Reading Julian Barnes is a paradoxical pleasure: the author makes clear, in book after book, that literature (his own included) provides no reassurances, no uncanny access to wisdom or happiness, no affirmation to troubled readers—and yet the experience of reading his work is strangely comforting. Picking up a Barnes novel is like encountering a forest wanderer who’s been lost in the woods longer than you: you may not find your way out any quicker, but in his company your predicament somehow feels less hopeless. After forty years and twenty books, Barnes still makes no claims to an oracle’s second sight or a holy man’s enlightened vantage. But mired in the same existential swamp as the rest of us, he makes a sophisticated guide along our uncertain paths.
In Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008), a book-long meditation on thanatophobia, Barnes admits that writing about death does not change his feelings about it (paralysis, dread, terror), but writing about it does not entail despair. On even the darkest topics, he has a light touch, finding humor where he fails to find comfort. Indeed, there’s an inverse relationship between the weight of his subject matter and the levity of his treatment. Nothing To Be Frightened Of is the funniest volume he has ever written, at times bordering on stand-up comedy. His treatment of the excommunication of woodworms in the fifteenth century, by contrast, is played totally straight.
Time and again, Barnes shows that perceptions are faulty and truth unknowable; as a result, ambivalence saturates his work. The twist in The Sense of an Ending, his 2011 Booker Prize-winner, involves a character’s realization that for decades he has drawn the wrong conclusions about a deceased friend’s love affair. Barnes’s polyphonic novel about a love triangle, Talking It Over (1991), along with its continuation in Love, Etc. (2000), reveals the slipperiness of memory and the impenetrability of motive. These works take characters through a series of emotional stages—confusion, jealousy, anger, acceptance, reassessment, self-loathing—and end without clear resolutions. Barnes has been called postmodernist for his fiction’s experimentation with form, but there is nothing gratuitous about the complex structures of his novels. They are the natural and necessary extensions of Barnes’s predominant theme: truth forever eludes us, so we need all the apprehensive tools we can muster to capture it.
One signature chapter from Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) illustrates Barnes’s concern with the multiplicity of truth. In “Chronology,” he offers three versions of Gustave Flaubert’s biographical timeline. The first accounting of events, all true to Flaubert’s life, paints a picture of a content bourgeois childhood leading to a steady stream of literary success, ending with an enviable death, “Full of honour, widely loved, and still working hard to the end.” In the second rendition, also drawn from actual events, Flaubert’s life is rife with loss, unrealized passion, and professional disappointment, leading to “arid and solitary” final years and a “lonely and exhausted” death. The third version is made up of excerpts from Flaubert’s letters and journals, with tones that vary according to the author’s moods and experiences. Barnes ends the final chapter without further commentary, leaving readers to collate the differing accounts into a coherent life.
Barnes never claims to have reached the end of a philosophical journey. Instead, he urges readers to stipulate a common ground of reality from which to make the journey together or, when the book is closed, on our own. To understand The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault’s painting of shipwreck survivors waving to a ship in the distance, he writes, “We must remember [Géricault] in the confinement of his studio, at work, in motion, making mistakes.” Why must we envision the artist as dynamic and struggling? Because without that capacity to see the world in constant flux, history appears inevitable, and we become susceptible to fatalism.
In our emotional lives, where lazy thinking and the instinct for self-preservation tend to obscure the truth, we have an additional burden to exercise discipline. “We must be precise with love, its language and its gestures,” Barnes writes in The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. “If it is to save us, we must look at it clearly as we should learn to look at death.” But for love to save us, we must be honest about it, a charge that requires us to reject love slogans bandied about in pop culture. Love is not a panacea: “Love makes you happy? No. Love makes the person you love happy? No. Love makes everything all right? Indeed no.”
But with time and experience as teachers, Barnes reminds us, we learn about love and equip ourselves to receive and express it, which he argues is the only weapon we possess against time’s arrow. “I can’t tell you who to love, or how to love,” Barnes writes. “But I can tell you why to love. Because the history of the world, which only stops at the half-house of love to bulldoze it into rubble, is ridiculous without it. The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love.”
This unfashionable belief in the importance of authenticity, a precept that undergirds his entire body of work, makes Barnes an unlikely postmodernist, but for him the pursuit of truth and the impossibility of grasping it are two sides of the same coin. Wishing the world were different is a young person’s mindset, and Barnes was never a young person’s writer. His first novel, Metroland, published when he was thirty-four, deals with the compromises of adulthood, the balance one strikes between self-seeking on one hand, and on the other the cultivation of marriage and family, and of love. Barnes has never been afraid of that word. His characters go crazy over love, ruin their lives for love, shout at the heavens for condemning them to love, but they never deny its existence. Now seventy, having experienced his share of sorrow (memorably recorded in Levels of Life), he keeps exploring the profound questions and continues to produce brilliantly conflicting answers.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford University. He earned a Ph.D. in modern fiction from the University of Texas. He now teaches in Nashville.