Julian Barnes  by Patrick McGrath

BOMB 21 Fall 1987
021 Fall 1987
Barnes 01 Body

Julian Barnes. Photo © 1987 by Orshi Drozdik.

Julian Barnes is the author of Staring at the Sun (1986), Before She Met Me (1982), and Metroland (1980). Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) is his masterpiece. Julian Barnes lives in London.

After all, if novelists truly wanted to simulate the delta of life’s possibilities, this is what they’d do. At the back of the book would be a set of sealed envelopes in various colours. Each would be clearly marked on the outside: Traditional Happy Ending; Traditional Unhappy Ending; Traditional Half-and-Half Ending; Deus ex Machina; Modernist Arbitrary Ending; End of the World Ending; Cliffhanger Ending; Dream Ending; Opaque Ending; Surrealist Ending; and so on. You would be allowed only one, and would have to destroy the envelopes you didn’t select. That’s what I call offering the reader a choice of endings; but you may find me quite unreasonably literal-minded.

—from Flaubert’s Parrot

Patrick McGrath Let me begin with something you wrote in Before She Met Me. One of your characters propounds the theory that the human brain is made up of three brains: the reptilian, the lower mammalian, and the upper mammalian. He says it’s the lower mammalian brain that makes people vote Tory.

Julian Barnes Sounds pretty accurate to me; I’d still hold to that, yes. It’s a wonderful metaphor, actually, which I got from a psychologist called Paul D. MacLean, who wrote: “Speaking allegorically, of these brains within a brain, we might imagine that when the psychiatrist bids the patient to lie on the couch, he’s asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile.” And there are times in your life when you feel that the croc is getting out—which is what the book is about.

PM It’s the horse in us that votes Tory, then.

JB It’s the horse, is it?

PM Well, the lower mammalian.

JB Yes, the reptilian would vote National Front. I don’t know what the American equivalent to that would be.

PM Probably straight Republican ticket. The central figure in that book is a man who’s lived in a state of total monogamy for 15 years, and then quite suddenly leaves his wife for a younger woman. But he can’t cope, and things start to go badly wrong.

JB In a way it’s a sort of anti-’60s book. It’s against the idea that somehow the ’60s sorted sex out, that everyone was all fucked up beforehand, Queen Victoria was still in charge—and then along came the Beatles, suddenly everyone started sleeping with everyone else, and that cured the lot. That’s a rough plan of English sexual history, as seen by many people. And I just wanted to say, it’s not like that; that what is constant is the human heart and human passions. And the change in who does what with whom—that’s a superficial change.

PM The idea of adultery is clearly center stage in Before She Met Me but it’s very much present in your first novel, too, in Metroland.

JB It’s funny. There’s this idea in Metroland, that when you’re growing up you wonder about the various things that life is going to contain. And if you were brought up in a reasonably intellectual school, as I was, and with a normally cultured middle-class background, you think there are these things called moral decisions, and that every so often you’ll come across one, and you’ll say: “Aha! I remember this! This is what I knew was going to happen when I grew up; I’d make moral decisions.” And what happens in Metroland in the end is that the only moral decisions the central figure, Chris, seems to get to make are sexual decisions—in other words, sex is the area where moral decisions, moral questions, most clearly express themselves; it’s only in sexual relationships that you come up against immediate questions of what’s right and wrong. I remember once talking to Iris Murdoch at a party, and at the time I think I either didn’t have a job, or I was dissatisfied with the one I had, and she said: “Oh, you ought to go into the civil service. It’s very good for making moral decisions.” And I thought, “Perhaps that’s where they get made.”

PM In your most recent novel, Staring At The Sun, you’re again dealing with moral decision-making inasmuch as you’re concerned with courage. But courage is another of these things that makes a pretty infrequent appearance in our lives, I’d have thought.

JB I remember John Berryman saying in interview that one thing that really upset him was that a man could go through life nowadays without finding out whether or not he was courageous. We do tend to think of courage as a male virtue, as something that happens in war, something that consists of standing and fighting. But there are 85,000 other sorts of courage, some of which come into the book—banal forms of courage—to live alone, for example, social courage. Then, the sort of sexual courage that we see in the relationship of the two women, Jean and Rachel. That’s the rough scheme of it anyway.

PM Staring At The Sun is narrated from a woman’s point of view. Why did you do that?

JB Pure simple curiosity, basically. Any man, but especially any writer, would give good money to be allowed to be a woman for however long it took to understand it better. There’s also the technical interest in writing from a woman’s point of view. If you write one book in first person, and another book in third person, then one of the things to try, is writing from the point of view of the opposite sex.

