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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lisa Allardice

‘I didn’t think it was possible to be a novelist’: Julian Barnes on literature, loss – and his late friend Martin Amis

Julian Barnes.
Julian Barnes. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Too many people have been dying lately,” Julian Barnes reflects over the phone from his home in north London. He has muted the Test match, he tells me, so he won’t be tempted to shout at the screen. This is a follow-up conversation to a meeting earlier this year to discuss his latest novel, Elizabeth Finch, in which, although unnamed in the book, Hilary Mantel, who died aged 70 last September, played a key part. Barnes’s great friend Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, died a month later. “I did adore her,” he says now. And, since we last spoke, Martin Amis has also died, in May.

“I knew he didn’t want me to ask him how he was,” Barnes says of his final communications with Amis, who moved to New York in 2011. “So we had a kind of football email exchange: ‘What do you think of Arsenal this season?’ and so on. At the end, I got an email saying, in effect, ‘Look after yourself, old friend.’ I took that as it was intended, which was ‘Goodbye.’” Barnes didn’t email him again. “He did it stylishly, as you would expect,” he says. “Stylishly and privately.”

Starting with the attack on Salman Rushdie in August last year, it has been a dark 12 months for books. Amis’s death brings an inevitable sense of an ending – to borrow the title of Barnes’s 2011 Booker prize-winning novel – to a long chapter in English letters. Barnes and Amis go back to the heady days of the 1970s, when they worked together on the books pages of the New Statesman, along with the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, Barnes at the time “virtually mute” with self-consciousness. Their names were to be forever linked when – along with Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro – they made it on to the inaugural Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

“Fiction became fashionable again,” he reflects. “Sexy, even.” For a while they were the closest thing the books world had to rock stars, with Amis as their swaggering frontman (Barnes would have been the tall, slightly awkward one in a velvet suit), their parties, love affairs and spats considered headline worthy.

“The on dit is that back then it was all white boys who ran the whole thing,” he says, of the original Granta list. But there’s no denying it was a group of, mainly, white men who went on to dominate publishing for decades. “Well, that’s not our fault!” he barks with an indignant laugh. “We just carried on writing books.”

Barnes has written 14 novels, three of which – Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998) and Arthur & George (2005) – were shortlisted for the Booker, as well as nine nonfiction titles on his many passions (France, art, wine, cooking), and three collections of short stories; and not forgetting four crime novels under the nom de plume Dan Kavanagh. “All the books that I’ve published are still in print and that’s very rare and very lucky,” he says of a career that began with the publication of Metroland in 1981.

In the first week of lockdown Barnes had his own health scare, and if he’s not completely better, he’s doing OK. He certainly isn’t going to talk about it in an interview. “You can say, ‘He appears to be very healthy,’” he told me when we met for coffee, “‘but he is very moany,’” he dictates with a chuckle. At 77, he remains as tall and straight-backed as a coatstand, as imposing as his reputation, but also genial and gently teasing, with what McEwan termed a “lovely strain of irony”, which he is not afraid to turn on himself. For the record, he’s not at all moany.

This week, he will be the subject of an event at the Southbank Centre in London. “Being asked to retrospect is better than not being asked to retrospect,” he says. “As Kingsley Amis remarked when he was asked if Lucky Jim was an albatross around his neck, ‘It’s better than having no albatross at all.’”

Julian Barnes with (clockwise from front left) Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis and Pat Kavanagh in 1978.
Julian Barnes with (clockwise from front left) Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis and Pat Kavanagh in 1978. Photograph: ©Angela Gorgas

Barnes was intrigued that Amis accepted a knighthood in the weeks before his death, having once famously snubbed the royal family as “philistines”, and avowed that such a thing would never happen. “I would guess that part of it was a sort of symmetry with his father. Sir Kingsley and Sir Martin,” Barnes muses now. (Both Amis Sr and Jr died at 73.) “Martin wasn’t in the shadow of Kingsley, but he was sort of aligned with Kingsley. And of course Kingsley got a bad reputation towards the end of his life.”

Martin was “very provocative” towards the media, Barnes adds, recalling the outcry sparked by Amis’s punchy advance for The Information back in 1995. “It’s not my problem. It’s England’s problem,” Amis was rumoured to have retorted. “If you say something like that you are likely to get a response,” Barnes says drily. The book deal saga – which became synonymous with Amis’s expensive dental work – triggered a long froideur between the two novelists, after Amis ditched Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanagh, as his agent in favour of Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie.

