Readersforum's Blog

November 9, 2012

Through the Window by Julian Barnes: review

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst delights in a collection of short works by Julian Barnes, Through the Window.

In the opening chapter of Julian Barnes’s 1984 novel Flaubert’s Parrot, his narrator recalls how Félicité, the servant in Flaubert’s story Un coeur simple, hoards relics and knick-knacks with equal relish. Part-chapel and part-bazaar, her room is home to an “assembly of stray objects, united only by their owner’s affection”. It’s tempting to view Barnes’s latest work in the same light.

These 17 essays (and a short story) reveal just as much about the author’s preferences as they do about their subjects. Three essays deal with Ford Madox Ford, and two with Kipling, while Barnes’s love of rummaging around in the dimmer reaches of French culture is also proudly on display, including a bravura celebration of the architectural guardian Prosper Mérimée, and a more ambivalent piece on the contemporary novelist Michel Houellebecq, who allegedly once responded to the prospect of being profiled in The Observer by getting “catatonically drunk” and telling his interviewer that “he’d only answer further questions if she slept with him”.

The fact all of these essays have been published before might lead a cynical reader to view the collection less as a bazaar than a literary jumble-sale: a pile of second-hand items assembled in the shadow of Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending. His publishers certainly don’t seem worried about the connection – the cover of this book mentions the prize three times – even if the decision to follow up a short novel with a collection of even shorter forms suggests a certain anxiety about the attention span of most readers.

In fact the parallels between Barnes’s essays and his fiction run much deeper.

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