PM One of the most vivid characters in the book is Rachel, a radical feminist, a lesbian, who attempts the seduction of your central figure, Jean.

JB People think Rachel’s a problem, they find her unsympathetic. I don’t. I find her rather gutsy. She’s drawn from life, to an extent; I did know someone rather like her, though not very well—It helps when you’re drawing people from life not to know them very well. If you’re sitting on a bench next to someone and they start telling you their life story, after a while you want to say: “That’s enough. I’ll do the rest myself. Don’t tell me any more or you’ll spoil your own life.”—I think perhaps if there is a problem with Rachel it’s that she’s over-portrayed. She’s done very realistically, and you’re told everything she thinks and stands for. The idea was that there’s only so much you can learn in your life. My central figure, Jean, has heroically fought her way out of a second-rate life and made her own life. And then along comes this character of her own sex, Rachel, who has completely outflanked her. Everything that Jean has worked for is completely taken for granted by Rachel, and it was that sense of being outflanked that I was after. And, of course, the business of Jean not having the courage to have an affair with Rachel.

PM That would have been out of character altogether.

JB Yes. But I think sex is much stranger than we think. Somerset Maugham said something about there being nobody who, if his or her sex life were expounded in full truth, would not appear … I forget the ending, but, as it were, “a grotesque monster.” It seems to me that there’s no norm to a sex life. Every sex life is abnormal, anormal. There’s a whole spectrum of sexual behavior, and we imagine it somehow pivoting around something called normality in the middle. But I think that normality is a black hole. There’s nothing there.

PM Let’s talk about Flaubert’s Parrot. Your narrator, Geoffrey, is speaking about an academic called Enid Starkie, and he says: “Dr. Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronizing tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. Of course, it’s her house, and everybody’s living in it rent free: but even so, surely it is, well, you know … time?

JB You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.

PM Now, the way you went about undercutting the academics was through Geoffrey’s delightful project of remapping the whole field of knowledge that had accrued around Flaubert—so he produces a Flaubert bestiary, the railway spotter’s guide to Flaubert, the Flaubert apocrypha. Did you set out deliberately to reorganize a body of knowledge, to illustrate how academic studies are bound by arbitrary conventions?

JB There is a negative, critical side to all this, but I think there’s also a positive side. Its main function is not to point out to academics that perhaps there are other ways of approaching Flaubert, but to ask: “How can I best pay homage to Flaubert?” And because this is the form that’s emerged, by its nature it’s anti-academic. There’s this sort of huge tomb beneath which Flaubert is buried, and people come and look at it—there’s an official entrance where you pay one and sixpence, and you get a ticket, you look around the corpse, and then you come out. My plan was to sink shafts in at different angles. So you say, “Well, let’s take trains.” It would have helped if I’d had it all on computer, I suppose. One could just have gone through and got all the references in Flaubert to trains. Some things don’t work, but trains work, the bestiary works, and even though it looks rather esoteric—you know, what do we know about Flaubert and trains?—if I couldn’t produce something with a shape and movement to it as fiction, then it couldn’t work. There were some things I had to abandon because just nothing came out of them.

PM For example?

JB I had one chapter that I dropped about sex and creativity. When Flaubert’s talking about writing, there’s an awful lot of sexual metaphors. “Go fuck your inkwell!” is one of his great injunctions to a writer. And when he’s writing Madame Bovary he says. “I’m having a lot of trouble getting hard,” and then: “I think I’m finally going to come!” I was trying to do a chapter on the whole of his life in terms of sexual metaphor, but it sort of didn’t quite come off. I showed it to a friend who reads my books before they go to the publisher, and she said, “Well, actually, I’m not sure if it works, but I personally find it offensive”—the idea of the Muse as a woman who has to be fucked flat before a chap can get a book out. “That’s rather disgusting,” she said.

PM Barthes said he regarded Proust as a sort of mandala.

JB What’s a mandala?

PM One of those Eastern designs that are circular and completely symmetrical, and are supposed to contain all of creation organized in a perfect pattern. I wonder if you feel anything of the sort toward Flaubert?

JB I don’t think so. Obviously, he’s the writer whose words I most carefully tend to weigh, who I think has spoken the most truth about writing. And it’s odd to have a foreign genius for whom you feel a direct love … He’s obviously a tricky bastard in some ways, but I find when I’m reading his letters I just want to go and make him a cup of hot chocolate, light his cigarette.

PM Why?

