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Through the Window – Julian Barnes

It might seem odd for a literary website to review what is essentially a collection of literary reviews, but that is what it is going to do.

Perhaps the single greatest problem with writing about literature, particularly well-established, widely acclaimed literature is the feeling that one should write objectively, or at the very least with an overriding awareness of and respect for the academic literary criticism surrounding your chosen subject.  This seems reasonable enough, after all, academics specialise in writing about literature, they do it all the time, they’ve read a lot more than you have, and they weren’t promoted and published by accident.  In short, they are very good at what they do.  And yet, literary criticism is not a science; it can’t and shouldn’t be left to the professionals and forgotten about by the rest of us, however tempting that might be.  This applies to Shakespeare as much as it does to Hemingway.

Julian Barnes is not an academic in the true sense of the word, but nor is he an amateur, having published eleven novels and won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 (so the sleeve of this book tells me).  Similarly, his collection of essays, Through the Window, is not academic in the sense that the essays do not approach their subjects with a desire to break them down and rigorously lay out an authoritative interpretation.  Instead, each essay attempts to capture something about an author, novel or series of novels – something that can’t really be discerned objectively but only by a well-read, perceptive reader.  In this way, the title of the collection is appropriate because what Barnes offers in each essay is a window into the world of a particular novelist, whilst implicitly recognising that what is revealed is only a partial glimpse of the whole, and a glimpse that also reflects back on the viewer (Barnes in this case).

This gives the book a thoroughly personal dimension which might in some circles be seen as detracting from the insight it offers.  Regardless, these essays are extremely enjoyable, and the fact that they are coloured by anecdotes from the author’s experience makes them all the more vivid.  The first essay, for example, opens with an account of how Barnes once met Penelope Fitzgerald on a panel at York University, and shared a train back to London with her.  Rather than make the essay less “serious”, this personal detail brings the subject to life, not in a name-dropping, “look at my famous mates” way, but because it reveals a willingness to view novelists as human beings (albeit highly skilled and intelligent human beings), and not part of an incomprehensible literary sect.  Perhaps this reflects the fact that Barnes himself is a highly successful novelist, thereby breaking down some of the barriers between the essayist and his subjects – and maybe this is the intention, to act as a gateway between layperson and literature.

Whatever the case may be, it is exhilarating to read a reader like Barnes because he succeeds in bringing the written word out of the past and into the present, and in doing so manages to shatter what is one of the greatest myths surrounding literature in the modern world – that it is an antiquated medium for dead people.  As Barnes tells us in the preface:

“Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

The Editors

You can download the book here.

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