Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Julian Barnes and Arthur & George

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.)


  1. Jabberwock: Good,good - looking forward to reading both your full review and the book itself.

    Meanwhile, if you enjoy Barnes on intense love you should really read Love, etc. - which is easily one of his better books: I liked it much better than Cross Channel and probably a little better than Flaubert's parrot (though it's hard to be objective about a book that is, after all, primarily about Flaubert).

  2. so enamoured of barnes was i, when i was 19, i actually wrote a term paper on my two favourite barnes books: a history of the world... and flaubert's parrot. i loved flaubert's parrot, it's captivating how he winds lit crit with that extraordinary entertaining dramatic monologue/unreliable narrator device. and love, etc. was sublime!
    since these three, im afraid, his charm for me has waned....i found the lemon table collection too dull to complete. he treads old ground without the old compelling magnetism, i find.

  3. Another author.. goes into the List Recomended By Jabberwock. :)

  4. Check out metroland and his essay on chess.

  5. the comment on 'interior lives' (whatever that means) of his characters in comparison with woolf is flawed. woolf was working on a form radically different from barnes'. your comparison with dickens and henry james is again, flawed. dickens wrote not with patience but with the two-penny installment market of victorian london in mind, while james shares more with woolf than meets the eye, if you're intelligent enough to examine them both carefully. you, my little friend, are not.

    which brings me to that third comment, about the book requiring 'a high level of familiarity with gustave flaubert’s work'. given your rudimentary knowledge of literature (and you will admit it is rudimentary, considering you've never been taught the subject at university, as you have admitted before), how did you fare with 'flaubert's parrot'?

    my advice is: i understand you take this 'litblogging' business seriously (your last gushing post). what bothers me is the fact that the few people who visit this page may take your advice and set themselves up for the same brand of illiteracy that makes its presence felt so strongly in your many long-winded posts. pseudo-literacy.

    please, please, stick to cricket and similar topics worthy of little thought.

    best wishes,
    sutapa deb,

  6. thank you ms.deb, very enlightening.

    i am not sure how many of the writers would want their books to be restricted to the 'literate' lot and not reach out to the pseudo-literates(as you so graciously describe them). i am sure there are enough nutcases around the world who would say things like "i dont care how many people buy my book, i write for the half a dozen people who understand it and appreciate it for its high literary values"... but my guess is they are very very few.

    and then there are people like you, who believe they are higher mortals because they see some higher meaning in things. thankfully they are usually ignored, thankfully which is what will happen to your comment too. (though this rant is quite the opposite)

    a whole bunch of 'pseudo-literates' happen to be people who like this particulars guys take on books, movies, graphic novels and other topics which are worthy of little thought. and too bad for you, they happen to enjoy them and even think they are good enough and set themselves up for illiteracy. and of course post a lot of silly messages when they see a happy birthday post.

    i think its time to take the 'literates' out of the literature business, they just make things too damn exclusive. jabberwocks illiterate posts here do their two cents in that direction, and tho i dunno abt other pseudo-illeterates but this idiot sure does thank him for it.

    jabberwock: hope you dont delete this rant from the comments. i know you dont need random people jumping to your defense, but couldnt help it.

    ms.deb: in case you dont want to be anonymous any longer, start your own blog(and spread the light of literacy), instead of dissing on others'. differing with them in one thing, dismissing them is quite something else.

  7. Jai

    Just a correction - Flubert's Parrot did not win the Booker although it may have been shortlisted - in fact Barnes has never won the prize.

  8. All hail, Sutapa. That's a pretty venomous comment, and I'm wondering why you would go after Jabberwock (the "few people" who visit his page? "you, my little friend?") Come on, you're going to get supercilious, you might as well be original.

    I'm surprised you have problems with the phrase "interior lives"; it's a legit litcrit term that's been around for generations, specifically applied to novelists who prefer to explore the "interior lives" rather than the exterior lives of their characters. Not sure I'd agree, either, that comparisons between Barnes and Woolf are automatically invalid. About form: both of them are writers who like playing with structure, who've followed historical characters (Flaubert, Orlando) into places beyond the historical record. They do different things, yes, but not so different that they're beyond comparison--I'd say especially if you're discussing characterisation in their works.

