Julian Barnes, The Art of Fiction No. 165
Julian Barnes lives with his wife Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent, in an elegant house with a beautiful garden in north London. The long library where the interview was conducted is spacious and quiet. Overlooking the garden, it has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a comfortable sofa and chairs, an exercise bike in a corner (“for the winter”), and a huge billiard table. On the walls are a series of cartoon portraits of writers by Mark Boxer—Philip Larkin, Graham Greene, Philip Roth, V. S. Pritchett, among others— “some because they are very good cartoons, others because I admire the writers.” There is a superb photograph of George Sand in middle age, taken by Nadar in 1862, and a short original letter by Flaubert, a present from Barnes’s publishers when they had sold one million copies of his books in paperback. Barnes works down the corridor in a yellow-painted study with an enormous three-sided desk, which holds his typewriter, word processor, books, files, and other necessities, all of which he can reach with a swivel of his chair.
Barnes was born in Leicester in 1946 and soon after the family moved to London, where he has lived ever since. He was educated at the City of London School and Magdalen College, Oxford. After university he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary and then read for the bar, while writing and reviewing for various publications. His first novel,Metroland, was well received when it was published in 1980, but it was his third book,Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), that established his reputation as an original and powerful novelist. Since then he has produced six novels, including A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters(1989) and The Porcupine (1992); a collection of short stories, Cross Channel (1996); andLetters from London (written when he was The New Yorker’s London correspondent). At the time of the interview his latest novel, Love, etc. had just been published in England to good reviews; it will be published in the States in February of 2001.
Tall and handsome and very fit, Barnes looks ten years younger than his fifty-four years. His well-known courtesy and charm are enhanced by acute intelligence and mordant wit. From the beginning, a passionate love of France and French literature, specifically Flaubert, has informed his work. Reciprocally, he is one of the best-loved English writers in France, where he has won several literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis for Flaubert’s Parrot, and the Prix Femina for Talking It Over. He is an officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
You are very European, which is unusual for an English writer, but also very English, especially to a foreigner. In France, for example, they think of you as quintessentially English. Where do you place yourself?
I think you are right. In Britain I’m sometimes regarded as a suspiciously Europeanized writer, who has this rather dubious French influence. But if you try that line in Europe, especially in France, they say, Oh, no! You’re so English! I think I’m probably anchored somewhere in the Channel.