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When this lesser known work proves this deft, enriching and enjoyable, how much more pleasurable might the author’s ‘magnum opus’ be?
A reader’s mind, when it thinks of Julian Barnes, immediately gets reminded of Flaubert’s Parrot or The Sense of an Ending. I had the good fortune of being introduced to this marvelous author through one of his lesser known works – a collection of seventeen essays (and one short story) called Through the Window.
In Through the Window, Barnes examines the British, French and American writers who have influenced him and the ways in which the three cultures interact. From the deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald to the directness of Hemingway, from Kipling’s view of France to the French view of Kipling, from the many translations of Madame Bovary to the fabulations of Ford Madox Ford, from the National Treasure status of George Orwell to the despair of Michel Houellebecq, Julian Barnes considers what fiction is, and what it can do. As the blurb states, “Novels tell us the most truth about life; what it is, how we live it, what it might be for…”
The essays are written like a love letter to what Barnes calls the “proper reader.” He deals with each topic with a scholar’s thoroughness but none of his pedantry, with a writer’s expert eye but none of his condescension. An essay that I found particularly engaging is Barnes’ treatment of the various translations of Madam Bovary because it emphasizes the subtle nuances, lilts and particularities of different languages, French and English in this case, and the many challenges that translation presents. We post-modernists know that language maketh the man and even an experience as elemental as falling in love changes in tone and colour with a change in the language. Another brilliant essay is ‘Regulating Sorrow’ where Barnes compares the widow diaries of Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion. The sensitive subject is dealt not only with a startling depth of perception but enormously admirable compassion.
A problem that some readers might face with the book is its insistence on dealing with almost perversely obscure personalities and events. The casual reader will not have heard of Ford Madox Ford or Felix Feneon and thus might not take an interest in their antics. For those who persist, they will undoubtedly resurface altered in some ways, the hallmark of all good literature.
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