Robert Birnbaum: England,
England has been out a while in Britain. Did you do much publicity
for it there? Do you need to?
Julian Barnes: I give readings in
bookshops and gave two interviews. Two press interviews and probably
a radio interview. That's what I tend to do...
RB: It's not quite a year that you
have been involved in talking about the novel?
JB: No, no. I've only promoted
in Britain, so far. And now Canada. So I've had other things to think
about in the meantime.
RB: What do you make of the fact
that British writers are described as being 'short listed' for the
Booker Prize, but in the U.S.A. writers are not referred to as being
'short listed' for the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award?
Here, if you don't win, despite the publisher's spin, you're a loser.
JB: Well, that certainly is how
you feel when you don't win. You feel like...it's a system which creates
six winners and five losers. Six winners one month and five losers
the next. The thing is -- other prizes are following suit, and they're
also having short lists. I don't mind the short list for the Booker.
The thing I object to is the way the judges all talk to the press
about it. I think they should just say "This is the short list" and
a month later say "This is the winner" and that's it. Say no more.
RB: Can you distinguish the place
of British writers in Britain and American writers in America?
JB: Your guys write longer books.
RB: We have more paper. It can't
be because they have more to say...
JB: I get the sense your writers
have more -- and that's partly why they write longer books -- they
have more natural self-confidence. They know that American culture
is listened to worldwide. They, I assume, mostly think that the novel
in English is now American. I think we are much more, partly because
of our imperial and colonial and Commonwealth history, we're much
more divided about it all. I think British writers of one or two generations
ago would have thought the English novel was the real novel in English
and the American novel was sort of an upstart. Now British writers
would say that the British novel is just one of the forms of the novels
in English around the world. I don't think we would bow to the American
novel while respecting many of its writers. The Indian novel -- or
the novel written in English by people of Indian origin whether living
in India or living in Europe or living in California -- is obviously
a very rich field at the moment.
RB: Was there a period in Britain
when there was a debate about the mortality of the novel? Were funerals
held for the novel?
JB: No, nothing serious. Every so
often everywhere someone writes an article claiming the death of the
novel, “Why write novels when you can have this, when you can have
that?” And novels go on being written and read, it seems to me, in
increasing numbers, and of increasing popularity. I don't see it at
all, actually. And I think this very diversity of the -- if you're
talking about the death of the novel in English -- the very diversity
of it is all the better for it.
RB: American authors are published
simultaneously in translation in 8, 14, 24 languages. Does that happen
for British writers?
JB: Yea. Not instantaneously, but
within the next year or two. I once counted up and it's between thirty
and forty that I've been translated into. It doesn't mean that every
book is translated into every language.
RB: Isn't it peculiar that first
time novelists are translated into fourteen languages? Does that speak
to a hunger for American culture?
JB: Yes. I think it speaks to the
hunger, but it also speaks to the efficiency of international book
fairs. There's always a buzz book at a book fair. “Have you bought
the Schlumberger?” “Oh, shit, no! I haven't bought the Schlumberger!
I better buy it.” A famous case of my friend and ex-publisher Liz
Calder (used to work for Cape, now works for Bloomsbury) bought Isabel
Allende's novel thinking she was the daughter of the president. But
then, when she wasn't, it didn't make any difference.
RB: He was her uncle. Isabel Allende
is the number one selling foreign author in Denmark.
JB: I know. It's very odd isn't
it? That side of it is actually quite fun in that it can mean that
different books of yours play differently in different countries.
You think, "Ah," this is sort of true, "that does mean my novels are
traveling, if the one that didn't do so well in England did well in
America and that one they quite suddenly saw differently in Denmark."
I like all that.
RB: You are reputed to be a great
lover of France. Other than to France, do you travel much to talk
about your work?
JB: Oh yes. I think I have to put
a stop to it. You could go to every European country every time you
published a novel. And come to the States and Canada. And you go to
Australia every three or four years. I've been to Spain, Italy, France,
Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and so on. I'm going to Holland in September,
Germany in November, and France in January for this book.
RB: Putting aside the business,
would it be wretched to view this as a globalization of literature?