JB Partly because I admire his books greatly. He’s a great example of a genius who never wrote the same book twice. Also, in his letters he’s so remorselessly intelligent; he’s never dull, he’s never banal, he’s very funny. There’s a phrase in the Parrot about relying on the drip feed of another writer’s intelligence …

PM There’s a point in Metroland where Chris, who’s living in France, begins to feel something changing in him, a ‘resented metamorphosis’ he calls it, because he’s speaking French all the time. He says: “I found myself more prone to generalization, to labeling and ticketing and docketing and sectioning and explaining and to lucidity—God, yes, to lucidity … it wasn’t loneliness … it wasn’t homesickness, it was something to do with being English … as if one part of me was being faintly disloyal to another part.”

JB That’s not bad, that. Not bad for a first book.

PM Is that the French mind for you, labeling and ticketing and docketing and sectioning?

JB Yes, it is. I lived in France for a year when I was 21, and though I spoke French very fluently by the end, I did find that I wasn’t really recognizing myself as the same person. It’s partly that you’re influenced by who you’re around, but I think more fundamentally than that, that the language influences the thoughts you can have. Just as you find yourself making French physical gestures, because English gestures don’t mean anything to them, so you make French mental gestures.

PM This business of the language you use somehow structuring or constituting your reality—do you see this as a first expression of a theme that’s repeated through the other novels, that it’s the way things are configured in language that determines reality?

JB This is a good line, but I think it’s rather for you to develop than me. I think it’s quite attractive, but I certainly don’t think of things in those terms. You think of each book as a completely separate entity when you’re writing it, and you’re very flattered, or dismayed, when people say, “Ah, this book picks up this idea from that book.” In Holland they asked me about my obsession with suicide. I said, “I’m not obsessed with suicide!” And they said, “Well, there’s a suicide in Before She Met Me, and there’s a suicide in Flaubert’s Parrot.” And I said, “Oh, that’s just a coincidence.” And then I thought, well, actually, there’s quite a lot about suicide in my next book. God, I thought, I better knock it off for a few books. So obviously someone taking an overall view of your work can read your particular themes and obsessions better than you can yourself, and that’s something one just has to put up with. Frank Kermode wrote a very friendly review of Flaubert’s Parrot in which he decided I was obsessed with obsessions. And this phrase got currency, and I found myself being reviewed in this way: “Mr. Barnes is, of course, a writer obsessed with obsessions.” And I went around saying,“I am not obsessed with obsessions!” I was getting obsessed about being obsessed with obsessions. You go crazy if you think about it too much.

PM To get back to Flaubert’s Parrot: it was very clear to me that Geoffrey’s search for the parrot that stood on Flaubert’s desk was a large metaphor for his attempt to figure out why his wife, Ellen, was unfaithful to him. He says: “Ellen’s is a true story: perhaps it is even the reason why I am telling you Flaubert’s story.”

JB It’s about the difference between art and life—art is the stuff you finally understand, and life, perhaps, is the stuff you finally can’t understand.

PM In one sense, then, the book is about Ellen.

JB Yes. Absolutely. Without the fictional infrastructure it wouldn’t exist as a novel, it seems to me. It would be a serious article.

PM But inasmuch as the novel is about Ellen, she’s rather a bizarre heroine. She makes only one appearance, and that’s comatose on her deathbead. She also has the dubious distinction of having died by her own hand and of having died by her husband’s hand.

JB Yes, that’s a twist, isn’t it? Is that a question?

PM Maybe I should follow it up by wondering if the same could be said of Emma Bovary—that she died by Charles’s hand as well as by her own.

JB How come?

PM There’s a phrase Artaud uses talking about van Gogh. He says, “Here is a man suicided by society.” It occurred to me as a reading of Madame Bovary that it is precisely Charles’s tedium, his dullness, the whole atmosphere in which he lives, that does her in.

JB But I think that behind Emma Bovary’s superficial social and sexual dissatisfactions you can locate a broader despair. I don’t know who first coined the term bovarisme, but it is the idea that that’s the human condition—one of aspirations that will never be satisfied. Geoffrey’s Ellen obviously has traits in common with Emma, but a century further on.

PM Was this very much in your mind as you thought about the Ellen character?

JB Yes, I wanted a parallel with Charles and Emma Bovary.

PM So Flaubert’s Parrot in a sense is Madame Bovary from Charles’s point of view.

JB Yes, though I think my character, Geoffrey, is smarter than Charles Bovary. He’d have to be, really, to have read all that Flaubert!

PM We’re on the home stretch now. Are you flagging?

JB It’s not you that’s working me hard, it’s New York. I can’t sleep in this city. I get about four hours a night. I have bad dreams all the time—get paranoid.

