Friday, May 3, 2013

Julian Barnes

According to Wikipedia, Julian Barnes has been publishing since 1980, but it was only last year, on the heels of his being awarded the 2011 Booker prize, that I got around to reading anything of his.

The book in question, A Sense of Ending, is not typically my cup of tea. It's a short book, divided into two parts. The first part introduces the main character and his adolescent school mates. They grow up, get girlfriends, and drift apart. One of the gang, the most intelligent and sensitive, commits suicide. In part two, the main character is older - retired and looking back on his life as somewhat of a disappointment. He receives a letter from a lawyer informing him he's received a bequest, bringing back the days of the first part, causing him and us to look at them (and him) in a new light.

As I say, it's not something I would ordinarily read or find myself recommending to others, but the novel is very well constructed with a strong narrative. There's no question that it deserved the Booker award. It led me to read Arthur and George of 2005. It's moderately fictionalized account of a true set of events in England around the year 1900. Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and inveterate rider of hobby horses. George is George Edalji, young solicitor in Birmingham, son to an Indian countryside clergyman and his Scottish wife. George is the target of an anonymous barrage of hate mail and is eventually sent to prison on very dubious grounds for slashing local farm animals. Arthur steps in and campaigns to clear George's name. Again a well constructed novel with a strong narrative, vivid characters and a solid grasp of the period and setting.

I'm not sure whether Barnes will be remembered a hundred years hence, or that he's doing much these days to push the novel into new directions. He does, however, stand out among his contemporaries as a highly accomplished and capable novelist. He's a couple of paragraphs:

The asylum sent Arthur his father's sketchbooks. Charles Doyle's last years had been miserable, as he lay unvisited at his grim final address; but he did not die mad. That much was clear: he had continued to paint watercolours and to draw; he also kept a diary. It now struck Arthur that his father had been a considerable artist, undervalued by his peers, worthy indeed of a posthumous exhibition in Edinburgh - perhaps even London. Arthur could not help reflecting on the contrast in their fates: while the son was enjoying fame and society, his abandoned father knew only the occasional embrace of the straightjacket. Arthur felt no guilt - just the beginnings of filial compassion. And there was one sentence in his father's diary which would drag at any son's heart. 'I believe,' he had written, 'I am branded as mad solely from the Scotch Misconception of Jokes.'

In December of that year, Holmes fell to his death in the arms of Moriarty; both of them propelled downwards by an impatient authorial hand. The London newspapers had contained no obituaries of Charles Doyle, but were full of protest and dismay at the death of a non-existent consulting detective whose popularity had begun to embarrass his creator. It seemed to Arthur that the world was running mad: his father was fresh in the ground, and his wife condemned, but young City men were apparently tying crepe bands to their hats in mourning for Mr Sherlock Holmes.

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