JB: Yes, I think in Europe certainly
people are much…it will obviously vary from country to country. Like
the Dutch who speak almost every language anyway were always up to
date with what was going on in each country's literature. We've always
been traditionally the most sluggardly of European nations in terms
of translating things. The French for all their supposed chauvinism
have always been very open to foreign fiction. And you are right,
things are translated much more quickly nowadays. Yea, if you call
that globalization... It always seems to be used in a pejorative sense,
but perhaps this an example of good globalization. When you
think how slowly, and often inadequately, novels were translated in
the past, in the 19th century and so on, the idea of having to wait...there's
a great Spanish novel by a man called Leopoldo Allas called Laragenta
[sic]. Have you ever come across it? It's a sort of Spanish Madame
Bovary written in the 1880's and first translated into English in
1986. It's one of the great 19th century novels and unavailable to
anyone who didn't read Spanish. So, it's good. Of course, lot's of
crap is going to be [published] the first time out in fourteen countries.
RB: And this trend is driven by
something other than missionary zeal to get the works out there?
JB: Economics. Economic zeal and
fashion. Every so often you hear a phrase going round... Whenever
I see my publisher's catalogue in Spanish, he always refers to me,
Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and Martin Amis as "The Four Musketeers
of British Literature." I don't even question it or mock it. Then
there's the Salman Rushdie line about "the Empire strikes back," which
was a joke when he said it but has been taken up seriously. And then
you travel in Europe and they say, “Seems to me your generation of
British writers, there's a real new energy and vision there.” And
I say (laughing), “Yes, yes.”
RB: In a recent piece in the New
York Times Book Review, Jim Harrison, in describing writing from
a women character's point of view, characterizes post modernist fiction:
"The fodder of post-modernist fiction is nifty guys at loose ends."
In England, England, Martha, one of the main characters in
your lampoon, seems to fit Harrison's picture...especially as she
returns to this preposterous idyllic...
JB: Not particularly idyllic [Barnes
pronounces it "id-illic"]...
RB: Well, Anglia is not...
JB: Pre-industrial. It's not meant
to be an idyll. It's quite boring, you see. She's bored.
RB: Why did Anglia seem so charming?
JB: (laughs) You're not the first
to say idyll, but I resist it. I didn't write it as an idyll, I actually
wrote it as...
RB: Americans probably use the word
differently. I say 'eye-doll', by the way. How important was Martha
to this story?
JB: She was there from the beginning.
Crudely, the initial idea was to play the private life -- the search
for truth and authenticity in the private life through a search for
love -- against the large farcical satirical whatever-you-like-to-call-it
public story of fabrication, falsification, replication, and so on
and to run the one through the other. And to use the most extremes
of tone, the most extreme variation of tonality between the two stories
and try and make it play. That was the idea and the challenge of it.
I want you to...one of the reasons she [Martha] had to be there was
that otherwise you would have a...
JB: Yes, a cartoon without any human
content. There are cartoons which do, like Doonesbury. Otherwise,
it could be just a brassy farcical jolly sort of romp. That's why
I deliberately started with her life, her growing up, as realistically
as possible -- to situate and orient the reader and have something
RB: The idea of turning the Isle
of Wight into a theme park is much more something Americans would
do. Is it the case that British civilization has sunk to the same
disgusting consumer driven level?
JB: Yea, we have... I was talking
to my builder the other day. He went on a week's holiday and he went
to a place which is somewhere in the Midlands. Within it, it was as
if he was on a tropical island and it was a completely enclosed environment.
Without having to flap your passport you went abroad. Completely fake.
He had a wonderful time. We do all the country house industry stuff:
thatched cottage, cream tea stuff. No, we're quite good at it. We've
been doing [it] a lot longer than you have, so we don't do it in such
an obvious way. We don't yet build Africa as Disney has done. It's
partly because things are nearer us. Las Vegas has a replica Venice
and of Paris, but it's not very far for us to see the original.
RB: You made a list of 50 quintessences
of England. Had you thought of 50 American quintessences?
JB: Gosh, I'd have to give that
a long think and be very politic.
