Monday, August 28, 2006

A Distant, Receding Coastline

Julian Barnes
Something to Declare
London: Jonathan Cape, 2002. (318 p.)
ISBN 0-330-48916-X. (£8.99)


The great poet and literary critic Ian Hamilton died of cancer on December 27, 2001. In addition to his poetry, biographies, and essays, Hamilton’s literary legacy includes the editorship of two of the most influential journals of the 1960s and 1970s: The Review and The New Review. Under Hamilton’s critical eye, Julian Barnes published his first column for The New Review in November 1976. The following year Barnes began writing The New Review’s "Greek Street" column under the pseudonym of Edward Pygge, a name created by Hamilton in the early days of The Review. Barnes has said of Hamilton’s influence, "He was the Gaffer, and what that means in literary journalism is: someone whose presence and example makes you write as well as you are able" (20). Barnes had written over 140 reviews before his November 1976 appearance in The New Review and, since that time, he has published (conservatively) over 700 additional articles. In 1986, Barnes quit being a full-time journalist to concentrate on writing fiction.

Fortunately, this decision did not result in the complete cessation of his journalistic output. What happened instead was that Barnes allowed himself the opportunity to become the type of quality reviewer Hamilton makes reference to in an interview recently published in the London Review of Books as "You Muddy Fools" (published in book form by Between the Lines):
    "I like reading book reviews, if they are any good. And I know they are very hard to write. Mostly they are written by people who think they are easy to do. In fact, they are not. They ought to be constructed, and listened to, and they shouldn't contain a word out of place. And there should be some rhythm in their sentences and some wit. They should be entertaining and evince some justice and fair play to the thing reviewed. There's a lot that goes into a good book review, and it does irritate me when I see kids just out of university working away in the book pages as if the review is just an extension of some dinner party throwaway thing, a bit of idle opinionating. The idea of the well-made review and of the essay form itself interests me as something between fiction and non-fiction - a form you can do all sorts of things in. An underrated form. There's a joy in finding the right word in a book review that's comparable to finding it for a poem." -- Ian Hamilton, 2001.
All but one of the articles gathered for Something to Declare were written by Barnes between 1986 and 2000. Free of his "Grub Street" responsibilities -- the deadlines, the limits on copy length, the demands of weekly output -- Barnes’s reviews and essays during this period developed in style and narrative voice. Reviews soon became essays, artistic and beautiful in their own right. Written not to criticize the work, per se, but to illuminate some outward truth, Barnes’s reviews, particularly over the past ten years, reveal his preference of themes and subject matter (often the favored subject was France and, in particular, Flaubert). In this way, Something to Declare is more than a selection of Barnes’s journalism output over the past two decades -- it is the natural culmination of his personal literary preferences, his self-chosen literary consumption.

Barnes once told Christopher Hawtree, "I revere John Updike, but he collects up almost everything, every article, and knowing that you’ll do that must affect the way that you write in the first place." That twenty years have passed between the earliest and most recent essays in the collection should be proof enough that Barnes has heeded his own words. Additional evidence of his devotion to both this collection and its subject lies in the fact that the majority of the essays in Something to Declare were substantially edited or revised prior to publication. Barnes reorders several passages in his essay on Georges Simenon, for example, and, more drastically, reworks an entire two paragraphs in his essay about Henry James’s motor trip with Edith Wharton (STD 67-68; Motor-Flight 3-4). In other essays, the changes are minimal, but their subtle existence helps remind us of the care with which Barnes constructed the volume as a whole. The chapter "Flaubert’s Death-Masks", for instance, contains a piece on Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy that was originally published as a review in the New York Times Book Review. Initially intended for an American audience, Barnes has thoughtfully reconsidered every word, even taking care to change "savor" back to the English "savour" (155). This may seem an insignificant moment of editing, but the results of these cumulative changes are tighter narratives, cleaner lines, and an improved quality and sense of unity throughout the entire volume. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes paraphrases his literary mentor as saying that, "hair only shone after much combing, and that the same could be said of style" (150). Something to Declare stands as a fine example of this sentiment -- finely groomed and a delight to read.

-- Ryan Roberts, January 2002

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