Lurid post-it notes jostle pink-yellow-red-blue-green post-it flags at the page edges. I think only the five-star ones merit this number of flags. And — (sigh) — Barnes’s essays on writers and their books has bumped up my TBR count. At least I can re-use the post-it flags for those new ones.
Preface: A Life with Books (5*) — This eleven-page essay was one of my favourites. I love reading about other people’s love affairs with books, about how and what they read as children, what ensared them, about how they grew up in their reading tastes, about their influences and favourite authors.
He starts with, ”I have lived in books, for books, by and with books; in recent years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to live from books. And it was through books that I first realized there were other worlds beyond my own; first imagined what it might be like to be another person; first encountered that deeply intimate bond made when a writer’s voice gets inside a reader’s head.”
His book world began to expand at age 17, when he got to choose his book for a school prize. He chose Ulysses: “I can still see the disapproving face of the Lord Mayor as his protectively gloved hand passed over to me this notoriously filthy novel.”
He describes his phase of being a “furious book-hunter, driving to the market towns and cathedral cities of England in my Morris Traveller and loading it with books bought at a rate which far exceeded any possible reading speed.”
He collected first editions, complete sets, and just random books to justify otherwise fruitless expeditions. "The dividing line between books I liked, books I thought I would like, books I hoped I would like, and books I didn't like now but thought I might at some future date was rarely distinct."
Barnes still buys books faster than he can read them, and his defense is one of my favourite quotes in the book: “But this feels completely normal: how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life.”
Most of the essays were previously published in Guardian, NYRB, LRB, New Yorker,
or as forewords. About half of them are related to french authors or to France.
It was fascinating to read "Translating Madame Bovary", in which he discusses the Lydia Davis translation in the context of her predecessors, especially since I am (still!) reading her translation of Proust’s “The Way by Swann’s”. He is politely disapproving of her work, describing it as a “linguistically careful version, in the modern style, rendered into an unobtrusively American English.” Ouch.
Davis says that past translations “that are written with some flair and some life to them are not at all that close to the original; the ones that are more faithful may be kind of clunky.” Barnes comments that “This is the paradox and bind of translation. If to be ‘faithful’ is to be ‘clunky’, then it is also to be unfaithful because Flaubert was not a ‘clunky’ writer. He moves between registers; he cuts into the lyric with the prosaic; but this is language whose every sentence, word, syllable has been tested aloud again and again.” I so wish I knew French…
He admires Penelope Fitzgerald’s work. They are examples of the subtler wiser type of novel, in which the “structure and purpose may not be immediately apparent…Nor do such novels move mechanically; they stray, they pause, they lollop, as life does, except with a greater purpose and hidden structure.”
“George Orwell and the Fucking Elephant” is about class, ideologies, Being a Great Writer, and moral ambiguities. He reports, via Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick, on a restaurant meeting between Crick and Orwell’s widow Sonia. “Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell’s most celebrated pieces of reportage, ‘Shooting an Elephant’. Sonia ‘screamed’ at him across the table, ‘Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!’
Crick had discovered that in fact no one had been killed by the elephant, although Orwell did kill the elephant, angering the owners and resulting in a form of disgraceful internal exile.
He writes a graceful literary eulogy of John Updike, and is particularly fond of the Rabbit books, calling Rabbit at Rest “the greatest post-war American novel.” This makes me want to re-read them again, twenty years later.
Three of the essays were about Ford Maddox Ford. In “Ford’s the Good Soldier” he gives a master class in literary criticism. He discusses the opening sentence…’This is the saddest story I have ever heard.“, and at the end of the paragraph provides this most memorable description: “And if the second verb of the first sentence of the book is unreliable — if it gives a creak under the foot as we put our weight on it— then we must be prepared to treat every line as warily; we must prowl soft-footed through the text, alive for every board’s moan and plaint.”
Love it. Wonderful.
The last belongs to Mr. Barnes:“Nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.”