Beg, Borrow or Steal
Robson, Leo, New Statesman (1996)
Through the Window
Vintage, 256pp, [pounds sterling]10.99
In this collection of essays on "fiction and its related forms", Julian Barnes does a convincing impression of regal self-assurance but another personality keeps breaking through. This shadow is a reminder that Barnes earned and consolidated his reputation with autobiographical novels in which he presents a version of himself as rivalrous, gossip-minded and passive-aggressive. In his fiction, Barnes manages to forge some ironic distance from this perspective; but writing in his own voice, he is confined to it, with unpalatable results.
Even the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye-pokes. While exploring George Orwell's relationship with Englishness and the English language (in "Orwell and the Fucking Elephant", an incisive and original piece), he interrupts proceedings for a footnote: "Airport novelists irritated by their lack of status (a spectacle as comic as literary novelists moaning about their sales) habitually invoke one of two comparisons to prove their own worth: Dickens, who would have applauded their broad appeal, and Orwell, who would have approved their 'plain (ie banal) style."
In the course of praising Penelope Fitzgerald, he makes various detours to disparage those who disparaged her, never troubling to explain that his knowledge comes from Fitzgerald's owa letters, hardly unbiased testimony. Barnes offers a first-hand account of a "young male novelist" whose "turkey-cocking" apparently "disfigured" Fitzgerald's memorial meeting. The passage comes under the index entry for '`anonymity, writers granted", but if it really is Barnes's intention to protect Philip Hensher from the scorn of Fitzgerald lovers, then "young male novelist" is both sexist and ageist, employed to prejudice the jury and to strengthen his case against behaviour he refuses to identify.
Hensher is far from Barnes's only nameless victim. Sebastian Faulks, identified only as a "better-known" English novelist, receives a dressing-down for liking Fitzgerald in the wrong way. Kazuo Ishiguro is knocked twice--first in a wonderfully well-informed but predictable essay about translations of Madame Bovary, where he is the "British novelist" who tries to "make things easier" for his Scandinavian translators; then in one of the three essays about Ford Madox Ford, where Barnes recalls an encounter with "one of our better-known literary novelists, whose use of indirection and the bumbling narrator seemed to me to derive absolutely from Ford". (Note the difference in phrasing between this allusion to The Remains of the Day and a subsequent reference to "my friend Ian McEwan", who "unconsciously borrowed" the names of Ford's characters in his "brilliant novella" On Chesil Beach.) Ishiguro apparently pleaded with Barnes to 'pretend I haven't read The Good Soldier'. It seems that he was willing to grant--to use his verb--an injunction but not a super-injunction.
The desire to bring Ishiguro down a peg or two is consistent with a more general reluctance to praise younger writers. Lorrie Moore was 40 years old when Barnes wrote: "I hesitate to lay the adjective 'wise' on one of her age. …