Old fartery & literary dish

Published May 13, 1996 10:05AM (EDT)

Julian Barnes is a thin, schoolmasterly man with English teeth and a quiet, prowling English drawl. Relaxed across a small, old couch on the second floor of the house he shares with his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in a politely Victorian neighborhood near Kentish Town in London, he listens carefully and explains himself with a tutor's gravity and consideration. He is, in fact, the product of three generations of schoolmasters. Behind us, and occupying most of the book-lined room, is the biggest pool table I've ever seen.
Barnes' new book is a collection of short stories (his first, if you don't count "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters," which shares certain properties with a book of short stories, but is, he insists, a novel). Called "Cross Channel," it's about the relationship between the English and the French. What with the advertisements for the EuroStar "chunnel" train posted all over town -- "London to Central Paris: Direct"-- and the "mad cow disease" scare on the continent, it's almost as if his publisher had custom-ordered a literary quickie to capitalize on current mass anxieties. But the book is actually a survey of several hundred years of cross-channel history in the form of ten impeccably constructed stories. "Cross Channel" emphasizes the reliable "otherness" of the French -- vs. beefeating, upright, English science and pragmatism -- but also a wistful longing for something another country provides, or is supposed to provide.
Barnes didn't know what the World Wide Web was, but agreed to talk with a new media journalist anyway. After a short discussion of the Internet, he decided that as an author who lives off rights, he wasn't amenable to the idea that "information wants to be free." He works on an IBM Selectric typewriter on a large, U-shaped black wood desk he had custom-made, TV-anchor style. On it was the French translation of a collection of his New Yorker reportage called "Letters from London," which he was correcting.

You no longer work as the London correspondent for The New Yorker, but some of these stories appeared there, right?
Three appeared in the New Yorker, and two appeared in Granta by the time that the book came out. The last one to be published in the New Yorker appeared after I'd corrected all the book proofs. And then it goes through all the New Yorker's phenomenally intense fact-correcting with mistakes being found, factual mistakes, after I'd already approved the proofs. What you do is say, "The Devonshires died on the Somme," and they'll say, "Well, there's one branch of opinion which thinks they died on the Somme, and there's another branch of opinion which says they died close to the Burrs, according to our map," or something. Sometimes you just give in. A lot of the time you want to say, look, I made it up, it's fiction. You can't fact-check fiction, or you can only fact-check it to a point.
I know people who do this. They're all top college graduates.
I know. They're strange. I wrote about how I imagined them to be in a preface to "Letters to London," as a matter of a fact. They are all clearly quite young and ferociously intelligent and immensely polite and yet, once they've sunk their teeth into your arm, they never let go. Until you say, "Okay, okay, you're right," or something like that.
Throughout the book you keep talking about beefeating Englishmen. . .
I think I'd be quite happy to eat beef at the moment. It's probably the safest time to eat beef. There was no safer time to fly around Europe than when the Gulf War was on. Because everyone was scared stiff and stayed at home, the planes were empty. You got to the airport and there were about 500 soldiers so you felt safe. You're bumped up to business class and they fed you lots of drinks on the way. The drinks cart probably came around more times during the Gulf War than ever before.
Do you spend a lot of time in France?
I guess I do. I think I'm the one middle-class English writer who loves France but doesn't have a house there. In fact, I think I'm probably the only middle-class English person that I know who could afford a house in France and doesn't have one. But I go there quite a bit, probably twice a year. I just like to go to different parts of the country. I only go to Paris if I've got to work.
Is France for you what New York is for Martin Amis?
Yes, it is my other country. There is something about it -- its history, its landscape -- that obviously sparks my imagination, or one area of my imagination. It's a language I know well, it's a literature I know well. A lot of my intellectual points of reference are French rather than English. And I love provincial France.
In one story, the narrator calls himself a "pragmatic English novelist." Do you consider yourself a pragmatic Englishman?
You don't think about yourself until people discuss you in front of you. And so when I'm here in this country I sometimes find I'm half-accused of being too continental, too intellectual, too French. But when I'm over there, when I've ventured this line to them and said "You know, in England they think I'm sort of European," they say, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, you're very English, that's why we like you. Of course, you write about us, but you have the English sense of humor."
Do you think you translate well? Does translation bother you?
I correct them. I have the translation of "Letters from London" on my desk at the moment. When they translate you they turn you into much more of a French writer than you were to begin with. I once started reading a novel of mine in a translation from a few years before, and I didn't recognize that it was me at all. The vocabulary is much smaller. You find yourself reading a French literary novel, rather than something you yourself wrote. On the one hand, if you read something in translation you should feel as if there isn't any barrier between you and the author; the language should be seamless. On the other hand, if the author reads it and feels that he doesn't particularly recognize it as his style, or the way that he thinks, it's a bit touchy.
One reviewer of "Cross Channel" mentioned that the English needed "another country."
I think everybody needs another country. And there's a bit about that in the final chapter in the book. You need another country on which to project, perhaps, your romanticism and idealism. I think this is a good idea, but I don't think it happens to most people. Most people think mostly about their own country, and idealize their own country, and I think that's dangerous. I think one's own country should be scrupulously and skeptically examined. And you should allow your idealism and romanticism to be projected onto something else. It's unrealistic politically, but it's what I think should happen. One of the things which happens in your country [America] is that you are a lot more idealistic about your own country than Europeans are about theirs. And therefore your disappointments are all the greater when something terrible happens.
I think that's what Bill Buford [an American who formerly edited the British literary magazine Granta, and who now is literary editor of The New Yorker] did with England. This is the country he idealized.
Yes -- he's an old chum of mine. He drives me crazy, but he's an old chum.
You and other people -- part of a circle which developed with Granta -- sort of rose with him.
Yes, though what happens is -- it's the same with writing schools and magazines -- the editor or the professor always claims more credit than is due. Bill now says that he launched me, which is complete bullshit. In order to be a successful editor nowadays, especially if you're an American here, you have to promote yourself. And you say, "I published all these guys." Whereas in fact he published me once, and he behaved so badly toward the copy that I swore I'd never write for him again. And he only published me then because I was in some sort of collection, some promotion of young British authors. He decided to do them all, so he did them all. But then when I became successful later on, he decided he'd launched me. So they over-claim for you and you in return are graceless about their help to you.
But you knew him socially?
I've known him socially, yes. I get along with him tremendously well socially. I like him enormously, but he absolutely drives everyone mad.
You started writing for the New Yorker in 1990. Had you written for them before that?
I'd had one piece, a chapter of "History of the World" was run. And then Bob Gottlieb asked me to be the London correspondent.
And now it's come full circle, and your book comes out from Knopf, where Gottlieb is.
Yes, this seems to happen in the world of journalism and publishing. Often you find, especially in publishing, that people move on so fast from one house to another that they've jumped from one ship you're on to another ship you're on. So you lose the head of your paperback firm in England -- he's Sonny Mehta -- and then he publishes you in New York instead [Mehta now heads Knopf]. When Bob Gottlieb left to edit the New Yorker, he'd just left me at Knopf. So there are all these sort of musical chairs.
People often say that there's a kind of essay-like quality to your fiction.
This is the new thing, yes. I think that's true of some of my books, not of others. I think that there's a possibly higher proportion of nonfiction in my fiction than in other people's fiction. It's just the current way to talk about me. Because I published my journalism from the New Yorker, that sort of reinforces this line if you want to take it. But most of my fiction is made up.
You recently taught at Johns Hopkins. Why was Baltimore a place you wanted to go?
Because it wasn't New York. I wanted to go to a proper American city. I didn't want to go to one of the three or four great American cities, or to a tourist city. But I wanted to go somewhere that was an American working city, with its own history and regionalism and which wasn't 1500 miles from anywhere. And that was nice. I didn't hear an English voice the whole time I was there until the next English poet came through to read at Hopkins.
Did you see a baseball game?
Oh, yes. I got hooked. I saw Cal Ripken twice. But it was getting to the end of the season when I arrived. Actually, I arrived on the day he broke the record.
Over the last few weeks, the Sunday London Times has printed excerpts from a diary that Kingsley Amis' official biographer kept over the last years of his life. [Amis died in October 1995. His son, Martin Amis, angered by the diary's publication, fired the biographer from editing his father's letters -- a huge literary scandal in England.] What do you think of it?

