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Julian Barnes from the Margins

Exploring the Writer's Archives


Vanessa Guignery


London: Bloomsbury, 2020

Hardcover. xii+254 p. ISBN 978-1350125018. £85


Reviewed by Nicole Terrien

Université Rennes 2



The 2015 exhibition, In the Margins, at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, has inspired the title of this volume while the extensive archives preserved at the Harry Ransom Center at Austin, Texas, have provided the original material for Professor Guignery's careful study of the process of creation shaping Julian Barnes's works.

The ten-page-long introduction clearly exposes the project and delineates the field of study. Following the order of publication, each novel will be studied in turn, from the earliest Metroland to the latest The Sense of an Ending so as to reveal the evolution in the writing process. The fabrication of three mid-career novels (England, England (1998), Talking it Over (1991) and Love, etc. (2001) will not be studied in detail because they are not essential to the purpose of identifying a variety of methods over a period of thirty years, which does not mean the novels are never referred to in the volume.

In order to understand the amount and quality of work invested in reaching the published version of each novel, Professor Guignery summons the notebooks, private letters and e-mails, notes in the margins of manuscripts and typescripts, articles and reviews published in magazines and newspapers, exchanges with fellow writers or publishers, friends and family, talks delivered on various occasions. The wealth of material and the painstaking analysis of it all are in themselves striking features of this study. But Vanessa Guignery's capacity to give life to buried information transforms this solid academic research into a precious and highly pleasurable guide into reading between the lines and appreciating Barnes's Flaubertian obsession with the right word. It also unveils the haunting force of some major themes such as time, memory, death, love which are woven into the fabric of the text through innumerable revisions. It unveils a fascinating palimpsest which gives depth to each piece of writing, whether published or unpublished.

The table of contents announces twelve chapters in-between the programmatic introduction preceded by a list of acknowledgements and a short conclusion followed by an extensive list of works cited and an index. Each chapter contains several subsections indicating false starts, stuttering attempts, hesitations as to point of view or personal revelations, reflexion on beginnings and endings, relations with earlier works. It provides helpful guidance to the reader but does not quite render justice to the in-depth perception and meticulous reading experience of Professor Guignery, who presents herself as a reader willing to share with her fellow readers: “The result is an investigation and a mélange, neither an academic analysis of the published work nor a book of the strictest kind of genetic criticism, neither a pure story nor an exhaustive guide” [2].

Indeed, in the list three chapters strike a different note: Chapter 5, “The Barnes apocrypha”, focuses first on “the itinerary of a book that was never published” (A Literary Guide to Oxford) and then on “the unwritten books which tantalize”. Yet this chapter shows how ideas survive in the mind of the author, to be taken up in various forms and phrases later included in fiction or essays. Thus the reader can see how form and content can evolve in a constant kaleidoscopic reinvention.

Chapter 3, “A chronology (of sorts)”, plays with unexpected relations with the history of Barnes's family (his grand-father's date of birth and proclivity for remaining silent especially about WWI), the publication of important novels of reference (Madame Bovary), Barnes' studies at Oxford, his jobs and later contributions to criticism or to the OED, his contributions to various radio or television broadcasts, the publication of some of his novels and his interactions with writers or translators. A list of dates which anticipates on chapter 9.

Chapter 9, “A dictionary of Julian Barnes”, reads so much like something Barnes might have written himself that we feel how intimate Vanessa Guignery has grown with the creative process of Barnes. Using references to letters, essays, interviews or annotations, this section offers miscellaneous entries such as “Academics”, “Amis, Kingsley”, or “Football”, “Fireworks”, to “Wine”, Wharton”, “Xylophone” and finally “Zola”. Through the seemingly ludicrous list, Barnes's sense of humour and even self-derision pierces, shedding a new light on some of the most acid remarks passed by the author on his fellow writers, on society and even on the meaning of life. Without ever infringing on his privacy, Vanessa Guignery gives us a glimpse into the personality of a writer who does not like his life to be discussed, thus delicately enhancing the humanity of his works and capturing the very spirit of the author.

This quest does not just answer a need for erudition; by revealing the complexity of the writing process, it weaves the hesitations and choices of the author into the fabric of the text together with the leitmotifs and variations. Indeed, right from the first chapter on Metroland we feel immersed in the world of creation, beyond all limits of chronology and partitions between individual novels. Vanessa Guignery does not just offer her insight into the works of Julian Barnes, she reveals the profound identity of what constitutes an oeuvre and of its creator.

