I'm a little uncertain about my position on Julian Barnes. On the one hand I’ve essentially enjoyed each book of his that I’ve read (these include Before She Met Me, Flaubert's Parrot, England, England and Cross Channel), and it’s easy to see the qualities that make him one of Britain's foremost contemporary novelists. His many strengths include a powerful and varied imagination, and a very original sense of humour (check out the first chapter of A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, in which he gives us a stowaway woodworm’s-eye view of what really went on in Noah’s Ark). And I especially admire his moving depictions of obsessive love, its ability to sustain, nurture and destroy lives. The "half-chapter" in A History of the World... and the growing jealousy of the husband in Before She Met Me provide some of the most incisive, open-hearted writing on the subject - which is noteworthy given Barnes’s popular image as a most propahly, urbanely British writer, someone you wouldn’t expect to carry his heart on his sleeve. The passion in some of his best work is at odds with the public persona, his interviews and (if you’re into physiognomy) the impression of gentility one gets from his photographs.
But I find it difficult to muster unequivocal admiration for Barnes’s books. They're all, every one of them, brilliant in parts but also uneven when taken as a whole. Also (and this is puzzling, given that his writing style itself is so simple and elegant, in a coolly classical way), they aren't exactly what you'd call easy reads. One can see why this would be the case with Flaubert’s Parrot, his star-making novel from 1984 - a full appreciation of that book requires a high level of familiarity with Gustave Flaubert’s work, perhaps even something approaching the fixation of Barnes’s narrator (a doctor who examines the minutiae of Flaubert’s life and career). But even Barnes’s other novels, which are of more general interest, require great reserves of concentration.
One of the reasons for this is his interest in the interior lives of his characters - it isn’t quite on the level of Virginia Woolf but it does make for intense reading. A typical Barnes narrative won't stick with one character all the way through, even when there is a clear protagonist; it will sidetrack, linger here a while, dawdle there, pick at each new character’s thoughts and motivations. At its best, this method can be reminiscent of masters from a less impatient literary age: Dickens, Henry James. But when it doesn't come off, it can impede the main narrative - on occasion, Barnes spends a little too much time with his peripheral characters when he should be taking the plot forward instead.
Speaking of which, high time I took this post forward. So to get to the point, Barnes’s latest, Arthur & George, is the most satisfying of his novels I've yet encountered; my interest never flagged, and I was able to finish it quite comfortably over two night-reading sessions. A full-length review will soon follow so I won’t write too much here, but in brief this is a fictionalised account of a case that made headlines in Britain in the early years of the 20th century: The Great Wyrley Outrages, in which a young, half-Parsi solicitor, George Edalji, was convicted of mutilating farm animals, spent three years in prison but subsequently had his name cleared as the result of an investigation by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.
If you haven’t read Barnes before, it might not be a bad idea to start with Arthur & George. It has most of the best qualities of his prose, but without the shilly-shallying; he reins in his proclivity for rushing off into too many different directions. Don’t expect it to be like a Sherlock Holmes mystery though - part of Barnes’s point is the contrast between the facile workings of detective fiction and the many ambiguities of real life. While there is a certain amount of courthouse drama, the focus is on the lives and motivations of the two men, presented in alternating chapters that are very short to begin with but which get lengthier as the story progresses. (Their paths don’t actually cross until page 200 or so.)
There haven’t been too many gushing reviews of Arthur & George yet (especially given the author’s reputation) but I thought it was excellent – both in its handling of the story and in its detailing of the fearfulness about a coming century and the effects of modernity on human faith and beliefs. Hope it makes it to the Booker shortlist.
(Will post full review here later.)