The central event in Elizabeth Finch, referred to as “the Shaming”, was inspired by a more recent literary scandal – the brief hate storm that blew up after Mantel’s 2013 London Review of Books Royal Bodies lecture in which she compared Kate Middleton to “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own”.

Elizabeth Finch, a charismatic teacher who runs an evening class entitled “Culture and Civilisation”, finds herself on the front page of a tabloid under the headline CRAZY LADY PROF CLAIMS ROMAN EMPEROR RUINED OUR SEX LIFE, after giving a lecture for the LRB. “People said it was implausible, did they? Bastards!” he hoots, when I mention that a couple of reviews questioned the likelihood of Grub Street interest in an academic talk. “Know-nothings!” It was taken “virtually word for word, picture for picture” from a piece in the Daily Mail, which ran a photograph of Mantel next to one of the future Duchess of Cambridge: “They basically said, ‘Who do you think you’d fancy, eh?’” he says, with an exaggerated nudge and a wink. “It was disgusting.”

The novel is set in the 1980s, “before laptops in class and social media out of it”, but the modern equivalent of “the Shaming” would be internet trolling and the culture wars. “You can’t have a contrary opinion without being an unworthy person whose books shouldn’t be bought,” he says of “the intransigence” of much public discourse today. Elizabeth Finch is his manifesto for a more nuanced conversation: more culture and civilisation, in a nutshell. “Monotheism,” lectures Finch, “Monogamy. Monotony. Nothing good begins this way.”

“It is a novel of ideas, and in some ways that’s an unEnglish thing,” Barnes says. “Sometimes I let the ideas be more evident and some people react as if they found a toothpick in their sandwich.” One critic described the middle section of the novel, given over to a student’s essay on Julian the Apostate (Barnes is a master of the scenic detour), as “a lump of undigested potato in the throat”, but others found it much easier to swallow, with one review describing it as “a bravura exercise in nimbly handled erudition”.

“High-minded, self-sufficient, European”, Elizabeth Finch is modelled on Barnes’s friend the late novelist and art historian Anita Brookner. “I start with the shoes,” Barnes says, citing Dirk Bogarde on inhabiting a role. “I thought of an Anita Brookner-ish character and I put Elizabeth Finch in her shoes. And then she walks off in a different direction.” The shoes are brogues, naturally.

His affectionately elegant tribute to Brookner in the Guardian after her death in 2016 included many touching details (the black coffee and Sovereign cigarette, her opening: “So, what have you got for me?”) that have been transferred to the novel. The piece also recorded a comically exquisite lunch at his house with Brookner and Callil (Callil had to lie down afterwards). “I like fiercely independent women,” he says. “On the whole, women are stronger in my novels than men, and wiser.” His A-Z of Carmen Callil, which he gave as a eulogy at her funeral, is also a joy.

Barnes’s most recent nonfiction book, The Man in the Red Coat, a quasi-biography of the little-known 19th-century French gynaecologist Samuel Pozzi, published in 2019, was a means by which to express some of his despair at the Brexit vote, refracted through the glittering lens of belle epoque France. He likes to call himself “a returner” rather than a “remoaner” in his hope that one day the United Kingdom will rejoin the EU. But despite a growing sense of national regret, he doesn’t see it happening any time soon. “We are very bifurcated,” he reflects. “North, south, rich, poor. All those gaps are getting bigger. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting food parcels.”

Born in Leicester – he is a lifelong Leicester City and Labour supporter – Barnes comes from a long line of teachers: both his parents taught French. “I don’t come from posh stock,” he protests, describing himself as “a middle-class scholarship boy”. The family moved to Acton, west London, and later Northwood, Middlesex (the geographical metroland of his first novel). “There was something in the water in W3,” he jokes of the fact that he and his elder brother Jonathan, a philosopher, were such boffins.

Unusually, he is often at his warmest as a writer in his essays and nonfiction: the glimpse of his mother, to whom he was never close, in his 2008 memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, giving him a wordless thumbs-down from her hospital bed, tells us everything. “It was the most shocking thing I ever saw her do; the most admirable too, and the one occasion when she tore at my heart.” When he went to Oxford to study modern languages in 1964, Barnes had no ambition to be a writer. “I didn’t think it was at all possible to be a novelist. Other people were novelists,” he says.