In the preparation for Metroland, the revision of pronouns (from third-person to first-person narrative) and tenses amounts to an experimentation with narratological possibilities. A shift in the opposite direction in The Noise of Time reveals the fear to be too autobiographical. The shift in names occurs for other novels as well, parts are deleted to create a shorter denser text. But these parts are not discarded for good since they reappear in Pulse (2011), just as a selection of smells is to be found in the incipit of The Sense of an Ending (2011) here it is concentrated in the “smell of sour apples” right at the beginning. The same goes for the list of sounds although the text relies on a play on sonorities. Later a similar attention to noises will inform The Noise of Time (2016). A deleted passage about the letters of the alphabet may have an echo in The Sense of an Ending. So the reader quickly understands that the chronological approach is not a form of rigor mortis, on the opposite it provides a series of landmarks ensuring the perception of continuity, of a degree of fluidity both in the mind and the work of the author. As if everything was already there at the beginning, waiting for the writer to find the right form of expression and the right context for it.

Barnes himself works as his own critic, he has even reviewed his first two novels. He identifies in his first notebook two types of criticism but claims they cannot account for the complexities and subtleties of his work. Even when he stops reading reviews in 1998, he continues listening to his faithful readers (especially Hermione Lee). Back and forth exchanges show how much attention he pays to the reactions of those he trusts. Something similar happens with his Bulgarian translator who convinces him to change names and who provides him with details on everyday life in a communist country when he works on The Porcupine (1992).

The refutations to Lee's Buts to Before She Met Me help shape the novel and balance the autobiographical elements with a less personal situation. Thirty-five years later the importance of his mother as a source of inspiration for his female characters will reappear in The Only Story. The characterization of Ann can almost be summed up in her ability to shift from the adjective “mad” to “sad” in order not to face her marital problems and this participates in making the plot “as claustrophobic as the house it takes place in” according to Barnes.

All along Barnes rejects being limited to critical categories or being compared to other writers, McEwan for instance. He is looking for a voice of his own and prefers to insist on the complexity of the process based on “'an inevitable working-out of a given situation' which can provoke a 'bifurcated response in the reader'”.

“Finding the right title” therefore remains a problem all through his career and the archives uncover lists of potentialities discarded, sometimes taken up again, sometimes chosen late in the process. Barnes declares “I like the idea of a title whose point you don't get until almost the last page of the book”. Guignery shows how the process works and how the final choices are made thanks to an analysis of modals, the replacement of an adjective by a noun, the focus on a recurring phrase, an element in the plot. These refer to the main themes of the text, they are sometimes related to intertexts here identified for us and they often reveal a preoccupation with time and memory.

Richness and hybridity are qualities which emerge from the archives as they transpire in Flaubert's Parrot. Each novel is carefully planned and taps into a stock of ideas partly informed by earlier readings, confirming that Barnes can define himself as drawn to French and Russian writers. The influence of Camus, less obvious than that of Flaubert, can be perceived in the reflexion on suicide in The Lemon Table. Death appears as “an idea looking for a form” and the writer experiments with degrees of proximity with his own experience of grief, sometimes setting the notion of courage at the centre of attention: whether physical, social or moral, creating a chronological progression within his works.

An echoing strategy shows that the writer relies on the reader's ability to connect and decode images, to fill in the gaps. The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters sets forth the use of fragments to ensure the continuation of several projects. The insertion of the half chapter as a complete piece in itself enhances the pliability and flexibility of the process as well as the generic hybridity of the book. A complexity that characterizes the later novel Arthur and George for which the amount of research might have become constricting and even more so The Porcupine which some readers may have mistaken for a book on Bulgaria instead of a book on life in a socialist dictatorship.

In an exchange with his Bulgarian translator, Barnes insists that the ending of a novel can only be dictated by the logic of the narrative and should not answer the fear of making some readers uncomfortable. More often than not the ending is ambiguous and unsettling to make the reader free and active. It also echoes the beginning of the novel reinforcing the sense of a structure in a narrative where the form is pared down. In The Sense of an Ending, especially, the unreliability of memory is made to answer the unreliability of documentation as the deleted passages here offered to the reader make it clear.

The conclusion quotes Barnes: “Novels are like cities: some are organized and laid out with the colour coded clarity of public transport maps [...] Others, the subtler, wiser ones, offer no such immediately readable route maps”, which makes Julian Barnes From the Margins all the more valuable. It also offers a close reading of a kaleidoscopic palimpsest, an achievement relying on an extensive academic knowledge of the archives and of the published texts and conveys to the reader “le plaisir du texte” such as Barthes has theorized it.


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