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Such potshots probably wouldn’t bother Barnes. He’s too high in the literary firmament, way out of range. When he gets back to London, he’ll be putting the finishing touches to a second collection of short stories. He’ll also be “knocking into shape” a book of essays about France, a country which made him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988 and an Officier of same in 1995. Both Barnes’ parents taught French, and although he has the old-fashioned face of a highly intelligent RAF flight commander, there is something distinctly Gallic about his long, ultradiscriminating nose. It’s a nose designed to inhale the bouquet of a vintage wine or sniff skeptically at a mediocre cheese.
Or at a critique — as I discover when I mention a recent article by British journalist Bryan Appleyard. In it, Appleyard makes the case that the contemporary American novel is superior to its British counterpart. American novelists like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, he argues, “map, analyze and judge the condition of their nation.” Their aims are epic and prophetic; they write grand national narratives, as in John Updike’s Rabbit series or DeLillo’s Underworld. In comparison, British writers have much smaller ambitions. Looked at this way, an intimate domestic drama like Love, etc. might be a case in point.
Far from annoying him, the charge seems to fill Barnes with contentment: another absurd critic. He stretches his legs out and settles more deeply into his chair, never more comfortable than when he’s about to stick in the knife. “Appleyard writes that piece at regular intervals,” he murmurs. “He did actually write a novel himself once, and nobody paid any attention. Not that that has anything to do with it, I’m sure.”
I laugh, Barnes smiles. Then he continues. “There’s nothing you can say to that, except that when you go to Spain or France or Italy, everyone says, ‘The English novel is very interesting at the moment.’ In France, they even say it’s more interesting than the French novel. And in the States, they don’t say, ‘Why are you writing these piddling little novels instead of engaging with major issues like we are?’ They say, ‘The English novel is doing something different from the American novel, and thank God that it is!’”
The ostensible modesty of Barnes’ ambition — no grand national narratives here, though he did once relate A History of the World in 10½ Chapters— is apparent in the brevity of his fiction. Unlike the baggy 800-page monsters other authors inflict on the Age of the Short Attention Span, his come in at a tidy 200 or 300 pages. As a reader, one feels grateful. Is it a deliberate policy on his part?
“It’s just how I write them,” he answers. “I think some people write long novels because they think they must be important if they’re that long. But if you’re going to write something as long as Anna Karenina, it had better be good. Every so often, a whopping new novel will come out by one of my contemporaries, and I’ll think, ‘Hang on, I haven’t read . . . you know, Ford Madox Ford’s First World War quartet.’ So I’ll say to myself, ‘I know, I’ll read that instead!’ And then I’m very grateful to this guy for having made me read some great novel I’d never read.”
The interview over, Barnes rises from his chair, shakes my hand — “Nice to meet you,” “Nice to meet you” — and walks me to the door. Then the door to Room 1169 closes. Softly, of course. Politely. But firmly.
LOVE, ETC. | By JULIAN BARNES Alfred A. Knopf | 227 pages | $23 hardcover
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