratch -- it's possible that several writers he considers even more vital just didn't come up.)

Barnes is mostly writing about his predecessors here, Orwell and Ford Madox Ford, Kipling and Johnson, Wharton and Arthur Clough, though he does write about some influences whose careers overlapped his, Penelope Fitzgerald and Lorie Moore and John Updike. And what Barnes has to say about each of those writers is measured and thoughtful and based on long experience -- the impetus for many of these pieces may have been an immediate news hook (a new edition, new scholarship, an anniversary), but Barnes's critical opinion exists already -- he's examining it in print on those occasions, but there's nothing quick or haphazard here.

So Through the Window is a quiet and bookish book; the result of long hours sat reading and thinking and arguing in one's own head about books and writers. And Barnes's head is a pleasant and well-ordered one to spend a few hours in, particularly if your favorite writers overlap somewhat with his, or if you suspect he'll lead you to new discoveries.

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