RB: Do you still do the Letter
from London kind of thing?
JB: Oh, being a foreign correspondent
in my own country? No, I haven't. I did that for five years and stopped
RB: Because it was a natural time
to stop, or it exhausted its interest for you?
JB: It took a lot of time and a
lot of writing energy. They were big pieces and you had to stop work
on anything else you were doing for up to a couple months. Things
were coming round again. You cover one general election you don't
want to cover the next one. You write about the royal family once
you don't want to write about them again. I had a terrible fear the
Queen Mother was going to die and they were going to ring me up and
say “we want you to write about the Queen Mother”. I said I have to
get out of it before she dies. Of course, she's going on solid as
ever. Hip replacements every so often.
RB: You came to the States a few
years ago to teach at Johns Hopkins. What was your experience like
JB: I always wanted to have a spell
living in America. But I wanted to live in an American city. I didn't
want to live in New York -- or the West Coast. I didn't want to live
in an Ivy League replica of Cambridge. I was practically the only
Englishman in Baltimore. It was a true American city, which had its
good times, had bad times, and now having some more good times. So
I enjoyed all that side of it. I liked my graduate students. They
were very clever and very nice. And it was nice just going into an
academic environment for a change. I'm not...you know my brother is
a full time academic, but I left it behind a long time ago.
RB: What do you make of Stephen
Dixon [on faculty at Johns Hopkins], who is another one of those wonderful
writers who are ignored except by the cognoscenti?
JB: I think there are similar cases
in all literary cultures. On the whole, in the novel, it's a sort
of slow curve. In poetry there are only three places on the podium
in Britain and those three poets make a living. All the others are
just scrabbling around. In the theater, the curve goes up very sharply,
because you make vast amounts of money if you have anything running
for a few months anywhere. But, if are on the fringe, you don't make
anything. But the curve in the novel, on the whole, goes up more slowly.
On the whole you make a bit more as you go on and on the whole the
gradations of fame are not so violent. There are always cases of honorable
writers who have to do another job to make a living. That's always
been the norm. I think we're slightly spoiled. And I think American,
on the whole, writers are the most spoiled of all. The difference
between an American writer and a British writer -- I can't remember
who said -- when an American writer publishes a novel and wins a prize
or something like that, has a success, he or she buys a Volvo -- an
English writer buys a typewriter.
RB: Is the designation 'mid-list
author' used in Britain?
JB: Yes, it is. That's what's being
squeezed, it seems to me. When I started -- I published my first novel
in 1980 -- that graph was much more in place. And now it seems to
me that perhaps there's a break in the middle and there's a second
ascent and there's a vertical walled scale in the middle somehow.
And that's where the mid-list was. Also, obviously, there's more bottom
line stuff and you get fewer chances to write your breakthrough book
than you did then. And they think in terms of breakthrough books.
I'll give you two examples, both writers I revere, both Anglo-Irish:
Brian Moore and William Trevor. Both of them have never written a
book as a result of which says “by the author of”. But both have,
over forty years, built an incredibly distinguished body of work.
You can't call them mid-list, because they are more classy than that
and they're probably more successful than mid-list. But that sort
of literary career is harder to do now. The publishers will be looking
for something to be filmed.
RB: I was told a story recently
about an Oprah author. His agent was shopping a book and was turned
down by numerous publishers. They resubmitted the book under another
name and publishers then wanted to buy the book. And then when they
informed the publishers. They were told that he wasn't wanted because
he was a mid-list author. It does make publishing judgements suspect.
JB: Yes, but publishing has always
been like that hasn't it? It's always backwardly validating. They're
always backing their hunches and they're slightly more canny about
it than an ordinary reader may be. But they're bound to make lots
of mistakes. Doris Lessing submitted something under another name
and they turned it down. And then she submitted under her name and
they, of course, accepted it. I thought she didn't come out of that
RB: On the dust jackets of your
books no mention is made of your Dan Kavanagh books. Have you disassociated
yourself from them?
JB: I wrote the last one in 1986
and I'm not going to write any more. They've mostly been remaindered.
RB: You know you are not going to
write any more because ...?
