Review | Monday 29 October 2012
The Sense of an Ending took out the 2011 Booker Prize around this time last year. For me, this elegant, witty collection thus marks something of an anniversary, and a wonderful starting place for encountering Julian Barnes.
These 17 essays (and one short story) taken from various points between 1996 and 2012 are devoted to fiction ‘and its associated forms’. Barnes is a prolific and critically acclaimed writer, but chiefly a mad bibliophile (one might get a hint of this in his very short and popular essay, A Life With Books).
He is also a poet of the normal and the everyday, although he focuses really, as readers of both his novels and short fiction will know, on the thoroughly extraordinary currents that lie beneath. The heroes of Through the Window are his kindred spirits – those who sing the tragic and terrible adventures of quotidian life: Penelope Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Lorrie Moore, Rudyard Kipling and John Updike (everyone seems to like Updike). Barnes celebrates the forgotten protectors and preservers of art – translators, travellers, restorers and cataloguers. And every essay, meticulously informed and well read, is a little story in itself.
The writing is occasionally academic to the point of dryness and the odd section may leave you a little cold (I found his reflection on Houellebecq a little too convenient), but never for too long. The essays are friendly, chatty, a book club chaired by a retired professor. Hemingway, Wharton and Flaubert may still be on my ‘to read’ list, but in Barnes’ hands, unfamiliarity – quickly made short-term – is no barrier to appreciation and enjoyment. And the final essay, ‘Regulating Sorrow’, is a quietly magnificent meditation on death, that most and least literary event of all.
Barnes observes that ‘the best fiction rarely provides answers; but it does formulate the questions exceptionally well’. Here, within the essay, he matches the feat.
Imogen Dewey is a bookseller at Readings Carlton. She reads chocolate and eats books. She has next to no general knowledge, but does have a diet quite high in fibre.