Posts Tagged ‘Julian Barnes’

The Examined Life

January 6, 2014

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a restorative break and are ready to throw yourselves into 2014 with gusto. I would love to know your New Year’s resolutions, especially if they are reading-based. Stuck for inspiration? Then here are some suggestions that I wrote for The Spectator a while ago.

This year, my rather unliterary resolution is to be able to do a press up. Yes, just one single press up. I know it seems unbelievable that anyone could be quite so feeble not to manage even one, but I have pathetically weak arms – probably thanks to a childhood spent reading rather than playing lacrosse – so I have at last resolved to take action to be strong. (No doubt, key to developing my upper-body strength is to read more heavy books and never to own such a spindly-arm-encouraging gadget as a Kindle.)

New Year can be a difficult time. Christmas is over and real life returns, only now we’re broke, fat and cripplingly used to lie-ins. As my bookselling friend and colleague said to me, when we were trying to pin down what exactly was so grim about January, ‘There’s something about it being a new year and yet nothing’s new.’

This is of course why many of us are so keen to try to change, to introduce something new to our lives. I am always thrilled by how many people turn to books for this element of newness, which makes for a curiously uplifting time in the bookshop. I had always anticipated January to be deathly and depressingly quiet after the frantic present-buying busyness of Christmas, especially given that we don’t have a sale. And yet the bookshop is thoughtfully, browsingly busy at the moment, as though people have decided that one way to make 2014 a good year is to begin it by reading some good books. A wise resolution indeed.

The Examined Life by Stephen GroszI dipped into The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz over Christmas, savouring a chapter here and there between rounds of charades or mince pies, but have really read it in earnest over the past few days. I would go so far as to say this is a life-changing book and I urge you to read it now, for when better to read such a thing? Added to which, it has just come out in paperback, although I put up with 2013’s hardback, prematurely wrinkled from when the husband dropped it in the bath.

Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst, and The Examined Life is a collection of his case studies. Many of the chapters began life as his column in the Financial Times, which gives them a winning incisive brevity. All names have been changed, all jargon eradicated, and the book reads more like a collection of short stories than a textbook. It is a clutch of diamonds – beautiful, elemental, gleaming with multi-faceted light, and sharp as hell.

Psychological issues tend to feel like overwhelming, ongoing problems, things that threaten to affect someone for their entire life. Grosz, however, distils a patient’s course of analysis, which often goes on for over a year, into just a few pages.

He describes the manifestation of the issue, delves in to discover its root, draws an illuminating parallel or two, and then, in his explanation of a patient’s behaviour, so comes the resolution. Unwieldy psychological problems are given beginnings, middles and ends – a narrative structure which makes for satisfying, illuminating reading.

There are many brilliant examples to choose from, but here’s one that I found particularly intriguing:

Amanda P., a twenty-eight-year-old single woman, returns home to London after a work trip to America. She has been in New York for ten days. She lives alone. She sets her briefcase down on her doorstep, and, as she turns her key in the lock, an idea takes hold. ‘I had this fantasy – I saw it like a film: turning the key triggers some sort of detonator and the whole flat blows up, the door exploding off its hinges towards me, killing me instantly. I was imagining that terrorists had been in my flat and had carefully primed a bomb to kill me. Why would I have such a crazy fantasy?’

Why indeed?! Having outlined the issue – a ‘crazy fantasy’ of paranoia – Grosz gives a few other examples and tells us that:

Most, if not all, of us have had irrational fantasies at one time or another … and yet we rarely acknowledge them … we find them difficult, even impossible to talk about.

What is at the root of our paranoia? First, key to his explanation is the fact that:

We are more likely to become paranoid if we are insecure, disconnected, alone.

Grosz explains:

Paranoid fantasies are disturbing, but they are a defence. They protect us from a more disastrous emotional state – namely, the feeling that no one is concerned about us, that no one cares.

Then follows a fascinating digression about soldiers suffering from paranoia during the First World War. Apparently British soldiers in the trenches were convinced that French and Belgian farmers were signalling to the German artillery. They saw codes in the way they ploughed the fields, or hung up their washing. Unsurprisingly, paranoia is also rife amongst the elderly:

All too frequently – like the soldiers in the trenches – the elderly face death feeling forgotten … Paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard. The paranoid knows that someone is thinking about him.

And so, of course it makes perfect sense that when Amanda P. returned home to an empty flat, she had a paranoid fantasy:

The fantasy frightened her, but ultimately this fear saved her from feeling alone.