    Your point about Dickens and James is more valid, but it's still nitpicking, and again, I have no idea why you would be so negative. Or at least I didn't until I read your remark to Jai: "given your rudimentary knowledge of literature (and you will admit it is rudimentary, considering you've never been taught the subject at university, as you have admitted before)".

    And I said, okay, that's it: another person who thinks you have to have a degree before you're allowed to talk about books. Get real. Quit attacking Jabberwock's credentials; you're doing as bad a job as that as you are of taking apart the content of what he's saying, despite all the sneering. These posts are about books and reading, and they're written by a well-informed, entertaining reader. That's just fine by me.

  9. Coolie: thanks, will correct it. I was so sure it had won - think I misread "Barnes' prize-winning novel..." as "Booker-prize winning novel..." on a jacket blurb.

    Ms Deb: Big Ha Ha Ha to cricket being "a topic worthy of little thought"! Some of the most intelligent people I know can spend hours discussing it (of course, that probably reflects on my circle of illiterates!) But yes, I will probably refrain from bringing Woolf into future posts, way over my head.

    Idiot: thanks for the defence. I have my own private (probably illiterate) yardstick for assessing whether negative comments stem from genuine dissent or petulance/frustration - and I think this one falls neatly in the latter category. (It's also flattering that Ms Deb is an avid enough reader of this blog to know that I've never studied literature and have reservations about academic excess.)

    No, not deleting anything, just a request though: if she replies to your comment (or mine), avoid taking the bait and posting back. I don't want to start a slanging match here. Not on the *sob* first post of my second year.

  10. Dear Ms Deb,
    I've spent a fair amount of time reading a guy called Beckett who wrote about his cricketing experiences - he also wrote about idiots called Godot and suchlike.

    Guess his work doesn't count as literature since he actually wasted much of his time playing the game at first class level?

    Then there was this other stoned Irish idiot called Joyce who wrote about cricket as well - but I guess he doesn't count among the ranks of the intelligent. He messed up his sentence construction in a way no
    MA (Eng hons) would do.

    I've also read a guy called Maugham who had a degree in medicine - I guess his ouvre doesn't count as literature since his degree wasn't in literature?

    And Dickens - heavens - the sod never even went to college !!- why do you sully your pristine literary keyboard orthographing his name?

    And Conrad - that mad Polack wiped the engine oil off his overalls and spat on his hands and just started writing. How come people still read him?

    And what about this fool called C L R James who did this enormous social study on cricket and its effects on race relations in the West Indies? What a total waste of time.

    Admit it, Ms Deb, you don't have a degree on cricket - you've never played it at any level.

    So how come you're qualified to comment on its merits?


  11. "his interest in the interior lives of his characters - it isn’t quite on the level of Virginia Woolf". Maybe it's because I'm psuedo-illiterate and don't have a PhD in English Literature (my undergrad was in Economics) but it sounded to me as though Jabberwock was saying precisely that Barnes was nothing like Woolf. Which is what Ms. Deb is saying as well. I agree that Woolf is not necessarily the most apt (or most obvious writer) to contrast Barnes with (I raised an eyebrow at the comparison myself), but I fail to see how Ms. Deb's argument about Woolf is a contradiction of Jabberwock's.

    As for Dickens not having patience - I fail to see what his writing for the penny press has to do with that. The point is that from a modern perspective he seems measured and patient compared to the frenetic pace that many current authors are capable of. Possibly (and the fact that he wrote in instalments doesn't prove this in any way) Victorian audiences may not have considered him particularly patient, but the last time I checked there weren't too many 19th century readers still active in the blogosphere.

    And Henry James and Virginia Woolf? Really? I suspect Woolf would have killed herself at the comparision (of course, she did anyway, so I guess it wouldn't have mattered much). In many ways, Woolf's entire point is that human thought does not progress in the formal, measured tones that James employs; narratives / monologues are seldom linear and attention accretes around objects / quotations (a sheep's skull / "Fear no more the heat of the sun") in a way that James would, I suspect, be uncomfortable with. Notice also that personality in James, is as much a function of social relations as it is of the individual - which is surely much less true of Woolf.

