Meeting Julian Barnes

Words by Cosima McGrath

Published on July 18, 2014

I wish I could say that I fell in love with Julian Barnes because of the immaculate quality of his writing, but instead my reasons are shamefully superficial. I fell in love with him because he was (and still is) a babe. The seed of my crush was sown after I saw a photograph of Barnes as a young man, striding off a cricket pitch with a young Martin Amis. Barnes is tall and solid. Though the photograph is black and white I imagine that his hair is golden brown colour. It hangs loose, brushing his well-defined cheeks and jaw. He wears cricket whites. His pants flare slightly in the seventies style but his shirt hugs his torso — oh, that torso! He looks like a god. Beside him, Amis looks shrunken and childlike.

I came across the photograph while writing an article on Amis. I had just finished reading his first official biography by Richard Bradford and was eager to connect names to faces. Bradford claims Amis was one of the most attractive young writers, people even, in London during the seventies: he was the Jagger of the London literary scene. But I didn’t care. It was Barnes who had caught my eye this time.

Later, I read Barnes’s novels. Starting with A Sense of an Ending  I moved backwards, sampling his short stories and essays, until I reached the book that would cement my crush: Flaubert’s Parrot. At the beginning of the novel Barnes’s protagonist, Geoffrey Braithwaite, travels to a statue of his literary hero, Gustave Flaubert. Braithwaite’s love for Flaubert is a reader’s love for a writer: ‘the purest, the steadiest form of love.’ Some dismiss this love as vulgar fandom — indeed it is a type of fandom characterised by obsession, devotion, and madness. Braithwaite’s love for Flaubert had begun on the page then seeped into his life until he found himself on literary pilgrimages, collecting relics of the author like a devout worshipper collects the bric-a-brac of saints.

This description felt very true to me. I had been Braithwaite. I had been obsessed with Jane Austen — her writing and everything vaguely connected to her. I too had made a literary pilgrimage in search of some deeper connection with my author-hero just as Braithwaite had travelled to France in search of Flaubert. Like Braithwaite, the writing alone wasn’t enough for me — I wanted my friendship with Austen to be more tangible.

As I read Flaubert’s Parrot  I found myself dog-earring nearly every page. There were lines I wanted to underline; there were too many  lines I wanted to underline. Lines that made me almost cry out ‘hell yeah’ and punch the air; lines that made me nod and hum in sympathetic agreement; and lines that were so entrancing that I would read them five times over before moving on. I was overwhelmed. All I could do was draw large square brackets around every paragraph, willing myself not to forget Barnes’s words.

In Flaubert’s Parrot  Barnes showed me that he understood the affinity I had once felt for Jane Austen. He understood the friendship that can develop during the reading experience and the love a reader often feels for an author. Readers fall for writers all the time. Something happens in the silence of the reading experience. The reader meets the author. Partly the author is already there, burrowed in the pages waiting to seduce the reader. Partly the reader invents the author, invents their ideal reading companion, like Pygmalion moulding his ideal woman.

Even now as I reread Richard Bradford’s biography of Amis I’m surprised how quickly I fell instead for Barnes. The notes I’ve made in the margins are telling. At one point Bradford wonders ‘what part, if any, Martin’s near contemporaries, and friends, played in the subtle alteration in the fabric of fiction writing since the close of the 1970s.’ He is thinking mainly of Barnes, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie. However he concludes that ‘compared with Amis their influence has been negligible.’ In the margins beside this line I’ve simply scrawled ‘pfft!!!’ Later Bradford relents and admits that ‘Barnes is outstandingly talented… [but] unlike Martin he does not deliver unexpected punches, he does not force us, despite ourselves, to confront our conflicting impulses when we read the novel. In short he does not make us think.’This clearly appalled me when I first read it, though at the time I hadn’t actually read anything by Barnes. My note simply reads ‘RIDICULOUS.’

Cosima McGrath is a writer and editor from Brisbane. She works for Griffith REVIEW and is an editor for Bumf. In July, she will examine the way avid readers and aspiring writers encounter their literary heroes on the page and in real life.