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Interview With a . . . Novelist

Photo by Jillian Edelstein

A very smooth customer, Julian Barnes. If his erstwhile friend Martin Amis is cool, then the author of Metroland, Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England, among other titles, seems just a little cold. Tall and chalkily pale, with a vampiric incisor slipping over his lower lip, he smiles a broad but weirdly unfocused smile and ushers me into Room 1169 of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s something a little unsettling about Barnes. Must be that incisor.

It’s a drenchingly wet day in Los Angeles, a day that would do London proud, but Barnes makes no mention of it. This is an Englishman who doesn’t talk about the weather. After indicating that I should sit on the sofa, the 55-year-old novelist seats himself with his back to the 11th-floor window misty with cloud and rain. He wears clumpy shoes and multicolored socks, but from the ankles up he’s stylishly attired in black pants, a gray open-necked shirt and a dark-blue sleeveless sweater. His hands are perfectly manicured and very, very clean. “The L.A. Weekly?” he says quizzically in his gentle voice. “Please explain.”

Although he shifts in his seat from time to time, will scratch the back of his head, cross his legs, fold his arms or thoughtfully stroke his chin, Barnes has an unnerving quality of controlled stillness. (Both his parents were schoolteachers, which may account for it.) You ask a question, and the answer comes . . . and ends, followed by silence. You ask another one, and the gentle voice once again glides through its sentences with just the faintest trace of condescension and then . . . stops. There is something cloyingly nice about that voice; it reminds me of those public-radio announcers who sound as if they’re speaking to very small children.

Barnes’ new book, Love, etc., is a sequel of sorts to Talking It Over, which he published in 1991. Like its “progenitor” (Barnes’ word), it’s a Rashomon-like inquiry into truth in which the characters speak directly to the reader without the novelist’s intervention. Essentially, it’s a play for voices in which two close friends, Oliver, a savagely erudite and witty dandy of no fixed profession, and Stuart, an intelligent but comparatively plodding businessman, wrestle for the affections of Gillian, an engaging but inscrutable picture restorer. Gillian married Stuart in Talking It Over, but left him shortly afterward for Oliver, who effortlessly outclassed his buddy in the seduction department. Now — tanned, rested and ready — the cuckolded Stuart is back, having made his fortune in the organic-food market in the States. Ten years have passed, and the brilliant Oliver’s career has gone nowhere. But Stuart has money. Stuart has power. And women are notoriously partial to men with both. Slowly but surely, the tortoise is overtaking the hare. “The first volume was largely comic, and this is darker,” Barnes says. “The characters are beginning to realize that they haven’t got many more chances left in life.”

The critic James Wood once described Barnes as “a brilliant essayist inside whom a novelist is struggling to get out,” but Talking It Over and Love, etc. make nonsense of that remark. As characters, Oliver, Stuart and Gillian are almost palpably real, and only a novelist of enormous gifts could have created them. Which is why it feels perfectly natural to sit around talking about them as if they had just left the room. I ask Barnes which of his three creations interests him the most, now that he’s gone through two books with them and may eventually make it a trilogy.

“I think the third [volume] would have to be much more about Gillian, who is the most enigmatic, though some women find her clearly the most manipulative of the characters,” he replies. “I guess the easiest to write is Oliver, but I don’t know if that means he’s the one who intrigues me the most. Maybe Stuart. Maybe it’s always the tortoise who has the fascination, rather than the hare. Stuart’s turning nasty. I always like comedies where there’s suddenly a chill, like Much Ado About Nothing, when you get the line ‘Kill Claudio!’ And you think, ‘Aha!’”

Love, etc. is Barnes’ ninth novel. He has also published a book of short stories and a collection of his New Yorker dispatches from London. Two of his books have been made into films, and all are in print. He is translated widely and sells well. (In 1996, he marked his millionth paperback sale in Britain alone.) For Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), still his best-known book, his publisher amassed laudatory blurbs from an almost embarrassingly stellar cast of writers: Graham Greene, Joseph Heller, John Fowles, Diane Johnson, John Irving, Francis Steegmuller, Walter Abish, Richard Ellmann and Fran Lebowitz (“Flaubert’s Parrot, c’est moi”). Nothing he’s written since has been quite such a hit, and like the novelists he came up with — Amis, McEwan, Rushdie, et al. — he is no longer quite so fashionable as he once was. “I think he’s a fine writer, it’s just that I’m not remotely interested in anything that he writes,” a younger British novelist told me recently. “I think it’s that tendency of the English to be very clever and dry and rather cold. They’re generally not very good at dealing with emotion and sensuality and anything like that.”

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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