Intervista a Julian Barnes by Silvia Albertazzi
Julian Barnes declares that he no longer reads reviews of his books or essays on his work. He also shuns meetings with journalists and gives very few interviews, saying, «I just don't want to answer any more questions! I really can't bear it any more!». Since the death of his wife in 2010, if you click on “appearances” on his official webpage you will find this statement «No events are scheduled at this time». There has been just one presentation in London of his recent novel, The Sense of an Ending, in November 2011, more than three months after its publication – and no launchings were scheduled abroad, either in Europe following its many translations or in the USA. Yet since it appeared on the market the book, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2011, has been at the top of the bestsellers list in England and in the States, receiving enthusiastic reviews throughout the world. The Sense of an Ending explores the unreliability of memory by telling the story of an elderly man’s attempt to clarify a traumatic episode of his youth – a friend’s suicide. As Barnes painstakingly shows, we tell ourselves untrue narratives of our past lives to justify our failures; we fictionalize facts, invent details and erase events – ending up believing in the truth of our own lies. Memory as self-deception and the difficulty – or rather the impossibility – of grasping not so much the sense of an ending, but the sense of the ending, seem to haunt the latest Barnes, from the short stories collected in The Lemon Table (2004) and Pulse (2011) to the essay Nothing to Be Frightened of (2008), a long meditation on death and our inability to cope with it. It has to be noted that both this latter work of non fiction and The Lemon Table were published even before the illness of his beloved wife; so while one might be justified in reading a story like Marriage Lines (in Pulse) as a sorrowful piece of fictionalized autobiography, it would be utterly wrong to analyze not only Barnes' previous works on death, but also The Sense of an Ending, in the light of his recent loss. It is no mere chance that, after almost 250 pages revolving around the theme of death, Barnes ends Nothing to Be Frightened of on a meta-narrative note, examining the relation between memory and narration in a way that seems to anticipate the conclusions of The Sense of an Ending:
[…] the novelist is less interested in the exact nature of […] truth, more in the nature of the believers, the manner in which they hold their beliefs, and the texture of the ground between the competing narratives. […] a novelist is someone who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember. […] For the older writer, memory and imagination begin to seem less and less distinguishable. This is not because the imagined world is really much closer to the writer’s life than he or she cares to admit (a common error among those who anatomize fiction) but for exactly the opposite reason: that memory itself comes to seem much closer to an act of the imagination that ever before.
Reading passages like this, you understand why Barnes finds it rather useless to answer questions about The Sense of an Ending; almost all the answers to these questions are already to be found in Nothing to be Frightened of. Yet, since this essay has never been translated into Italian, I feel justified asking, yet another time, the usual questions about memory, death and narration. «I don’t deal with the translations of my works. My agent does» says Barnes, after somewhat reluctantly agreeing. And then he goes on to lament the fact that The Sense of an Ending is his first book to be translated into Italian since 2006, when the novel Arthur and George appeared. And to add insult to injury, a few years ago the Italian publication of a collection of his essays, after being postponed several times, was cancelled – for no apparent reason. «I’m not very popular in Italy», Barnes concludes. «My books don’t sell very well. If it weren’t for the Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending would probably never have been translated». This gives me the cue to ask him a very banal question: «How does it feel to be the winner of the most important English literary prize?» He smiles and then says that at his age, after being shortlisted six times, it has not had a great impact on his career. «Maybe things would have been different if the Booker had arrived sooner» he adds. On the whole, Barnes has not changed since the last time I saw him six or seven years ago. He is just as I remembered him: a smart English gentleman, elegant, detached and friendly at the same time. Open to dialogue and the exchange of ideas as long as they are confined to an informal chat at a pub table, he stiffens when I take out my tape recorder, proposing a proper interview. In the end, we agree that I will leave him with a few questions that he will answer by email and go on eating fish and chips and chatting. And then, for most of the time we spend together, it is I who have to answer his many questions about the economic crisis («It's hard to tell from this distance whether Italy or Spain is suffering more. But I suppose Italy never had the expansion Spain had in recent years»), the Italian situation («Did I read that Italy had the
second lowest growth rate in the world over the last 10 years, with only Zimbabwe being lower, or did I dream that?») and, last but not least, my personal response to The Sense of an Ending, which prompts him – knowing about my crush on Jeremy Irons – to tease me when I suggest that the English actor should play the protagonist in a possible film based on it («I'm not sure I would allow the tacky and unattractive Mr Irons to play one of my characters», he jokes). Before parting, we take a picture in front of the North London pub where we have just had lunch. Two days later I receive an e-mail with his answers to my questions. SA: I would like to start from the end. The last word of The Sense of and Ending is “unrest” – a word that had already appeared at the beginning of the novel. Why is that term so important in your story? Referring to it, I can't help thinking of a great pre-modernist character, Jude the Obscure, who, according to his creator, Thomas Hardy, was suffering from “the modern vice of unrest”. Would you say that your main character, Tony Webster - or perhaps modern mankind, in general - is suffering from the same “vice”? JB: Between school and university, I taught at a prep school for a term. There was a boy there who, whenever he had to write a history essay, always began in one of two ways. If asked to describe a period which he wasn't very familiar with, he always thought it was a safe guess to start: “There was unrest”. (Because this seemed to him to be usually the case in History). But if he was asked to describe, say, the second world war, or the English Civil War or the French Revolution, he would begin, more confidently, “There was great unrest”. I stored this up for nearly 50 years before finding a use for it. So this little memory – rather than Thomas Hardy – was where the word “unrest” came from. Is it a modern vice? It's certain a characteristic of mobile, developing, expanding, travelling societies – every society except a stable, insular one, I'd guess. But those stable, insular societies (which we tend to idealise) must have had their own vices. SA: You write that when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old we invent different pasts for others. I wonder if this also applies to history. For instance, I’m thinking of the revolutions we dreamed of in the sixties and the seventies: of course, that was a way of inventing a
