Thursday, 24 November 2011

Le mot juste

“You could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string” reads an inspection of the conundrum of interpretation in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). A similar thing can be done with a biography of Julian Barnes: let the trawling net fill, then haul it in, sort, throw back, store, fillet and sell. Yet consider what isn’t caught: there is always far more of Barnes that slips through.

For those who have read any of Barnes’s books, be it the distressing tripartite England, England or the intensively fictionalized account of the Great Wyrley Outrage, Arthur and George, those stark metaphors stand out that were strung taut around unforgiving sentences, assuaging those waylaid in their attempt to move on from tragedies that innocence cannot be reinvented. In fact, since it would be an injustice to concede that very little is known of the man, it would be just as right to come to the conclusion that almost everything about him is reflected in his writing.

Born in Leicester, England, in 1946, Barnes studied modern languages at Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating with honours in 1968. After graduation, he was employed with the Oxford English Dictionary supplement as a lexicographer, before joining the New Statesman and the New Review as a reviewer and literary editor in 1977. It was in this position that he wrote his first novel, Metroland, in 1981, winning the Somerset Maugham Prize for it. It was in this position that he wrote his third novel in 1984, his claim to international fame, Flaubert’s Parrot. An ardent Francophile, he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1995 and Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004 in recognition of his work.

A rather English man in many ways, Barnes is discursive and understated, freely suspended on a forest of associations that stretch between his love for the Gaelic all the way to a humaneness and generosity that some of his friends recollect passionately. Hardly ever blunt in his appraisal of matters – literary or no – his association with the art seems to suggest less of experimentation and more of groping. Given his candidness, those who have known him in any measure are only inclined to believe he knows just as much as the reader does. In other words, his books enjoy such acclaim because Barnes seems to have written each word the moment the reader has read those words. They come to life reflected starkly in the memories of our own past, of what we have always held to be true but at the moment of completion of Barnes’ exposition seem to be trapped in a simulacrum.

The inherent variety of his styles points at the inability of readers to consolidate his work under one ideological umbrella; given that the days of British literature are waning, it becomes all the more pertinent to understand this most inscrutable of authors. Readers knew what to expect from Rushdie, from Amis, but they stand clueless when it comes to Barnes, a man Auberon Waugh, founder of The Literary Review, said wouldn’t be read in 20 years’ time in 1991. There have been no attempts at self-portraits, no attempts to emulate Pynchon’s or Conan Doyle’s portrayal of fiction as the higher autobiography. Does the man know how to invent, then? One thing is for sure, however.

Where, in search of the right word, Flaubert and Nabokov toe the fine line between indulgent romanticism and an ironic realism, Julian Barnes deftly negotiates the pursuit of le mot juste, as it were, to construct the lives and times of his fiercely individual characters, each still possessing sufficient strength to entice the reader into examining the tenuous links between one’s past and future. The works of Barnes, more than anything else, are a study of history and our places in them. It has been said that other people’s tastes in art can seem as mysterious and trivial as their tastes in love, and in reading a man who writes with such verbal inventiveness, our lifetimes seem to split asunder, each shard a mirror of our disbelief, a mysterious souvenir to remember our vain pursuit of the days gone by.

- Mukundh Vasu

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