Understanding Merritt Moseley's Understanding of Julian Barnes
Understanding Julian Barnes
by Merrit Moseley
Columbia, South Carolina: University of South
Carolina Press, 1997. (200 p.)
"I see the novelist at the stern rail of a cross-Channel ferry, throwing bits of gristle from his sandwich to the hovering gulls" (FP 79).
Julian Barnes, like Flaubert before him, has often stated the importance of separating the author from the novel. "Don't we believe the words enough? Do we think the leavings of a life contain some ancillary truth?" asks Geoffrey Braithwaite in Flaubert's Parrot. Biographical details do not, or should not, offer the reader any greater appreciation of a work of art. "Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were" (FP 86), but still we chase the writer by reading the Observer profiles and by advance purchasing the next book of criticism. So what do we expect when faced with Merritt Moseley's Understanding Julian Barnes? That word "understanding" intrigues, as if to say, "Here he is. Finally. Mystery solved." Can it really be that easy?
Moseley arranges the book chronically by publication, except for the Duffy novels, which he combines appropriately into chapter three. Each section contains a great deal of plot summary, which often comes across as unnecessary filler for Moseley's central arguments. In truth, Moseley claims to have only one central thesis, that "Barnes's persistent concern--more than previous works of literature, more than experimentation with form, more than 'the modern condition'--is love. Each of his novels is about love in some central if not exclusive way" (UJB 12). The problem with this argument is not that Barnes does not deal with love as a theme in a great majority of his works, but that Moseley does not seem to develop his thesis outside of the theme of adultery or "Parenthesis" in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. He itemizes the various occurrences of adultery in Barnes's novels, but then does not provide any "understanding" about what this might mean or why Barnes seems to dwell on unsuccessful relationships.
Moseley has other difficulties with the central thesis as outlined in the opening chapter. He claims that love is "complicated by ambition and duty in The Porcupine" (12), but then fails to develop his remark in Chapter 9, deciding instead that "The Porcupin is about politics" (147). Indeed, Moseley goes so far as to completely contradict his previous statement, saying, "some of the concerns on which Barnes is always acute elude readers here [in The Porcupine], including the complexities of love"(157).
Moseley is also overly fond of quoting Barnes's statement from his Bomb interview with Patrick McGrath that, "what is constant is the human heart and human passions. And the change in who does what with whom--that's a superficial change" (13,68,135,143). Moseley claims this quote "applies more widely to all [of Barnes's] books"(13), but he uses it almost exclusively when referencing Before She Met Me. He does use the quote in relation to Talking It Over, but only to contradict Barnes, claiming, "It is hardly superficial in Talking It Over: the change in who does what with whom, and the reasons for and consequences of that change, is the book" (135; italics are Moseley's). Such repeated reliance on a single quote is a bit surprising in a work of scholarly criticism.
Moseley's book contains other unfortunate mistakes, such as referring to Flaubert's Parrot as Barnes's "fourth novel"(1), instead of his third (fifth if you include the Kavanagh novels). Moseley also misspells part of the title of Flaubert's Dictionaire des idées reçues as "Reéue" (79) and, at one point, mistakenly attributes the Bomb interview to Charles McGrath, instead of Patrick (179; Chap. 9, no.9). This last mistake is perhaps understandable, since Barnes mentions Charles McGrath in his preface "On Author" in Letters to London. One of the few mistake with a positive spin is Moseley's claim that Barnes was "under the age of fifty"(17) when Understanding Julian Barnes was published in 1997. Though Barnes was born in 1946, he probably doesn't mind the extra few years Moseley has offered.
So what is good about Moseley's book? A lot, actually, despite previous evidence to the contrary. His discussion of the Duffy novels, while often filled with plot summary, is one of the few treatments of Barnes's crime fiction. His chapter on A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, despite an overwhelming concentration on the theme of love and "Parenthesis," is helpful for its defense and outline of Barnes's themes throughout the novel. While notcomprehensive by any means, Moseley's bibliography is an excellent starting point for all serious Barnes scholars.
It should be mentioned that Moseley's book is one title in a series called Understanding Contemporary British Literature put out by the South Carolina University Press. The books in this series were designed, according to its general editor Matthew J. Bruccoli, "as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers" (ix). As great as this consumer group sounds, the books are obviously marketed for libraries where high school and undergraduate students will use them to bulk up their essays on A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Flaubert's Parrot.
By maintaining a "level of general accessibility"(ix), Understanding Julian Barnes offers a nice, if not entirely adequate, introduction to the author's works. It often falls short of filling the expectations of more serious Barnes scholars, but they are not, afterall, Moseley's intended audience. Despite this, and if only because it is the first book-length study of Barnes, serious scholars will want to consider Moseley's arguments. What if you are one of those "good nonacademic readers"(ix) considering spending $29.95 for a better "understanding" of Julian Barnes? All you need to know is in his novels, so put your cash towards the purchase of two of Barnes's paperbacks instead.
-- Ryan Roberts, March 2000