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The Missouri Review 30.3 (2007) 60-80

A Conversation with Julian Barnes
James Schiff

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Julian Barnes
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Julian Barnes is the author of ten novels, including Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, two books of short stories, two collections of essays and a translation. His books have earned significant honors in England, France and the United States, and he has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize on three occasions. He lives in London. This interview took place in front of an audience on the campus of the University of Cincinnati on January 24, 2006.

INTERVIEWER: I'm delighted to welcome Julian Barnes to Cincinnati this afternoon. This is the second stop on his new book tour, promoting Arthur & George, which has been hailed in both the UK and the States as one of his finest and most compelling novels. There are only a handful of writers whose every book is a cause for celebration, and Julian Barnes is such an author. The creator of deeply intelligent, playful, witty, and surprisingly poignant fictions, Barnes is continually pushing the bounds of the novel, demonstrating how it is a larger and more generous form than many realize. Further, each of his novels is quite distinct from the others, which has led one critic to refer to him as "the chameleon of British letters."

The son of two French teachers, Julian Barnes was educated at the City of London School and at Magdalen College, Oxford, from which he graduated in modern languages, with honors. After graduation, he worked as a lexicographer for the OED Supplement for three years, where, he explains, he was assigned most of the rude words and sports words. He went on to study law and pass his final bar exams while simultaneously writing book reviews and serving as literary editor for the New Statesman and New Republic. His first novel, Metroland, a coming-of-age story, appeared in 1980 and won the Somerset Maugham Award. It was in 1984, however, with the publication of Flaubert's Parrot, that Julian Barnes began receiving international attention. Nadine Gordimer describes his work as "funny, ironic, erudite, surprising and not afraid to take a dive overboard into the depths of sorrow and loss." Another critic writes, "Barnes' books . . . celebrate the human imagination, [End Page 61] the human heart, the boisterous diversity of our gene pool, our activities, our delusions. . . . They thrill the mind and the emotions; and he achieves, without tricks or puns, what Nabokov loved: aesthetic bliss."

BARNES: It's always strange, sitting here listening to that. Apart from being embarrassing, it also sounds so inevitable. And yet, believe me, nothing could feel further from the truth at the time and at various stages throughout.

INTERVIEWER: I'm afraid you'll have to listen to it again at your evening reading.

BARNES: Really? The same one? Well, it's recorded, so you could just play it back.

INTERVIEWER: I thought we'd start with Arthur and George. That book has drawn considerable interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Could you talk about its genesis and evolution?

BARNES: Yes, happily. It's perhaps the only one of my novels in which no character goes to France. It has almost no obvious French connections, and yet it came through France. It happened in this way. I was reading a book about the Dreyfus case by the English historian of France, Douglas Johnson, who said in his introduction that it's interesting how the Dreyfus case continues to echo down the century since it happened in France, how it divided and defined France. There was a very similar case in Britain, about five years after the Dreyfus case, similar in that it was a gross miscarriage of justice. In both cases there was a sentence of hard labor with the victim being persecuted partly for a racial reason—Dreyfus was a Jew; George Edalji, the George of the title, was half Parsee. There was also a...


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