JB: Yes. I liked doing them. I had
an excess of energy at the time, which is why I was doing them, and
then I didn't. Had they been more successful, had I written more of
them probably... I started off writing three in four years. And then
there was a pause, and then there was a three-year gap... They were
perfectly reasonably successful in their own right, but my books are
RB: Has any one asked you to republish
JB: They're still in print. There
is a Duffy Omnibus in Penguin back home. I'm not denying
them or repudiating them. I think they're quite jolly. But I wrote
each of them in about a fortnight. The combined writing time on the
omnibus is a sixth of the time of the novel I wrote the quickest.
So, I'm perfectly happy to sign copies when they're put in front of
me. Brian Moore wrote thrillers when he started off and he always
refused to sign -- he wrote them under a pseudonym -- them when they
were put in front of him later. I do a different signature -- a barely
RB: Do you sign your name?
JB: No, Dan Kavanagh.
RB: Can you walk around London and
not be recognized?
JB: Yea, sure.
RB: I have the impression English
writers are more celebrated and visible than serious American writers.
JB: It's complicated because...when
I was in Canada, I arrived on a Saturday. Monday went to CBC and got
on the lift. As I was getting out of the lift a woman said, “Oh you're
Julian Barnes de-dummty-dum.” This morning I was queuing for the great
snakey immigration queue in Toronto Airport -- as a middle-aged woman
passed she said, “I'm a reader and de-dummty-dum-dum-dum.” That would
never happen in England. I liked it, and in both cases it happened
first thing in the morning and it set me up. In England they wouldn't.
People know me in my neighborhood, but they just treat me as a citizen.
Probably only a couple of times in the last five years has some come
up to me and said, “I like that book,” out of the blue. It's not in
RB: For any occupation?
JB: If you're a sports star probably,
if you're a musician. People who sit in quiet corners and read books
tend not to rush up to you in the street.
RB: If you're Richard Bransen?
JB: You might get stoned...stones
thrown at you.
RB: Seventy or eighty people showed
up recently my neighborhood independent bookstore for a reading by
JB: Ah, I met him in London. He's
a nice fellow. I haven't read all that book, but it looks very good
to me. The stories I read I was very impressed by.
RB: Is writing this book an opportunity
to unload your joke bag? Did you find yourself laughing as you were
writing? JB (laughs): I tend not to. No, you're concentrating on making
it work. I look at it as a serious book, but I admit it's also fast.
RB: Well, the character Jack is,
as they say here, over-the-top.
JB: Yes, he's a big old-fashioned
villain. He gets the best lines.
RB: You suggest that people forget
the best sex they ever had. Is that true of other things also?
JB: I've never actually asked people.
But I remember being struck -- when something similar to the episode
when Martha gets the post card saying, “Rather the best fucking fuck
in my life” -- someone saying something similar to me. And I thought,
“I can remember who I loved the most...” There's sort of a black box
effect. You can remember bad sex. I don't think I can remember the
worst sex. Doubtless there are many contenders...
RB: The worst meal, the worst movie,
the best movie, the best meal, the best wine, the best natural moment...
JB: You see, I think sex is different.
You can say looking at the Grand Canyon, going to the top of Masada,
things like that. You can certainly do your top ten natural sights.
It's partly because sex is so contextual, after all.
RB: I took it to be a statement
more about memory than about sex.
JB: Yes, well the whole book is about memory
-- about personal memory and historical memory. That's what it opens
RB: This is relatively unimportant,
but you managed to include the fact that Beethoven premiered four
major pieces in one particular evening? I assume that's a true story.
Were you waiting to put that in somewhere? Or did it just work out
because Beethoven had some role in Sir Jack's life?
JB: I needed some figure for Sir
Jack to compare himself which was preposterous and yet plausible in
terms of himself and what he would compare himself to. And that may
be an example of just egregiously bringing in some information which
was fun. Which is always a danger when you have the information. The
story about the policeman saying, “Beethoven doesn't look like” fits
in with the general narrative. But that fits in in terms
of Sir Jack being a patron of the arts and how all Beethoven needed
was a proper manager and a proper entrepreneur and a proper backer
-- like Sir Jack -- and he would have been okay. He would have been
taken to an ear specialist and sorted that out as well.
