Monday, August 28, 2006

A Long Journey to a Questionable End

Bruce Sesto
Language, History, and Metanarrative in the Fiction of Julian Barnes
Studies in Twentieth-Century British Literature, Vol. 3
Peter Lang, 2001. 136 p.
ISBN 0-8204-44677. ($45.95)

I first read Bruce Sesto's book on Julian Barnes when it was titled The Fictional World of Julian Barnes. Submitted as his dissertation to the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1995, Sesto's study of Barnes was typical fare -- mostly plot summary wrapped around light literary theory. When I learned Peter Lang would publish the book in 1999 (and with a new, fancy title, no less), I was excited at the possibility of a thorough reworking of the text. I waited … and waited … I wrote Sesto and was told it would be published soon, so I waited … and waited … and wrote the general editor at Peter Lang. Soon … it would be published soon. Years passed (literally), but finally the book made the slow progression to hardback in November 2001. The suspense, the build-up, the high hopes were quickly squashed, however, because the book is merely a word-for-word copy of Sesto's dissertation. What could have been the holdup?

Despite all the months to clean up the text, the book contains its share of newly added textual errors, including strange title insertions (45) and missed indentions (133), none of which reflects well on Peter Lang or the author. The very first page of the introduction, in fact, makes strange use of a hyphen: 'faith- fully'. The original dissertation lists "faithfully", of course, which suggests the error resulted from a failure to catch a word processing program's "faithful" use of the auto-hyphen option. Other errors present in the original dissertation also make their way into the final book, such as an improperly italicized word before a novel title: "In Before She Met Me" (book, 27; diss., 48).

Perhaps it's petty to point out such mistakes, but they are representative of something much more disturbing about the book's content. During the text's six-year journey from dissertation to book, Sesto failed to keep his study updated. Both England, England and Love, etc are completely absent from the study. Given it's publication date, perhaps there wasn't time to add a chapter on Love, etc, but ignoring England, England is both surprising and disappointing. My guess is that Sesto simply lost interest in his book and refused to consider editing, updating, or enhancing the text. Proof of this comes in the very first line of chapter 4: "The subject of Barnes' most recent novel, The Porcupine ..." (113; 173). To clarify the glorious laziness of this statement, consider the following publishing timeline:

The Porcupine (published in 1992)
Sesto's dissertation (1995)
England, England (1998)
Love, etc (2000)
Sesto's book (November 2001)

More frustrating than the absence of England, England and Love, etc is the fact that they are not the only novels ignored by Sesto. Having discussed Metroland, Before She Met Me, and Flaubert's Parrot in the first two chapters, Sesto begins chapter three with the statement, "Barnes' fourth novel, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters ..." (53; 85). Ah, yes, that pesky little jewel of a novel titled Staring at the Sun (1986). How did Sesto keep himself ignorant of one of Barnes's novels? A better question may be how he kept his dissertation committee oblivious of the fact.

The absence of Staring at the Sun disturbs me so much, I'm nearly speechless. I can look past the fact that the book doesn't include an index and has a rather thin bibliography, but no Staring at the Sun? Truly disheartening. In the end, I imagine Barnes scholars will want to consult this book, if only to evaluate some of Sesto's arguments for themselves. At nearly $50.00, I don't know that I could recommend buying a copy for the collection -- interlibrary loan it instead.

-- Ryan Roberts, December 2002

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