Friday, October 21, 2011

The Readable Barnes

I was away for this year's Booker and just managed to find BBC newsnight on the Tuesday night whilst in Eindhoven to hear that Julian Barnes, the thoroughbred in this year's race had won the prize. I've yet to read the short "Sense of an Ending" but intend to do so; and its definitely an overdue honour. Barnes is the most enigmatic of that generation of writers in some ways. Whereas Amis we know everything about, the arch-satirist, the political enfant terrible; and McEwan has built a solid and ever-expanding ouvre of middlebrow psychodramas; I'm not even sure most readers of my age and younger would even think of Barnes as a novelist these days. He's a man of letters; hardly ever out of the Guardian review, an obvious intellectual aesthete of the type we rarely get in Britain.

He was always preferred (or liked equally) in France to Britain, which is easy to forget now he's top of the literary tree - and, worth pointing out that his books have frequently been more experimental and playful than is usual amongst British novelists. I'd assumed he'd been writing ignored novels between his Booker shortlistings, but looking at his bibliography, we've barely had 2 novels a decade since his heyday of the 80s. From "Metroland" in 1980 to "Talking it Over" in 1991, he was one of our pre-eminent novelists. His range has always been impressive, no one book is much like another (except in the pairing of "Talking it Over" and its sequel "Love etc.") and I was introduced to his brilliant "A History of the World in 10 and a half chapters", one of the only books by his generation that seemed aware of the post-war European novel and its tricks and delights, by a very non-literary friend. For thoroughbred or not, Barnes has always been the most readable of literary novelists. His novels have always (in Chris Mullin's unfortunate phrase) "ripped along." For me "Talking it Over" is, along with "A History..." his best, a cleverly told relationship novel.

So, for all the discussions about readability and dumbing down that has accompanied this year's prize, its probably only right that the winner is a writer who is never high brow or low brow, an aesthete, a postmodern writer, who remains always a joy to read; and has criticised the Booker himself in the past for being "posh bingo."

No comments: