This book is a compilation of some lovely essays Julian Barnes has written about other writers and their books.
Each essay focuses on one writer and some particular aspect of the writer or the book. In some cases, the essays are an insightful critique of the book. In others, he talks about his personal encounters with the writer.
The book opens with a lovely, humorous essay on his encounters with the author Penelope Fitzgerald as he talks about his train journey with her on the way back from a book award ceremony. The next three essays are devoted to Ford Madox Ford. In the first of these essays, he discusses Ford’s love for Provence, France. The next two essays focus on Ford’s famous works – The Good Soldier and the Parade’s End quartet. I haven’t read any of these books but Barnes’ high praise for them makes me think I should read these sooner than later.
The next two essays feature Rudyard Kipling and his love for France, and the French love of Kipling. Kipling and France? I was scratching my head at that one…in my mind he is the staunch pucca sahib of the British Empire and such types are not known for their love of France. But such it is, and I was surprised by how much I loved these two essays. They are probably my favorites in this book and I love the peek that I got into this side of Kipling.
Reading this book, I was made aware that Kiping is not the only Francophile, Julian Barnes himself is an in-depth lover of most things French. This is obvious when he talks about people like Marimée and Fénéon. These personalities are obscure to people with a passing knowledge of French history or literature. In effect, people like me. These two essays could have so easily been tedious but Barnes somehow manages to make them interesting. This is followed by yet another essay on another French author Michel Houellebecq – a talented and pretentious French writer.
Among these French-related essays, the one that stands out is Translating Madame Bovary that compares the merits and demerits of the various translations done of Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece. What I eventually got out of this essay is, if you want a free-flowing translation, read the one by Steegmuller. If you want something that sticks closer to the original language of the book, try out the Lydia Davis translation.
Barnes shows a number of examples of the original French sentence along with the various translations, and in each and every example the Steegmuller version stood out for ease of reading while at the same time conveying the intent of the original. Definitely, that’s the version I will be looking out for when I get around to reading this book.
What thrilled me reading the essay is finding I could easily understand the meaning of the French prose without having to peek at the translation. Maybe my French is not so rusty after all. I do balk at reading the entire novel in French though.
What impressed me reading the essay is finding that Barnes has read a jaw-dropping 5 maybe 6 translations of Madame Bovary. This is a true literature and French and Flaubert lover and to do such a critical analysis of these translations? That’s a lot of research right there.
The next essay is a lovely critique of The Reef by Edith Wharton. I don’t have much to say about this except that this is another book that I hope to read someday. There’s another essay on Lorrie Moore, which is probably the most forgettable one in this book.
A change of pace follows with a fictional homage to Hemingway. This story is nice but felt a little flat. The story seems to be heavily drawn from Barnes’ own personal experience and such stories fail to be dramatic enough. I think it doesn’t work very efficiently at actually being an homage.
Next up is a rambling, overlong essay on John Updike – an American author I like but I could have done with a little less of him in the essay.
One interesting fact emerged though…
Updike wrote poetry! I never knew that; the only writing of his that I am familiar with is the Rabbit series. His poetry seems quite readable too if you go by the excerpts Barnes has included in his essay. Here’s a poem that Updike wrote about the apparent dying of the pastime of reading…
A life poured into words – apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder…
Neat one, isn’t it? Do you think it’s true?
The last essay is heart-breaking. Barnes writes about Joan Didion’s and Joyce Carol Oates’ books on grief after the deaths of their partners. But more than that, it’s a beautiful essay on grief made even more poignant by the fact that throughout this essay, while appearing to talk in general about grief, his own grief at the death of his partner screams through every sentence. His last sentence is a quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson and which seems to reflect Barnes’ own thoughts…
He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.
So very beautiful! I highly recommend this book for serious readers and readers who are interested in the lives of other writers. It’s a slow read, but I savored every word of this book.
Thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book to read and review.