RB: In your introduction to Letters
from London you mentioned Charles McGrath editing your use of
the word ‘crepuscular'. Was there a prohibition about using a word
more than twice in a year?
JB: Well, Chip is a wonderful editor
and he was... It wasn't that you were not allowed to use a relatively
obscure word, but he was sensitive to the times when, as a writer,
you deliberately use an obscure word rather than using an obvious
word. That can become a habit that can become a tick. He was quite
right. He was a brilliant editor.
RB: You spent some time as a lexicographer?
JB: I did. I don't know whether
it had any influence on me at all. Except in making me less prescriptive
about language. And also less old farty and valetudinarian and pessimistic.
There is this well-established English attitude toward language which
is that the barbarians are at the gates. There was a time when even
the local vicar would write perfect copperplate handwriting and express
himself in Augustan prose. And there were these things called ‘things'
and these things called ‘words' and all the words matched the things.
Well, you just look at the language and it's not like that. And then
these barbarians come in using words wrongly. Then the words all get
mixed up. Look at the first Oxford Dictionary use of the
word ‘uninterested' and it's used in the sense of 'disinterested'.
Look at the first recorded use of the word ‘disinterested' and it's
in the sense of 'uninterested'. So those two words have always been
mixed up. It has nothing to do with the barbarians. And so on and
so on and so on...
RB: Did you notice any linguistic
gap when you taught at Johns Hopkins?
JB: Well, there was a gap because
they were writing in American English and I exist in English English.
But that might have been helpful to them, because a guy would turn
out a piece of gen-x fiction and his colleagues in the writing group
would all say this is gen-x and give it the thumbs down on a genre
basis. And I, who hadn't read any gen-x stuff, would read it more
objectively. It would seem a report from a stranger planet.
RB: In your own reading do you have
any particular inclinations? Are you an equal opportunity reader?
JB: I'm an equal opportunity reader.
As I'm in my fifties, I'm rereading more. I'm going back to what I
read at eighteen. It's ridiculous to think you got everything out
of Anna Karenina when you were eighteen. I go back to the
19th century a lot.
RB: You don't feel pressured to
kept up with the onslaught of publication?
JB: I keep up with writers I respect
and revere, sure. I don't feel that I have known what every writer
amongst my contemporaries is up to. For a start, I read slowly. Also,
I don't see literature as a breaking wave. The longer I live and the
longer I read, the more we're points on a circle rather than anything
linear. You can read 19th century novels which are just as bold and
experimental as anything in the 20th century.
RB: In my talks with American writers,
we rarely talk about the joys of rereading, but in my conversations
with British writers it comes up.
JB: It may be a European thing.
There's part of me when I'm reading fiction -- I want to read something
which I can learn from still. So, if there's a smart semi-autobiographical
first novel that comes out by some new kid on the block, sorry, but
pass -- I haven't read all Edith Wharton yet.
RB: So what new fiction jumps over
Tolstoy or Wharton?
JB: It's not inflexible, and you
respond to what your friends say and what people tell you. And there's
always the five-page test, after all. It does work. I get sent an
awful lot of books in proof. I tend to look at all of them, if only
RB: Why are you sent books?
JB: They're sent hoping I'll give
them a puff. But I don't do that. It's a currency that so diminishes
RB: Here it's call 'logrolling'.
JB: In my country, as well. Logrolling
implies you know the guy or the women. It's perfectly respectable
in some ways to give a quote for an unknown author who you think is
jolly good and so you say, “‘glittering new talent' - JB.” Graham
Greene used to give a lot of quotes. Anyone who wrote a Catholic novel,
he would say, “‘A thumping new masterpiece' - Graham Greene”. I don't
want to see my name on the backs of books in that way.
RB: Do you have a longer view of
Britain's place in the world? Are you past the point of viewing Britain
as what everyone aspired to?