I think the publication of it was disgraceful. I think that if you are a biographer and a friend, perhaps Amis' last friend, and you keep such diaries, you should not publish them within three months of the man's death. Leaving aside any sort of legal stuff or moral stuff, it seems to me, in terms of what any friendship means and what its legacy is, you don't sell -- for apparently not a great deal of money -- stories about your dead chum falling down pissed in the street. Which people who read newspapers and don't know him will think, oh, silly old drunk. It seems rather curious. I don't know if there's a long background to it or why it was published, but even if he was resentful of [the Amis family, who asked him not to attend Kingsley Amis' funeral] for their mistreatment of him, I think he should never have done it. The one on Sunday [March 31] was pretty mild compared with the two previous ones. The one on Sunday was just him saying, "ah, Jane Austen's no bloody good, Tolstoy's no bloody good," and he just sounded like an old soak and a bore. But the two previous ones were very flaying accounts of his increasing decrepitude, drunkenness and death. And this by a man who was his biographer and supposed last friend. That's not a friend. With friends like that you don't need enemies.
In the final story in "Cross Channel," the narrator is going through various things on the chunnel train, both in recognition of, and fleeing from, the realization that he's getting older.
Yes, doing the crossword everyday and calling yourself an old fart when you feel yourself acting that way.
The character is older than you. Do you find yourself doing that, or is it a portrait of a friend?
It's a version of a future biography -- though that's a contradiction in terms. The thing about being an old fart came from a friend and I complaining about being attacked by younger critics. He said to me, "You don't understand, they're the young farts now. We're the old farts." This was about five years ago. We were in our mid-forties, and I thought, yeah, that's true. We were on a walk together and developed this whole thing about what old-fartery consisted of and how you must look out for the signs of old-fartery. But of course, I'm sure it won't work, I'm sure some sort of complacency will set in. And then you do something which makes you sound like the judge who said, "Who are the Beatles?"
In the same story, you make a joke about "declining life."
Yes, "life declined." As a writer you decline life. There's no way to be a writer without spending a lot of time by yourself, in a study, with a piece of paper. And, while you're doing that, on the whole, you are not finding the Northwest Passage. And, on the whole, the guy who finds the Northwest Passage can't put a pen to paper. And long may it stay so.
Is there anything else you'd want to be?
No. I never thought I'd be a writer, but I can't imagine now, looking back, anything else I'd rather have been. But I never thought I'd turn out to be a writer when I was 15, 20, 25. Not a fiction writer. I always thought I'd do a job which I didn't enjoy much.

By Carl Swanson

Carl Swanson writes regularly for the New York Observer.

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