different future for ourselves. But how about our way of looking at those times now? Are we inventing a different history for - others? JB: There are a lot of tie-ups in my novel between the personal and the historical; and yes, I think this is another one. In the novel Tony Webster says that most people didn't experience 'the Sixties' – that fabled time – until the Seventies. So their Sixties must have been like other people's Fifties, and so on. I think that when we look back, we tend to assume that everyone was behaving in a particular way at a particular time, and that each new decade tended to bring new characteristics with it which were shared by most people. In my view, mostly people spend their time trying to get by, worried about family, employment, money, sex and so on, and are only marginally aware or themselves representative of this or that decade. SA: Speaking of history: Do you agree with Adrian’s definition of history, i.e. «History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation», or with the narrator’s: «History is the lies of the victors» – which, by the way, is the definition of history preferred by writers of postcolonial fiction? JB: I agree with them both. But I find Adrian's formula particularly elegant, not least because I invented it myself. SA: In your novel approximate memories become certainties, and impressions become facts. Are you convinced that we’re never sure of what we remember, or is this only a literary device? JB: It's not a literary device. I hope there aren't any literary devices in my fiction. When I wrote my book Nothing to be Frightened Of, I had an exchange with my brother, who is a philosopher (of Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics, and logic generally) about memory. Then I thought that memory – at least, my memory – was on the whole reliable; my brother thought his own memory – and everyone else's – was unreliable, and that it was a faculty closer to the imagination than to documentation. Since that time I have come more and more round to his point of view. And it's certainly true that our best, our favourite
stories that we tell, simply because we've told them so many times, are bound to be much more distorted and untruthful than something we have only recounted once. SA: This reminds me of Borges, who once said, «We have no memories of our youth: all we have are memories of memories». Is this the case for Tony? And, in any case, do you agree with Borges? JB: I know what he means, though I wonder if that attitude isn't a bit of a “literary device” suitable for writing Borgesian fiction. SA: This leads to another question: what role does nostalgia play in Tony’s story? JB: Well, he says he doesn't suffer from nostalgia, and we are meant to believe that this is what he genuinely thinks is the case. And yet, his constant searching of his memory and his past for the truths of what happened 40 years previously inevitably raises the question: is he an objective investigator, or does he hope self-interestedly that he will discover something nice about himself? And you could say that his pursuit of Veronica (if that's what it is) is tinged, if not with nostalgia, at least with the hope that he will discover something which will provoke nostalgia in him. SA: Tony Webster is neither a winner nor a loser. We know that losers were almost heroes in the sixties and seventies, then they became pitiful figures, failures, in the eighties, and then just average people in the nineties. Now, in the second decade of the third millennium, your character considers himself an average man. This seems to me the least heroic condition of all. Do you agree? JB: I was always very struck by Flaubert's phrase (from one of his letters) about the sort of characters who don't belong in modern fiction: «Pas de monstres, pas de héros». We do not live in a heroic age, nor in a tragic age. In this respect, life has been flattened out, its heights and its depths reduced. I don't think I've ever tried to write about an obviously, publicly heroic figure. And I'm always more interested in the weak than the strong, and in failure rather than success. Also in unhappiness rather than happiness. Though I wouldn't say that this is how I “see life”; it's more how I “see literature”.
SA: I found echoes of Metroland, your first novel (which, as you know, I like very much), in The Sense of an Ending. Did you have Metroland in mind when writing it? JB: Oh, at first I had it a great deal in mind. I began the new novel as a sequel to Metroland, with the same two central characters, Chris and Marion. After I'd sketched out a chunk of the first part, however, I realized that the experiences and the characteristics I'd given them in Metroland were not what I wanted “them” to have in the new book. So I made a list of the advantages and disadvantages of keeping the same characters: and the disadvantages were greater. And now I'm glad that this book stands by itself even if it begins with the same topography and atmosphere. SA: In their teens, Tony and his friends were expecting their lives to turn out like literature. Has your life turned out like literature? If so, which kind of literature? JB: No, my life has turned out like life, and my books, I hope, have turned out like literature. SA: Lastly, in my opinion, the atmosphere of your book seems to beg for a soundtrack quite different from the popular hits of the sixties cherished by Tony. I would suggest Tom Waits, for instance, in particular his song Time. JB: Well, books only really get soundtracks when they're made in to films. And what sort of film depends partly on where the money comes from (at one point, the film of Love etc, based on Talking It Over, was going to take place in Spain because there was a Spanish backer, who fortunately later dropped out). So my soundtrack will depend on finance. Though I would be surprised if any potential director didn't want the Rolling Stones and Time is on my side as a leitmotif (as it is in the novel). But then – finance again – perhaps the Stones would charge too much, and they'll have to commission a cheap new song instead.
Published on May 8, 2013