The case of Amanda P. is a satisfying thing to read. A curious incident, to which we can relate, followed by some interesting digressions, penetrating insight and then tidy resolution. A beginning situation, then middle development, and end resolution.

This near-short-story form points to something more profound than just a satisfying frame for reading. Grosz is emphasising the narrative similarities between real life and storytelling. At the beginning of the book, he quotes Karen Blixen:

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

This rings true to any reader or writer. For surely one of the main reasons why novels are so wonderful to read is because this creative sharing of a sorrow creates empathy which connects a reader both to the writer and to other readers.

Throughout The Examined Life, Grosz calls on stories from literature to illustrate his point. A Christmas Carol is used particularly well to show how a glimpse of your future self can haunt you enough to inspire change. What I loved most about Grosz’s case studies is that they are written not just by a psychoanalyst, but by a reader of fiction. So many adults – especially men – tell me that they have stopped reading fiction because there is so much interesting and important non-fiction to read instead. But what can be more vital than the emotional truths at the heart of a novel? I was struck by Julian Barnes’ brilliant conclusion to his article on the late great Penelope Fitzgerald in this weekend’s Guardian Review:

Writers, over the long run, are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition, and the artistry with which they represent those truths.

I couldn’t agree more. And I suspect Stephen Grosz feels the same. (Indeed I happen to know that Grosz is a fan of Penelope Fitzgerald, as he was in the bookshop when I was setting out to discuss The Blue Flower for Emily’s Walking Book Club, and said it was a great book, although alas he and his beautiful enormous dog didn’t join us.)

I would add to Julian Barnes’s insightful comment, that readers as well as writers are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition in the books they read. If someone has given up on reading fiction, then it suggests to me that he hasn’t read it well. He has paid it too little attention, or lacked the perspicacity to engage with what the writer is saying through the story.

Grosz is a very astute reader. Indeed he is so astute that he can find the truths about the human condition at the heart of a story, even when the writer struggles to tell it. Grosz responds to Blixen with the questions:

But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?

Psychoanalysis is a means of helping people to tell their stories. By enabling someone to put his sorrow into words, the patient can understand the truth about his particular human condition. Moreover, the patient can shape the narrative of his life, rather than be shaped by the sorrow from which he suffers. These case studies read like short stories because they are short stories – creative understandings of the human condition.

Read it. Read it now!

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The Blue Flower

February 25, 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my very favourite writers.

I love the modesty of her genius – the way she manages to condense a vast amount of research into a few perfectly placed sentences, or captures a character in a single revealing moment. There is no boasting or showing off. Her slender, potent novels are about as far away as you could imagine from all those braggy, baggy monsters which claim to be ‘the Great American novel’, or ‘the voice of our generation’, or something else ridiculously self-aggrandising. Fitzgerald gives us perfect little stories, then – suddenly – you realise they are the product of an absolutely extraordinary mind. Her unassuming genius catches you by surprise.

The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald’s last novel and considered by many to be her masterpiece – is about the early life of the German Romantic poet Novalis. (I’m going to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never heard of him, but I suspect that reflects my ignorance rather than his lack of fame.) Fitzgerald gives us Novalis when he is still ‘Fritz von Hardenberg’, the eldest son of a big shambolic noble family which has lost all its wealth. Twenty-two-year-old Fritz falls in love with twelve-year-old Sophie von Kuhn.

How can anyone fall in love with a twelve-year-old girl? It’s an especially impossible question post-Jimmy Savile, of course. To make it even harder, Fitzgerald stresses the fact that Sophie is not an old twelve-year-old, in the way that Shakespeare’s Juliet seems more adult than her not-yet-fourteen years; Sophie is unmistakably a child. The first time Fritz sees her she is described as ‘a very young dark-haired girl’ – ‘very young’. She laughs childishly all the time. She is simple, unintelligent – a striking and funny contrast to intellectual Fritz:

‘But Schlegel, too, is interested in transmigration. Should you like to be born again?’

Sophie considered a little. ‘Yes, if I could have fair hair.’

Fitzgerald gives us an extract from Sophie’s diary:

January 8

Today once again we were alone and nothing much happened.

January 9

Today we were again alone and nothing much happened.

What on earth does Fritz see in her? The reader is not alone in being puzzled by Fritz’s love for Sophie – none of the other characters can fathom it. Fritz’s brother Erasmus says:

‘She won’t do at all, my Fritz. She is good-natured, yes, but she is not your intellectual equal. Great Fritz, you are a philosopher, you are a poet … Fritz, Sophie is stupid!’