JB: I don't know that people did
aspire to wanting to be British. Did they? Maybe some members of the
Commonwealth. Not in my lifetime. I was born the year before India
got its independence. I feel totally post-colonial, if you can apply
that to an Englishman. It's going to be interesting over the next
thirty or forty years whether the United Kingdom breaks up. Tony Blair
could well turn out to be the Gorbachev of Britain, the political
figure who loosens things up. Once the process of giving Scotland
its own Parliament has happened, if they enjoy it, why shouldn't they
want more? And, as long as enough of them want it, then they should
have it. I don't like the idea of inflexible nation states -- with
RB: Is there anything the rest of
the world looks to Britain or England for? Are there reverberations
or is there any afterimage of leadership?
JB: I don't know. There's so much
self-deception in Britain about this I hesitate to pronounce on it.
You're the one to answer that. I can't think the 'Mother of all Parliaments",
as we used to refer to the House of Commons, plays anymore at all.
I suppose the vestiges of the Empire/Commonwealth survive in the fact
that quite a lot of Commonwealth countries still -- the final court
of appeal is still to the House of Lords. They find that quite useful
in some way. No, I think we're just another country. Just another
medium to large-sized European country with an imperial past and a
past of wealth who is still doing alright. Fairly cultured, fairly
peaceful, very tolerant, and fairly prejudiced. (laughs)
RB: Do you look into the future
for your own life?
JB: I know what the next couple
of books are going to be. No, I think it's so lucky to be able to
make a living as a novelist in England that I'm just riding the luck
is how I look at it.
RB: You're not of the belief that
you make your own luck?
JB: Success is a mixture of luck
RB: Are you interested in any non-literary
pursuits? I noticed you did the audio version of England, England.
JB: Yes, I liked doing that. I like
reading in public. I've written a couple of film scripts which didn't
come to anything. I think I'm principally a prose writer, mainly fiction,
some non-fiction. I don't feel I will have mastered it by the time
I die. While it would be fun to write a film script, it's more fun
to write another novel.
RB: What do you mean by “mastery”?
Are you happy with this novel?
JB: Yes and no. It's what I wanted
to write and it's as good as I could write it in the three years I
spent writing it. Probably, if I sat down and wrote it now, I would
write it differently. But then that's true of all my books. No matter
how many times you re-write them, you only have one go at them until
they're there as a book. As I'm the sort of writer who tends to write
about different subjects in different modes from book to book. It's
not as if I always set within a limited community with the same characters
in a straight time sequence. That's something you can master after
five or six books, probably. You know exactly what you are going to
do and how you move the characters around, what the tensions are and
so on. As I like to try new things with each book, that mastery is
further off. I used to think with each book you were learning something
new and that at a certain point down the line you put it all together
into one great whopping masterpiece which would make everything else
pale. But it's not like that.
RB: Have you aspirations to write
a big “American” type novel?
JB: I don't think that would suit
my style of writing. Or my mind. Big novels are usually realistic
--let's call it social realism (without any political connotation
to it). I don't think that's where my talent lies. I can do bits of
it, but it's part of a different construct. I don't think I can do
that anymore than I could write one of those big biographies which
always start with the words that make my heart drop like a stone,
“His great-great grandfather was born in the small village of Ourfall
in Lincolnshire, son of a herring fisherman in 1734”. Cut to the chase!
RB: Do you read biographies other
than the one's that begin, “His great-great...”?
JB: I read them a bit more than
I used to. I find them useful to read on tour. You don't have to pay
much attention to the style, he spine of the plot is fairly obvious,
and you're reading it for interesting information. I'm reading a wonderful
book, a collection of reminiscences by Shostakovich, called Shostakovich:
A Life Remembered.
RB: One last question. You make
reference to a British program Desert Island Discs. I take
it one lists the music one would take to a desert island?
JB: Yes, it's a show that's run
for forty or fifty years. Invented by a funny old buffer called Roy
Plumely who got himself fired from a radio station for making some
silly commercial joke. So he invented this show which consists of
a celebrity coming to the studio talking about their life in an incredibly
bland way for a half an hour and choosing the eight records, plus
one book, plus one luxury. It just became part of British culture.
Copyright © 1999 by Robert Birnbaum