The French connection

17 November 2012 9:00 AM

When novelists write essays, they often boom through megaphones, aggrandise the importance of their views and inflate their stature.  Julian Barnes, however, seems to be a novelist who enjoyed feeling special when young, but now finds increasing rueful comfort in reminders of his own insignificance.  Certainly there is no swagger in his 17 essays about truth and fiction collected in Through the Window.

The book relies on stylish intelligence and cool calm to accomplish its mastery. Barnes sees novelists as solitary truth-seekers and public truth-tellers. ‘The best fiction rarely provides answers; but it does formulate the questions exceptionally well,’ he writes. Novels inquire about the purpose, discipline, pleasures and value of life, and the meaning of its loss. Novelists should interrogate (rather than bully) readers about how to survive solitude, group pressure and adversity.

Through the Window opens with an essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, whom Barnes considered ‘the best living English novelist’ when he knew her in the 1990s. His beguiling sympathy and infectious zest for Fitzgerald sent me scurrying to read her The Beginning of Spring, which proved as good as he promised. This essay is also self-revelation in cipher: when Barnes praises Fitzgerald for having ‘the confidence to presume that the reader might be as subtle and intelligent as she is’, he reminds one of his own aspiration. This trait of Barnes’s is pre-eminent in his ruminative essay on translations of Madame Bovary, and in a piece on Edith Wharton.

Three essays are about camouflaged novel-writing. Arthur Hugh Clough’s long poem, Amours de Voyage, a deliciously ironical study of prevarication and self-defeat, is (Barnes argues) ‘a great short novella’ in clandestine form. Chamfort, the 18th-century writer of maxims, he presents as ‘a shadow novelist’ whose pensées about human nature, motives, character and conduct comprise a dismembered satirical novel.

The art dealer Félix Fénéon, who coined the term ‘neo-Impressionism’, was in 1906 employed by Le Matin to compile a daily miscellany of suburban and provincial news known to his fellow hacks as chiens écrasés (run-over dogs). The prose haikus that resulted — seemingly po-faced, but facetious, gruesome and derogatory — form another disjunctive novel, that catchy study of French morals and ways entitled Nouvelles en trois lignes (News in three lines).

This is a book for Francophiles. There is a rollicking account of Kipling’s motor tours through France in his Rolls-Royce, which quotes his confidential reports to the RAC and AA on restaurant lavatories, hotel letter-boxes and garage mechanics — a glorious catalogue of pleasure, frustration and complaint — and describes his later sombre involvement with the Imperial War Graves Commission. Among three sprightly essays on Ford Madox Ford, full of playful insight into the technique, vanity, volatile spirits and insecurity of novelists, my favourite charts Ford’s love affair with Provence — a piece redolent with colours, flavours, fragrance and contentment. Perhaps best of all is Barnes’s account of Prosper Mérimée’s importance as Inspector General of Historic Monuments, forestalling 19th-century demolition and vandalism — an outre-Manche Jim Lees-Milne.

Barnes endorses Penelope Fitzgerald’s remark that ‘you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings whom you think are sadly mistaken’. He prefers to write about authors who are worth emulating, which makes his occasional nay-saying especially arresting. There is a piece on the sly insincerity of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, and the use of smug nasty-mindedness as a marketing tool. Another essay examines George Orwell’s envy and grudge against pleasure, and suggests that if Orwell had reached old age he would have been a pusillanimous grouch. Of James Joyce he writes, ‘Dubliners was a masterpiece, but Ulysses, for all its opening brilliance, was essentially a short story on steroids, grotesquely bulked up.’

Barnes’s summary of Mérimée — ‘he was not just extraordinarily industrious, knowledgeable and incorruptible; he was also charming and persuasive’ — equally applies to himself. This is a coquettish book. Barnes flatters readers into feeling that they may be as shrewd, discriminating and attractive as he is. He makes them feel needed (almost with bedroom eyes) and treats them as accomplices. The seduction is irresistible. There is nothing verbose, self-important, over-emphatic or dull; all is lean, self-deprecating and wise. His final heartfelt chapter on mourning spouses will resound for everyone who has been stunned by death:

The grief-struck suffer — especially in the first months — from a terror of forgetting the lost one. Often the shock of death wipes out the memory of earlier times, and there is a morbid fear that it will never be recovered.

Not the least joy of Through the Window is a witty index which serves as a gleeful final chapter to the book and provides an elegant commentary on the main text. It will cause hilarity if read aloud after Christmas lunch.