To which Fritz replies:

‘You mean well, Junge, I am sure you do. Your feelings are those of a brother. You think I have been taken in by a beautiful face.’

‘No, I don’t,’ Erasmus protested. ‘You are taken in, yes, but not by a beautiful face. Fritz, she is not beautiful, she is not even pretty. I say again this Sophie is empty-headed, moreover at twelve years old she has a double chin -’

But then, quite remarkably, Erasmus too falls under her spell, just as intensely as Fritz. Even their father falls for Sophie eventually.

What is it about young Sophie von Kuhn? Is it that she is an empty vessel into which they can pour all their desires, a blank canvas to be projected upon? Is it her happy innocence and joyful naivety which touches them in some way?

Or perhaps this is an extreme example to illustrate the inexplicable nature of love. No one truly understands why people fall in love, so why should everyone falling in love with this simple girl be any stranger than everyone falling in love with anyone else?

Perhaps this love is linked to the blue flower of the title. The blue flower appears in the story that Fritz reads aloud to different people at various stages of the novel:

The young man lay restlessly on his bed and remembered the stranger and his stories. ‘It was not the thought of the treasure which stirred up such unspeakable longings in me,’ he said to himself. ‘I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world …’

This is the opening of the novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen that Novalis actually wrote. The language surrounding the blue flower is not so different to that surrounding Sophie – Fritz’s ‘heart’s heart’.

‘What is the meaning of the blue flower?’ asks Fritz again and again. The meaning of the blue flower is hard to pinpoint, which is, ironically, the whole point. The blue flower is symbolic of a vague inexpressible yearning for the infinite, a Romantic emblem of love and striving.

This sounds pretty heavy, but perhaps Penelope Fitzgerald has wrong-footed us again. In an interview she said:

Before I ever knew Novalis’ story, I was interested in the blue poppy. I wanted to trace its history, and I saw one up in Cumbria. It’s extremely difficult to grow, you know; and even then, after about the third year, it goes to pieces—it changes colour.

She sends us away from eighteenth-century Germany to twentieth-century Cumbria; away from the Romantic imagination to a gardener’s challenge. In a letter to the literary critic Frank Kermode, she sends us off to a Yorkshire novella:

I started from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘fatal flower of happiness’ at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue …

Is this novel, which purports to be about the philosophy behind German Romanticism, actually just about a blue flower? Or is the blue flower symbolic of far more than even the German Romantics thought?

Penelope Fitzgerald has such a lightness of touch, such subtle genius that she is bloody hard to write about! ‘How does she do it?’ asks A.S. Byatt, and many other critics, in helpless wonder. I think Julian Barnes has written about her better than most (certainly better than me) in the Guardian here. But I will leave you with Fitzgerald’s own beautiful words from the opening scene of The Blue Flower. This passage illustrates her skill for condensing extensive research into a piece of poetry, and for transporting the reader, perfectly seamlessly, to a completely different but utterly relatable-to world:

Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weissenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year.

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

Virginia Woolf

October 3, 2011

‘I don’t know why you bother reading such long books,’ said a customer to her boyfriend, the other day in the bookshop. He was reading the back cover of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which is, admittedly, rather long. ‘I only read short books,’ she declared to the shop at large.

What a wally, I thought. Surely some of the greatest books are some of the lengthiest? Bleak HouseUlyssesMiddlemarch … and if those seem too snotty, then what about all those thick George Martin books which seem to be the nation’s current obsession?

But now I reflect upon it, perhaps there is something to be said for brevity. Reading a short book is an altogether different experience to reading a long one. A long book is a trusty, constant companion for a few weeks, sometimes even a month. Reading is a gradual, gentle process of absorption. The characters come alive in the margins of the day; they’re there, always, but they’re rarely insistent, they don’t come barging in and demand a whole morning of one’s time.

Reading a short book, on the other hand, can be startlingly intense. I read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending in three sittings, most of it taking place across one afternoon. It was completely involving, and when I’d finished, I felt almost dazed. A short book can be a sharp, breathless experience.

This weekend, I read another very short, very enjoyable book. You might remember my writing about Alexandra Harris in previous posts, where I’ve discussed her marvellous (long) book Romantic Moderns. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I greeted her new book Virginia Woolf. Especially as I have such a soft spot for Virginia Woolf, having specialised in her at university.

