Who says that authors slow down when they get older, or do their best work before age forty? Julian Barnes is proof that neither of those maxims is necessarily true. Since 2005, when he turned 59, Barnes has published some of the best work of his career: Arthur & George, a masterful imagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempts to clear the name of a half-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, who was accused of having committed an attack on a pit-pony; Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a memoir in which Barnes discusses his lifelong obsession with death; Pulse, his third collection of short stories; The Sense of an Ending, a novella that brought him a long-elusive Man Booker Prize; and now Through the Window, a collection of seventeen pieces of literary criticism and a short story, “Homage to Hemingway,” a clever variation on Hemingway’s own story, “Homage to Switzerland,” which appeared in Scribner’s magazine in 1933.
This would be an impressive run for any author. When that author just happens to be one of the finest stylists in the English language, the achievement is not only a welcome rebuttal to the expectations of middle age but also a treat for lovers of good literature.
Through the Window features Barnes’s ruminations on the works of French, British, and American authors. The cast of characters includes writers you might expect—George Orwell, Gustave Flaubert, Edith Wharton, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates—but also some surprises. One essay is about Arthur Hugh Clough, the 19th century English poet whom Barnes says is Lord Byron to the Keats of Clough’s friend Matthew Arnold, colloquial and skeptical rather than elegantly mournful. In another, we learn of Dingley, L’Illustre Écrivain, a 1902 novel by the brothers Jérôme and Jacques Tharaud, about an English author who, like Kipling, went to South Africa at the time of the Boer War and suffered the death of a young offspring. Another essay is about the 18th century French writer Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, who, despite his many novels and plays, is better known today for his collections of aphorisms than for his literature. Barnes’s essay is a defense of Chamfort, a counterpunch to Camus’s claim that Chamfort had “a generalized scorn for women.”
All of these pieces display the deep knowledge of literature and the brilliant writing that we have come to expect from Barnes. If he is occasionally too willing to forgive a favorite author’s flaws, he makes up for these lapses with his dazzling erudition. Through the Window is a marvelous book.
My full review appears on Bookreporter.com.
(Note: Any advertisement that appears below is WordPress’s doing and not mine.)