Julian Barnes: master of fiction with whole worlds living in his prose

In 1989, in the closing pages of his novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Julian Barnes imagined what heaven might be like. Before his amiable narrator sussed that an eternity of happiness – the perfect breakfast sausage, the return of his favourite corduroy trousers, endless exceptional golf scorecards and an audience with Judy Garland – might eventually pall, he experienced something really worth getting excited about. “They’re a good team,” he wrote of Leicester City, “a very good team sometimes, yet they never seem to win the big ones.” In heaven though, not only did Leicester win the FA Cup, but their entire team was selected to play for England, whereupon they sailed to World Cup victory.

Life might not quite be imitating art, but Leicester City are certainly riding high; whether they’ll top the table when Barnes, who supports them because he was born in Leicester and stuck with them even though his family subsequently moved to London, celebrates his 70th birthday later this month is likely to be a close-run thing. But the author will have other distractions aside from the fancy footwork of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez – for January also sees the publication of his 12th novel, The Noise of Time, his first full-length work of fiction since 2011’s Man Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending.

The Noise of Time tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer both feted and condemned by the Soviet state during his lifetime; but it does so not in aridly “truthful” fashion, but in full, delighted knowledge of how little use facts are in determining the essence of human experience, let alone its intersection with history and politics. “Shostakovich was a multiple narrator of his own life,” Barnes points out in his author’s note to the novel, with details varying across different versions. “All this is highly frustrating to any biographer,” Barnes goes on to write, “but most welcome to any novelist.”

But even though The Noise of Time runs to fewer than 200 pages, Barnes broadens his narrative from the life of an individual artist – even one so replete with false starts and handbrake turns, and so thoroughly shaped by the accommodations and abiding terrors that characterise life under authoritarian rule – to create a complex meditation on the power, limitations and likely endurance of art. “Art belongs to everybody and nobody,” he writes, seemingly from inside Shostakovich’s consciousness. “Art belongs to all time and no time… Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defines them?”

Finely balanced questions such as these, as well as numerous others, including the reliability of memory, the mystery of close relationships, the business of establishing personal morality and responsibility, how to contend with the power of love and the prospect of death – the whole kit and caboodle, in other words – recur throughout Barnes’s work. But while these areas are hardly unusual territory for novelists – what else, after all, is there? – Barnes approaches them in consistently ingenious fashion. His books are at once precise, zoning in on a minute detail in order to examine it from every angle, and expansive, drawing back to reveal the panorama.

Somehow, his tone is both friendly, even intimate (The Sense of an Ending opens with “gouts of sperm circling a plughole”, which more or less sets the tone for at least part of the novel) and slightly distanced. He is neither afraid of extremely high-class erudition nor of writing about sausages. It is a useful skill to have if you want to keep your readers on their toes.

Also useful is Barnes’s fondness for the hybrid form. After the publication of his first two novels, 1980’s Metroland, influenced by his upbringing in the London suburbs, and Before She Met Me (1982), a tale of sexual jealousy, came the book that really made his name, Flaubert’s Parrot, a staggeringly imaginative blend of fact and fabrication that laid the invented story of a retired doctor and Flaubert obsessive on top of a thicket of snippets from the life of the great French writer. It provided Barnes with his first Booker prize shortlisting (England, England in 1998 and Arthur & George in 2005 also reached this final stage), and won France’s Prix Médicis; the paperback edition of a year later comes garlanded with rave reviews from such luminaries as Graham Greene, John Fowles, Joseph Heller and Germaine Greer.

Barnes has exercised considerable aesthetic elasticity ever since. “I don’t feel constrained by what I have written in the past,” he said in an interview with the Paris Review in 2000. “I don’t feel, to put it crudely, that because I’ve written Flaubert’s Parrot I have to write ‘Tolstoy’s Gerbil’. I’m not shut in a box of my own devising.”

Before A History of the World in 10½ Chapters concluded with that vision of heaven, it had ranged from an unorthodox tale out of Noah’s Ark to a scholarly disquisition on Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (you can tell that Barnes was a publishing hot property from the inclusion of a full-colour, glossy paper insert reproducing the picture) to the celebrated “half chapter”, in which the narrator, wakeful beside his peacefully sleeping wife, ponders the vital necessity of love (“It’s our only hope even if it fails us, although it fails us, because it fails us… Love and truth, yes, that’s the prime connection.”). That novel was succeeded by Talking it Over, a darkly comic love triangle, to which Barnes obligingly provided a sequel, Love, etc, 10 years later; in between had come the short-story collection Cross Channel, a hymn to Barnes’s lifelong love of France and French culture, and England, England, a satire in which the country’s heritage industry is re-sited on the Isle of Wight courtesy of a visionary tycoon.

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