The Harris/Woolf combo really is a bit of a winner. And it is a combo. For Harris has rather neatly entwined her life of Woolf with Woolf’s writing, and there are a great many quotations. I’m going to choose this one as an example – Woolf’s ‘most important memory’ – as it’s one of my own favourites:

It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here, of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

I love this piece of writing. I think it is an instance of Woolf at her finest. Really it’s not so intellectually complicated and obtuse as people unfairly make out! I like it for the quiet yet insistent rhythm of the words – the repeated ‘it is’ and ‘one, two’. The build up and repetition of gerunds – lying and hearing, culminating in that repeated feeling. And there is the perfect amount of attention to visual detail. Rather than trying to list absolutely everything, there is just a general scene, with a few tiny bits picked out – the yellow blind and its acorn, the splash of water on the beach. It is a perfect description of a moment, and, as Alexandra Harris points out:

It is one of those hidden revelations that Woolf’s fiction would propose as the structuring principles of our lives.

I love this idea of Woolf’s of ‘moments of being’, and it seems as though Harris has taken this, rather pleasingly, as the principle of her life of Virginia Woolf. For rather than it being an exhaustive (and exhausting) biography, stretching on for hundreds of pages, going into minute detail about each moment of every single day, every passage of each piece of writing, she glides over the surface of Woolf’s life, dipping down for occasional, significant moments of depth.

In her account of Woolf’s childhood, for instance, Harris glances at her relationships with her mother, father and siblings, her education, and summer trips to St Ives all within the space of ten pages. But the overriding event of her childhood – and the one on which Harris concentrates – is the death of her mother. This is the important moment, and this is what will crop up again and again in Woolf’s novels.

More often than not, Harris concentrates on Woolf as she is writing her novels. Here is Woolf having a breakdown, dangerously ill, before The Voyage Out is published … and here she is busy and excited and happy while writing Jacob’s Room. (‘[I] an really very busy, very happy, & only want to say Time, stand still here.’) While this is against a backdrop of friendships, houses, and world events, the foreground focuses on her writing. And, frankly, while Bloomsbury life was undoubtedly bohemian and exciting and interesting in a gossipy sort of a way, how much more fascinating it is to read about a woman in light of her work rather than in light of her friends.

Which is perhaps why what this book makes me want to do more than anything, with all these new pockets of light shed upon moments of Woolf’s writing life … is to reread some Virginia Woolf. Goody!

Julian Barnes

August 22, 2011

It feels as though the book world has gone slightly barmy for Barnes at the moment. His new novella The Sense of an Ending has been longlisted for the Booker, and its publication coincides with that of the paperback of his previous book, Pulse, a collection of short stories. His name seems to be more-or-less in lights in many bookshop windows.

I first came across Julian Barnes when we studied Metroland at school. I loved Metroland, perhaps because it was one of the first books – that wasn’t Shakespeare – which we spent a considerable amount of time studying. Here was a book that one could go and buy in a bookshop to read for pleasure, on holiday, or – best of all, given the subject of the book – on the tube. It wasn’t a ‘classic’, or by someone intimidatingly famous, or even particularly long. Yet it was deemed worthy of a whole term’s scrutiny. Most of all, I loved the thought that I was studying a book that many grown-ups – my parents included – hadn’t even heard of.

Part of the syllabus insisted that our approach to the work included an appreciation of the academic criticism surrounding it. This stumped my teacher, who couldn’t find anything in the school library, which was full to bursting with works on older, more illustrious names like Donne, DH Lawrence, and Shakespeare. I remember his telling us, one sunny afternoon when we were all sitting at our desks, vaguely trying to outcool each other, that he’d got a bus to the British Library, where he’d found a single book of criticism on Barnes, and, with rather a theatrical flourish, he presented us with a photocopied chapter on Metroland.

I know isn’t a remotely cool thing to say – of course I didn’t say anything then, just raised an eyebrow while staring at the graffiti on my desk – but it felt kind of cutting-edge. In the whole world, there existed only one chapter about Metroland. We were the pioneers, writing our own critiques on a clean slate. I suppose it was a bit like when I studied post-colonial literature at university and all the essays I read had been written within the past five years, rather than having to trawl through everything from the sixties and beyond which seemed to engulf most other areas.

So I’ve retained a deep affection for Julian Barnes. I remember some of us, after finishing with Metroland, read some more of his books, which we’d casually drop into conversation.

Love etc.’ I remember one boy, on whom I might have had a bit of a crush, telling me, when I tentatively asked him what he was reading, a few weeks later.

Of course it was enough to make me turn puce. He just said LOVE, I thought, again and again. I wondered if it was some kind of code, though knew, with a sharp tang of reality as his girlfriend came over to join us, that that was unlikely.

