An Interview of Historical Importance
"History in question(s): An interview with Julian Barnes."Conducted and with an introduction by Vanessa Guignery.Sources 8 (printemps 2000): 59-72.
What reader of Julian Barnes's fiction has not wished to question the author on his view of history? Central to Barnes's writing, the theme of history, with its various permutations of biography and national identity, has often eluded explanation and understanding. Given a few brief moments and a handful of deftly worded questions, would we manage to clear up some of the more difficult aspects of Barnes's historical themes? Faced with the opportunity to question, how would we begin?
Vanessa Guignery begins with an introduction that analyzes Barnes's process of questioning "the foundations of traditional historiography" by means of "ontological, epistemological and political" viewpoints. This introduction is an essay unto itself and worth the time of any Barnes scholar interested in pursuing an understanding of the author's historical themes. What follows, as Guignery accepts the role as our representative interviewer, is a direct and capable questioning of Barnes on his view of historiography.
In her introduction to the interview, Vanessa Guignery refers to the "acute historical consciousness" in Barnes's work. Indeed, Barnes deals with the grander themes of history by consistently pursuing the undertones of personal history, the creation of national history, and the relationship of history to art, fiction, and biography. Through each of these perspectives, Barnes attempts to bring into focus a small piece of history's "distant, receding coastline" (Flaubert's Parrot, 101). In a similar way, Barnes's explanations of his historical themes in this interview add additional perspectives to his purpose and quality as a writer.
Guignery draws on her vast knowledge of Barnes's texts in asking a series of appropriate and difficult questions on the nature of history. The discussion concentrates on Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, selections from Cross Channel, and England, England, but Barnes's responses can be applied more universally to the whole of his work. The discussion ranges from direct commentaries on specific passages or phrases from his novels to the general nature of myth and national identity, as exemplified in England, England. Guignery's scholarly knowledge of literary theory and impressive grasp of his oeuvre compliment Barnes's responses. The end result is the creation of Barnes's most detailed interview on his "historical consciousness" to date. Readers in general, but scholars in particular, will find a great number of insights in these few pages.
-- Ryan Roberts, September 2000
Vanessa Guinery is Maître de Conférences in British and American literature a the University of Paris IV - La Sorbonne. She has recently completed a thesis entitled "Postmodernism and modes of blurring in Julian Barnes's fiction." She has published several articles on Barnes's work, the citations for which can be located throughout the Julian Barnes Website.