He is wary of pronouncing on current crises, at home or in his beloved France. “When you have old people bemoaning the state of the world, and saying ‘It was much better when I was young’, you have to remember it’s because they’re going to die before too long. And that’s one way of making it easier on themselves.”

Barnes has been worrying about dying for almost as long as he’s been alive. As he recounts in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, his first experience of le réveil mortel (“death-awakening”) occurred when he was about 12 or 13, after he woke in the middle of the night with “a vivid actualisation of what an eternity of nothingness was like”, he says now. While he no longer sits on the edge of his bed raving “No, no, no!” as he did as a teenager, he still thinks about death daily. “It’s not something I can control,” not some sort of “mental or spiritual exercise” à la Montaigne, who would welcome his horse stumbling or a slate falling off his roof as a memento mori. Instead, he is with his old friend Flaubert, who observed that “no sooner do we come into this world than bits of us start to fall off”. It may not happen as quickly as in Flaubert’s day, he adds, “but after the ages of 60 and 70 stuff starts to fall off”.

As he gets older he distrusts memory more and more, its slipperiness a recurring theme throughout his fiction. “Memories are not something you put in the left luggage office, you turn the key, and when you want to get it, you go back and it comes out just as it was before,” he says. “It’s not how it works. Each time you take it out and put it back, it changes, it oxidises.” One of the sad milestones of grief, he adds, “is the realisation at a certain point that all the memories you will ever have are there. They’re not going to be added to.”

Like Brookner and Callil, his late wife Kavanagh, was tiny, brilliant and terrifying. She died of a brain tumour in 2008 a few months after Nothing to Be Frightened Of was published. In her obituary, biographer Hermione Lee wrote that their life together was “unbreakably strong”. In a second memoir, Levels of Life, published in 2013, Barnes forced himself to confront grief “absolutely straight and head on” – which he does, with typical Barnesian reserve, by way of the true story of a 19th-century balloonist called Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. It has become a classic of the genre. After many years in what McEwan called “a wasteland of bereavement after Pat’s death”, he is now in a relationship with former Penguin publisher Rachel Cugnoni. Elizabeth Finch is dedicated “to Rachel”.

What of the question of legacy that runs throughout the current novel, does he worry about the afterlife of his books? “I don’t think about it,” he says. “I have no idea if my books will be read. You’ve got no control over it. You don’t know what sort of readers are coming along. The great thing is that important books and well written books are still being published.”

The status of the great white male has been in steady decline for the past few years, so much so that the Irish novelist John Banville, who won the Booker prize in 2005, grumbled that it wouldn’t be possible for “a straight white man” to win it now. How does it feel to go from vanguard to establishment to endangered species? “We haven’t complained and we approve of all the reconfiguration that’s happening in fiction,” Barnes says, as if giving an official statement. “It is overdue. Ian [McEwan ] and I talk about it occasionally. That doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be resentment … in some people’s minds,” he continues. “Who knows? The literary world is a complaining, backbiting world in some ways.”

In a couple of weeks he is off to Gouda, Holland, to pick up a replacement typewriter, after he mentioned on a podcast that his beloved IBM 196C had finally broken down, and there was no longer anywhere in the UK that could mend it. A few months ago he received a letter from a young Hungarian living in Holland who had found him one in full working order. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for something in there somewhere. “Maybe,” he muses. He plans to visit the famous altarpiece in Ghent on his way back.

At the moment he is “resting”, which for Barnes means working on an introduction to Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which he first read – in Russian – when he was 16. “There are a few books that you reread every 10 years or so,” he says. “And that is one of mine.”

He likes to have “odd jobs between books”, but he’s not telling what that next book might be. Although he says he thinks it unlikely that there will be many more novels. “You have to coldly assess your work and see if you’re about to repeat yourself.”

He now sees death as “the end of old age rather than something that cuts you off in first flowering. So I suppose in that sense, it’s less to be lamented,” he says. “Though I still think it’s a bloody terrible idea.” In the meantime, he reminds me politely, there’s the Test match to get back to.

Julian Barnes: A Life in Writing is on 20 September at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. His novel Elizabeth Finch is published by Vintage.

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