I did, however, feel immensely proud when he asked what I was reading and I could reply, equally nonchalantly, with one of Barnes’ other works, Staring at the Sun.

But it’s always been Metroland for which I’ve had particular affection. The book  – Barnes’s first novel – is about a middle-aged man recollecting his school days, his close group of friends, their pretentious faux-intellectual habits – silly things such as practising being flâneurs. I suppose the older I get (sigh), the more I think of Metroland and empathise with that feeling of nostalgia. Although when I was at school it was faux-street rather than faux-intellectual habits we cultivated, such as dancing to garage music and using words like ‘chirpse, bare, lean’. Nostalgia and embarrassment.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while it might have been rather a long time since I last read something by Julian Barnes, that gap is diminished in my head because I’ve thought about Metroland rather a lot in the meantime. I even reread it five years or so ago.

Now, reading The Sense of an Ending, I can’t get over how similar it is to Metroland. It is a vessel once again for remembering schooldays, pretentious attempts at intellectualism, incredibly close friendships, girlfriends and a peripheral, perennial preoccupation with death. I am very much enjoying it. And I agree with Justin Cartwright’s review in the Observer that compared it rather favourably to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Perhaps what Barnes has achieved in the twenty odd years between the two books is a honing of his writing, a precision, an efficiency which means that 200 pages can shrink to 150, and a resulting immediacy that hooks people from the start.

For the sad thing is, whenever I recommend Metroland to bookshop customers – occasionally putting a small hopeful pile of it on our table of favourites, or suggesting it as a good novel about London, or coming-of-age, or settling-down – people never buy it. They read the back or the first page, or listen to my enthusiastic description about flâneurs and then put the book down again. I suppose they didn’t first come across it at a vulnerable impressionable age.

But at least they are all buying The Sense of an Ending. And perhaps, because it really is very similar indeed to Metroland, I can feel a little warm glow of smugness and, very occasionally – when no-one’s listening -whisper to myself, I told you so.

My Top Ten London books … part one

February 10, 2010

I sometimes get asked, at the bookshop, to recommend something that’s set in London. There are so many London books that I’ve loved, it’s hard to know where to begin. But recommending something is trickier than one might imagine, because it has to be recommended for that particular person, not for oneself, or anyone else. For instance, a young man came in the other day and asked for a good crime novel. I suggested a couple, saying that not only were they exciting, they were also very well written and not trashy at all. His whole expression dropped; he put the books down straight away. ‘I don’t like well-written,’ he said. ‘Don’t you have anything like John Grisham?’

So, the following aren’t books that I’d recommend to just anyone. But they are the books about London that I love the most. I’ll start off with the fictional ones; next time will be London’s non-fiction.

1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I know that lots of people hate Virginia Woolf. They think she’s snobby and pretentious, and a bit ridiculous. Fine. She probably was a snob. But she’s an absolutely brilliant writer. The thing is, one can’t just start reading Mrs Dalloway, or any of her books, and expect to follow a straightforward narrative. Reading Virginia Woolf is always a bit of a shock, more than a fraction discombobulating, but if you persevere, you might discover something you absolutely adore. I certainly did.

Mrs Dalloway was the first of Woolf’s novels that I read, and I remember reading it very clearly. It was during the holidays before my second term at Oxford. I was sitting on the living room sofa with a cup of tea, feeling a mixture of tremendous excitement and great trepidation. My tutor was a specialist in Woolf, you see, so it would have been a bit of shame if I’d hated it. But as soon as I began, there was a kind of BANG. A WOW. A complete amazement that writing could be this different, this exciting and this good. I ended up specialising in Woolf, reading all her novels, most of her essays, many of her letters and diaries, but Mrs Dalloway was the beginning; it was where I first got hooked.

Now, whenever I reread Mrs Dalloway, I still love accompanying her on her walk through London. The geography is so precise, I can trace her route through Victoria, Westminster, St James’s almost perfectly in my mind’s eye. I like the way Mrs Dalloway’s mind jumps around – as one’s mind does when one’s walking – following one thought, and then, catching sight of something, hastening along another. Then, when she walks past Hatchard’s on Piccadilly and sees that line from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages’, Woolf brings death into the picture. And the shadow of the recent First World War begins to creep over the page, making its presence more and more keenly felt.

Mrs Dalloway is filled with brilliant detail, but one I’m particularly fond of is Big Ben, which chimes throughout the book. It first strikes a page in:

one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribably pause; a suspense […] before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolve in the air.