    Two further thoughts:

    a) I'm unsure that a knowledge of literature is in any way linked to a university degree. It's dangerous to assume, for instance, that someone who hasn't studied Lit at college would never have read Flaubert. Psuedo-literates like me do read outside of what our course work requires us of, you know.

    b) Logically, on the assumption that everyone who doesn't have a literature degree is forever condemned to the Stygian darkness of psuedo-literacy anyway, you would think Jabberwock's puny attempts at lit-blogging would be more useful to us mere mortals, rather than anything than literates like Ms. Deb (assuming there are actually other people who would care to be associated with Ms. Deb) might have to say which our pathetic little minds couldn't possibly take in anyway.

    P.S. Jabberwock: I'm not sure that Flaubert's Parrot required that much familiarity with Flaubert's work btw. Maybe it's because I came to it having read a good deal of Flaubert, but the book seemed fairly simple and accessible to me - I seem to remember actually suggesting that people read it before they read Flaubert, just to get a sense of what to expect / look for.

  12. guys, please don't take all this so seriously! personally, i think venomous comments of any kind don't even need to be dignified with any kind of response. you like it, you read it; you don't like; don't read it, simple.

  13. Dear Ms Deb

    As a fan of the pseudo-literacy on this blog and as an aspiring pseudo-literate myself, I have one question to ask you: if you object so much to this blog, why on earth are you reading it? Ran out of books to read while getting your college degree?

  14. Criticism is okay but here we have a rebel without a cause. Lord help us!

  15. Can you compare oranges and apples? Who f*%$#ing cares?? (except Ms. Deb, of course)

  16. DD, is there any way we can start a betting website and make some money off lit-brawls? you supply the steely backbone, ill bring the cheering rabble.

  17. A brawl! Yess! put me down for the cheering rabble.

  18. I'm not sure I want to participate in literary brawls of any kind.

    But since I have a degree in literature from a institution that the likes of Ms. Deb would revere and have written, in my time, a dissertation of a few thousands words on Woolf, I was wondering whether Ms. Deb would care to elaborate on what she thinks Woolf's 'radically different form' involved? And if she once uses the term 'stream of consciousness' in her astute lit crit rants about Woolf I promise I will just fall down and die!

    I dont see the parallel with Barnes' work (especially if we were to consider A History of the World, as Nilanjana pointed out, and Love etc.) as either far-fetched or baseless.

    If you consider what Jai says here keeping in mind Love etc. for example:

    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.

    and think simultaneously of Woolf novels like The Waves and The Years, the connections become self evident.And the same goes for James.

    AND Dickens, albeit, and I'll give you this, in a very different way.

    And of course Woolf had a lot in common with James! Every undergrad knows that. Did you think you were making a pathbreaking literary observation there, Ms. Deb?And if you read the post carefully, Jai did not, for once, set Woolf and James up as antithetical to each other.

    So, I mean, what was your point, again?

  19. Just read Falstaff's comment, not sure I agree with everything there ... but I'll leave that alone.

  20. funny thing here. i have no literature degree. but one thing i know is that i like reading. so i do that. and since i dont have that degree, i look upto some "illiterates" like jabberwock for recommendations in a language unburdened with the "literate" way of writing. so thats all there is to it. besides, jabberwock was supposed to be for jabberwock himself more than anybody else. will ms deb care to read the blogoversary post please!! so why on earth would it be somebody else's problem if he writes "wrong" things..

  21. Yet another non-degree holding nincompoop here. I only know how to speak in bad poetry, which I have done
    here (yes, self-publicity, so crucify me). I will say, however, that for someone who does profess to hold a literary degree, Ms. Deb displays, in deed tom-toms, a curious lack of coherence (as opposed to the rather copious quantity of..ahem..atrabiliousness)in her diatribe. Surely a one-phrase sentence, dangling like a pendulous bit of faecal matter from the butt-end of the previous (equally shoddy)sentence ill-becomes the archangel literary arcana? I refer to this bit of scriptural wisdom:
    "what bothers me is the fact that the few people who visit this page may take your advice and set themselves up for the same brand of illiteracy that makes its presence felt so strongly in your many long-winded posts. pseudo-literacy."
    Oh, and someone please tell her sentences in English begin with letters in the upper-case.
    Let me end by saying Ms. Deb has given Bombay as her address, but she is advised to change it to Boetia.