PM Well, I hate to keep bringing up parallels and connections between the books—

JB I’m enjoying them, it’s just that I can’t promise instant useful reactions to them.

PM Close to the end of the Parrot we come upon Flaubert’s notion of the religion of despair, that it’s only by gazing into the abyss at our feet that we can grow calm. Geoffrey comes to see that his wife’s problem was that she couldn’t do this; she could only glance at it sideways, and then her terror would set her off on another of her adulterous sprees. I had a sense that many of the themes handled in Staring At The Sun developed from the religion-of-despair idea first articulated in Flaubert’s Parrot.

JB Well, the first thing to say to that is that I started Staring At The Sun before I started Flaubert’s Parrot; I’d already written about 30,000 words of it. The connection that I see between the two is technical rather than thematic, in that Flaubert’s Parrot was a book that went off in all directions, and that one of the ways of tying it all together was to use repeated phrases and ideas like thin bits of gossamer, to keep it vaguely bound together. That developed in Staring At The Sun into actual images, and incidents, and stories, which, as the book continues, take on more depth and significance. At first they’re just odd stories, but by the end they become metaphors. That’s the connection that I see, but no doubt there are thematic connections as well.

PM I wonder if we can’t see the ghost of a parrot flapping through Staring at the Sun—in the sense that the metaphor of flight as spirituality, the soul’s journey, has been carried on there with all the aeroplane business.

JB I hadn’t thought of that at all. I’ll give you that one.

PM Oh really?

JB Yes. But all I’m saying is, that’s not how I work—and I’m not sure that I would work well if I did see things like that. If I thought, “Well, I’ve had a parrot flying up to heaven, now I’ll have an aeroplane flying up to heaven”—my reaction would be, “No, that’s a bit obvious, I won’t do that.” So, no, I wasn’t reminded of Parrot, not at all. Maybe I should have been, but the extent to which you can be a critic of your own books is limited. Fortunately. There is a lot of self-consciousness about writing, but if you had total self-consciousness you’d never get anything done.

PM The quest fails finally in Flaubert’s Parrot, doesn’t it? Geoffrey fails to find the one, true stuffed parrot that stood on Flaubert’s desk.

JB I would have thought from our reading of Geoffrey that he would adduce a sort of grim pleasure from the fact that he couldn’t find the right parrot. He would be consoled by the fact that there wasn’t an easy answer. He would go to Flaubert and find the line that says—this is a rough quote—”The desire to reach conclusions is a sign of human stupidity.”

PM His expectations are confounded because he has expected all along to be able to find the one, true answer, like the one, true God, or the one, true political ideology. He learns that you have to accept multiples.

JB That’s right. And the immediate parallel is the inability to seize and convey the nature of Flaubert’s life.

PM It’s a plea for tolerance. I find in all your books the idea that we can never reach a point of certainty, that there’s no single truth you can dogmatically adhere to. There will be as many explanations as there are people.

JB That’s certainly a Flaubertian line. I suppose I’d go along with it. But you’re making it sound as if I don’t somehow think that there are right and wrong ways to behave. I think I’m a moralist, but you make me sound like a bit of an old hippie—”You do your thing, man. I’ll do mine.” Part of a novelist’s job obviously is to understand as wide a variety of people as possible. And you put them in situations where there isn’t necessarily an easy answer, and things aren’t necessarily resolved. But this doesn’t mean you don’t have strong personal views about how life should be lived, and what’s good and bad behavior, as I certainly do.

PM Simply, then, that the emphasis is on a shift away from the dogmatic.

JB Sure. Dogma has benighted the world, it seems to me. And God, no more than in the 20th century—category thinking, package thinking.

PM One last thing. Geoffrey says this about people in relationships: “That’s the real distinction between people: not between those who have secrets and those who don’t, but between those who want to know everything and those who don’t. This search is a sign of love, I maintain.”

JB I don’t know whether I agree with that, but I think it’s very well put.

PM Beautifully put. I thought of mad, bad, jealous Graham in Before She Met Me. The same could have been said of him, but in his case the desire to know everything was a sign of madness, not of love.

JB That’s true. Love that gets out of hand can easily turn into madness, it can easily be curdled. The croc gets loose.

Patrick McGrath is the author of Blood and Water and Other Tales to be published by Poseidon Press in February, 1988, and by Penguin/Britain later in the year. He is a contributing editor of BOMB.

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Originally published in

BOMB 21, Fall 1987

James Rosenquist, Julian Barnes by Patrick McGrath, Diane Kurys, Richard Greenberg, and Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe.

Read the issue
021 Fall 1987