I was at school just around the corner from Big Ben, and could hear the ‘irrevocable’ chimes on the hour every day. There really does seem to be a slight gasp, a pause, before it strikes.

2. ‘The Waste Land’, T.S. Eliot

From Woolf’s Big Ben, to Eliot’s rather grimmer ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ from a city Church …

This is the last of the Moderns I’ve chosen, I promise. I read this one when I was at school. We’d studied ‘Prufrock’ and I wanted to read ‘The Waste Land’ to find out what all the fuss was about. I can see, like with Virginia Woolf, why Eliot doesn’t appeal to everyone. The Latin and Greek at the beginning are pretty off-putting, and he does jump around a bit, making one’s head spin. But, a bit of a perseverance pays off …

The London image that sticks most in my head is the following:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth keep the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

When I was living in Whitechapel last year, I used to cycle in to work every morning, crossing over Southwark Bridge, one west of London Bridge, en route. The streams of lifeless commuters were shocking, hideous, inhumane. I often tried to time it so I was mid-bridge bang on nine o’clock, when I would hear various churches chime out the time – with that dead gloom of a sound.

Somebody once quoted that bit of Eliot to me to prove why he thought Eliot was a terrible snob. How dare he be so condescending towards people who have to go to work everyday to earn a living? But the thing is, Eliot spent years working as a bank clerk, before quitting to work in publishing. It’s not like he never experienced the deadly commute; he wasn’t looking down at it from an ivory tower. Eliot had been part of that deadening sight, and the image is all the more affecting because of it.

3. Metroland, Julian Barnes

There’s a passage in Metroland that always makes me think of those lines from ‘The Waste Land’.  Christopher (the main character) takes his friend Toni on the Metropolitan line, showing him his journey to and from school. They look out of the window when they’re passing over Kilburn:

Thousands of people down there, all within a few hundred yards of you; yet you’d never, in all probability, meet any of them.

There’s the same feeling of the city’s anonymity, inhumanity.

I read Metroland at school for AS level coursework. My English teacher had a habit of at once patronising us and also seeming to want to be one of us, talking with fondness of his days of being a teenager – so impressionable, so passionate, so young … So Metroland, a novel about a thirty-something-year-old looking back at being a teenager, was a particularly appropriate book to study. It’s a great coming-of-age novel, and it also effectively captures what it’s like to be in suburbia, coming into central London and leaving it again every day.

Julian Barnes brilliantly crafts a particularly suburban feeling at the end of the book. The main character makes his peace with compromising, settling for an easy middle-of-the road life. He realises that his teenage dreams were naïve and is happy to pursue them no longer. It must be a common phenomenon, but Barnes executes it so perfectly, the feeling becomes almost poetic.

4. Unsafe Attachments, Caroline Oulton

This stunning collection of short stories rails against the disconnection of London life, touched on in that Kilburn passage of Metroland. Oulton subtly weaves the narrative strands loosely together, so the various characters move between the different stories, slipping from main character in one story to cameo in another. The stories explore the instability of relationships, flirtation and infidelity, and are unsettlingly well-observed. London’s geography is firmly etched into each story, but Oulton’s real feat is in capturing so acutely the hectic, brittle fragility of London life.

I read Unsafe Attachments when it came out a couple of years ago. I was working in a nine-to-five London publishing job, and I found that the book really chimed with the daily grind of working life. It’s filled with people searching for excitement in the margins of their days – leaving work at six, knowing they need to be back in the office the next morning at nine. Oulton casts London as a city with a workforce, a workforce that often misbehaves.

5. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

The exhausting number of characters and sub-plots in Bleak House left me feeling, at times, like I was reading a collection of linked stories. But as the plot twists and turns and connections are made, it comes together into one magnificent novel, and one that is utterly London.

The Londonness is clear from the very first sentence, which is just ‘London.’ The opening is incredible, conflating time so that the city becomes at once prehistoric and apocalyptic:

As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Whenever I’m passing through Holborn I cannot help but think of this opening. Then I try to imagine seeing a dinosaur waddling along.

I read Bleak House when I was in Nepal. It was on my Oxford reading list, along with several other classics, and I wanted to get through some of them while I had so much time to read. It was a very strange book to be reading out there. Dickens creates a world that is so grimey, smoky, claustrophobic, and there I was in the boiling chaotic sunshine of Kathmandu, where everyone else was reading something by the Dalai Lama. Whenever I opened Bleak House, I was transported straight back to London. And, although it was an unnerving experience, perhaps that is the ultimate test of a London book.