  22. Ms. Deb is wonderful. She "lights up my life".

    Ms. Deb, Ms. Deb, you Sloaney babe
    Today about you I shall rabe (sorry!)
    No other idol I shall habe (worser and worser, Ms. Dodgson!)
    Phrom the classroom to the grabe (OUTgrabe?)

    O my ebhar bright Shutopa
    With your pretensions so propah
    Een my hurt you are thee topper
    Ibhen hwen you come a cropper.

    Of course Ms. Deb would not accept Nick Hornby as a Writer. Or even pay any heed to his views on writing .. but wait, he has a degree. From Cambridge. So ...

    "Shakespeare is a wonderful poet, but so many pupils can't begin to understand his language, so what is the point?

    ....I think part of the reason I became the writer I became is because of teaching in a school, and you're always looking for this stuff that is really intelligent but really simple and everyone can understand it."
    (Everyone can understand it?! Even though they haven't Studied English Litt in College? Owwww...)

    I always thought Of Mice And Men was such a perfect book because there's nothing not to understand, but it's still really clever and moving and complicated, but everybody understands the complication. It doesn't leave anybody out. I think that's what books should be like."

    Jaaa ... he wants EVERYbody to enjoy books? Shutopa, get him good and proper!

    By the way, Dearest Deb, what was that "advice" in the last paragraph? You never got around to it? Overwhelmed by your own eloquence?
    See, that's where you score over a twit like Henry James - he would write a sentence a page long and still remember what he started out to say. Archaic, innit?

    And sweetheart, DO learn how to spell "instalment", there's a good girl. SUCH a waste of an English Litt. degree otherwise.


  23. Ok, so being the gossip fiend that I am, here's a query: Does anyone think that this is the very same Sutapa Deb? You know the one right, the lady from NDTV? I thought she was freaking cool with her bindi and her reporting.

    And as for the rejoinders, I think they are all very well composed. And please, it would be a sad day indeed when appreciation of literature is restricted to the select few who retread their lit-crit notes in advance of any novel reading.

  24. Thalassa: no idea. No clue if this is even the commenter's real name to begin with, and don't care either way. There's been far too much 'rejoinding' as it is.

  25. Jwk,

    A review on your book reviews. I am sure they are exceedingly well-written, Ms. Deb and her ilk notwithstanding. It also seems like you have an audience for them judging by the millions who have sprung to your defense.

    For me, however, an above-averagely (though not dazzlingly erudite) person and a fairly avid (but never voracious!) reader, your reviews are hard to get through. I often find it easier to simply read the book than read your review (though I admit I may be missing nuances you highlight).

    In sum, if the objective of your book reviews is to get more people to read, you might want to think of making the reviews more accessible. Many of your readers may not have detailed knowledge of, and in fact may be bored with or frightened of, Woolf and Kafka but would read Barnes or Pamuk.

    However, this IS your blog and I respect that.

    And further, this was a suggestion, not a flame.


  26. Thanks Neela, I appreciate that comment more than most of the ones that have been posted here in my defence. But in a sense your comment, when seen in conjunction with Ms Deb's, highlights the problem: one person says I should stick to topics that require "little thought" while the other says my reviews need to be more accessible. Where does one strike the balance? The only option for me is to continue writing about books and films in the way that I'm most comfortable with, and to hope the odd reader gets something out of it. (And if not, well, back to the I-write-mainly-for-myself defence.)

    Incidentally (and this might come as a surprise to you, given the quantity of reviews I vomit out!), I'm not much of a review-reader myself - at least not from the point of view of deciding what to read based on a review. So I would actually recommend reading the book directly rather than ploughing through a long, possibly self-indulgent review.

    I don't know if that makes any sense, but do also check this post I wrote a long time ago: http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2004/10/on-reviewing.html

  27. Believe me, that is not the Sutapa of NDTV -- she wouldn't know a blog if it stared her in the face!

  28. We write reviews for ourselves?

  29. hi jabberwock: sorry, entering the party late as usual - have been busy with offline stuff - just saw this thread via kaashyapeya's post, and although everyone else has pretty much said everything i would have wanted to say, i just wanted to say once again how much i love your reviews, and your film posts, and the kitty-blogging - of which, alas, there's too little these days :)

    just keep blogging, and please be as self-indulgent as you like because there are lots of us who love the way you write!!