6 January 2013

Julian Barnes’ ‘Through the Window’

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the writers that I identify with most were born, like me, in Britain in the years after the Second World War – Ian McEwan (1948), Martin Amis (1949) and Christopher Hitchens (1949), for instance, and also Julian Barnes (1946). Barnes is the only one of the four I’ve set eyes on - at the National Portrait Gallery’s Wyndham Lewis exhibition a few years ago. A kind person recently gave me Barnes’ Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story) (to give it its full title), and thoughtfully chose the version of the paperback with the Dufy* cover (left).

The essays and the short story have all appeared elsewhere – in the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, particularly. The short story, Homage to Hemingway, possibly contains a warning for readers of the book. The narrator, a less than successful novelist tutoring a creative writing course, observes of his students that “some of them, it was true, enjoyed literature more than they understood it” which almost certainly applies to me. Some of the essays are about writers who Barnes regards highly, but whose works I have never read – Penelope Fitzgerald, Arthur Hugh Clough and Joyce Carol Oates - others about writers I like – Updike and Houellebecq ("a clever man who is a less than clever novelist") – and Barnes’ opinions of them can only widen the appreciation of an ordinary reader. I found some of the others fascinating because they involve France, a country which Barnes knows well and where he is much respected. In fact for me, Kipling’s France, France’s Kipling and the Orwell essay alone would be worth the price of the book. Three takes on Ford Madox Ford might be too many for some, however. The essay I enjoyed most was Translating Madame Bovary which spells out the problems and pitfalls of translation. Difficult enough when it’s the piece of department store puffery I attempted to translate here recently, let alone one of the classics of French literature.

The preface, A Life with Books, is a new piece in which Barnes recalls his years of book-collecting and visits to second-hand book dealers across the country. His attachment to the ‘physical book and physical bookshop’ as opposed to downloading to a Kindle (or other e-reader) is clear, as are his misgivings about the future of the printed book –he quotes Updike on the subject twice, in an essay and in the Preface:
For, who, in that unthinkable future  
When I am dead, will read? The printed page  
Was just a half-millennium's brief wonder…
But he concludes that books will survive although they might have to become more attractive in various ways. Moreover, “books look as if they contain knowledge while e-readers look as if they contain information”. There is another advantage to the physical book which James Panero points out in an article, The culture of the copy On the printing press, the Internet & the impact of duplication, in this month’s The New Criterion. After providing a useful succinct history of the internet (nice to see a US source giving Tim Berners-Lee his due), he compares printed and internet-based media and comments:
A published book is a fixed and polished record of a moment in time. The Internet always operates in the present. Aside from web portals like the “Wayback Machine,” which can provide historical snapshots of webpages, the Internet has no past. With “time stamps” and footnoted “corrections,” web culture has attempted to import the rules of fixed publication, but the Internet still treats all information the same. Any information on the Internet can be updated, changed, or erased at any moment.
The last point was underlined for me reading Barnes’ preface when he recalls his book-collecting habits forty years earlier:
Over the next decade or so-from the late Sixties to the late Seventies-I became a furious book-hunter, driving to the market towns and cathedral cities of England in my Morris Traveller and loading it with books bought at a rate which far exceeded any possible reading speed. This was a time when most towns of reasonable size had at least one large, long-established second hand bookshop, often found within the shadow of the cathedral or city church; as I remember, you could usually park right outside for as long as you wanted. …  
So I would drive to Salisbury, Petersfield, Aylesbury, Southport, Cheltenham, Guildford, getting into back rooms and locked warehouses and storesheds whenever I could. I was much less at ease in places which smelt of fine buildings, or which knew all too well the value of each item for sale. I preferred the democratic clutter of a shop, whose stock was roughly ordered and where bargains were possible.
I stumbled over “smelt of fine buildings” – what did Barnes mean? In his Man Booker prize-winning novella, The Sense of an Ending, there are some minor inexactitudes, “sperm” instead of “semen” and “server” instead of “internet service provider”, but these were, of course, not coming directly from Barnes. Instead they were words he had chosen for the book’s narrator, a character whose raison d’être was being almost, but not quite, right. So I admire Barnes, noting his having trained as a barrister and his The Pedant in the Kitchen reinforced now by Translating Madam Bovary, as a man of verbal precision. Could “buildings” just be a mistyping or a misprint, and the phrase possibly should have been “smelt of fine bindings”?

Well, on paper there may be some hope of finding out – if A Life with Books appears in, say, the Guardian, and if there had been a misprint, it might be corrected, which might also be the case if Through the Window were reprinted. But if the preface existed solely as an e-version it might be changed in an instant of “synching” without its purchaser ever knowing.

*Window on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice, 1938. A frequent subject of Dufy’s, more often with the window open.

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