Authors: Julian Barnes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Metroland, 1980

Duffy, 1980 (as Dan Kavanagh)

Fiddle City, 1981 (as Kavanagh)

Before She Met Me, 1982

Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984

Putting the Boot In, 1985 (as Kavanagh)

Staring at the Sun, 1986

Going to the Dogs, 1987 (as Kavanagh)

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, 1989

Talking It Over, 1991

The Porcupine, 1992 (novella)

England, England, 1998

Love, etc., 2001

Short Fiction:

Cross Channel, 1996


Letters from London, 1995 (essays)

Something to Declare: Essays on France, 2002


In the Land of Pain, 2002 (of Alphonse Daudet)


By the time his third book was published, Julian Patrick Barnes had been hailed by critics as one of the most accomplished novelists in years. Barnes was educated at the City of London School from 1957 to 1964 and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with honors in 1968. From 1969 to 1972, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement, and in 1977 he began working as a reviewer and literary editor for various British journals. Between 1979 and 1986, he was a television critic, and he ultimately joined the London Observer; in the 1990’s, he also began writing for The New Yorker.{$I[AN]9810001386}{$I[A]Barnes, Julian}{$S[A]Kavanagh, Dan;Barnes, Julian}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Barnes, Julian}{$I[tim]1946;Barnes, Julian}

In 1980, Barnes published his first novel, Metroland, a first-person account of the maturation of Christopher Lloyd, who rebels against his bourgeois upbringing and enjoys a bohemian fling in Paris before settling down to middle-class domesticity back home. The novel made an immediate impression and won the Somerset Maugham Award. Critics admired the work’s remarkably assured tone, its well-turned phrases, and its lively reworking of the traditional apprenticeship story. Two years later, Before She Met Me attracted even more favorable notice. This novel is a witty but chilling depiction of an intelligent man destroyed by obsessive jealousy: Graham Hendrick, a mild-mannered history teacher, happily remarried after a painful divorce, finds himself unable to stop brooding over the men in his new wife’s past. The novel depicts both the comic entanglement of life with art–a novelist friend, for example, complicates Graham’s search for truth by his habit of putting real people into his fiction–and the tragic entanglement of reason with emotion in the human psyche. Although some critics complained of a lack of credibility in characterization, most agreed on the disturbing power of Barnes’s portrayal of an individual’s disintegration.

Barnes’s first outstanding success came in 1984 with Flaubert’s Parrot, which was nominated for the prestigious Booker-McConnell Prize and won many literary awards in England and in France. The novel is a tour de force reminiscent, in its ingenious wordplay, of Vladimir Nabokov. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired English doctor and admirer of Gustave Flaubert, believes he owns the stuffed bird that sat on the Master’s desk, and he is dismayed to find that a French museum claims to have the original. He sets out to find the truth, not only about the bird but also about Flaubert. What follows is part biography, part mystery, part essay, demonstrating the elusiveness of “fact” as it reveals truths about the doctor’s relationship with his dead wife, who seems a modern counterpart of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Readers, undaunted by the book’s convoluted structure–which includes passages in the form of encyclopedia entries, a bestiary, and examination questions–found it both entertaining and instructive, and the book became an immediate best-seller.

In subsequent novels, Barnes continued to experiment in form and technique. In the subdued character study Staring at the Sun, Jean Sergeant, naïve and unembittered, has endured to her one hundredth birthday in 2021; her sixty-year-old son, weary of his own existence, must turn to his old mother rather than to the machines that now dominate society to learn about life and death. A History of the World in 10½ Chapters examines the relationship between past and present through a more powerful telescope. Each chapter, as well as the half chapter, is linked by the themes and motifs of the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood, and the novel is polished and witty. Other novels focus on power struggles in human relationships. In Talking It Over, the conflict centers on a love triangle involving three characters whose monologues make up the bulk of the novel, while in The Porcupine, written on a trip to Bulgaria and set in Eastern Europe, the power struggle is political rather than romantic. England, England is a highly entertaining postmodern satire that explores the notion of authenticity and personal and national identity in a near-future England. Love, etc., a sequel to Talking It Over, continues the exploration of the tangled relationships of the three protagonists. In general, Barnes’s novels illustrate his willingness to surprise his reader and to go beyond the successful formulas of previous work.

Under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, Barnes pursued a second career as a writer of mystery fiction. In Duffy, published in 1980, he introduced his eponymous detective hero, a former policeman whose new work as a security specialist keeps him in contact with criminals at all levels of society. Fiddle City, Putting the Boot In, and Going to the Dogs continued the detective’s adventures. Despite their less profound themes, these mysteries share many of the stylistic characteristics, particularly puns and literary allusions, of the serious novels. Even as he parodies classic detective fiction, Barnes skillfully employs all the conventions of the form, in well-constructed plots, credible characters, and tersely witty dialogue.

In Letters from London, a collection of articles written for The New Yorker, Barnes covers topics ranging from the fatwa proclaimed against Salman Rushdie to the World Chess Championship. The essays, which offer fascinating insights into British life in the 1990’s, are engaging and provocative. In this they match the accomplishments of Barnes’s fiction. Something to Declare collects Barnes’s eccentric but glowing essays on France. Highly entertaining in its Nabokovian wit and ingenuity, all of Barnes’s work is thought-provoking in its exploration of perennial moral and aesthetic questions.

BibliographyBarnes, Julian. “Established Novelist Turns to Short Stories.” Interview by James Hollings. The Evening Post, March 12, 1998, p. 14. In this interview, Barnes says he had not intended to write short fiction, but in 1990, he started having ideas that presented themselves as short stories rather than as novels; says Cross Channel is about why the British are drawn to France; claims that the short story is harder to write than the novel because one needs to know the tone and the theme and how these will be treated before writing can begin.Barnes, Julian. “Interview with Julian Barnes.” Interview by Patrick McGrath. Bomb 21 (Fall, 1987): 20-23. Barnes argues that there is no norm to a sex life; claims that a first-rate critic is less important than a second-rate writer; talks about his relationship to the French; and insists that he is not obsessed with obsession.Barnes, Julian. “Inventing England.” Interview by Penelope Dening. The Irish Times, September 8, 1998, p. 12. A interview with Barnes just after the publication of England, England; says his work is rarely autobiographical and that disparities between the public and the private and between the false and the authentic run through his fiction; Barnes says he does not write to solve problems but that he writes about themes that make him itch.Barnes, Julian. “Open Channels.” Interview by Penny Fox. The Scotsman, January 13, 1996, p. 16. In this interview, Barnes says writing is the most enjoyable work he has ever done; he is amused that Sharon Stone was flown to Paris to receive a French award, while he was only invited down to the local embassy to receive the same honor; talks about the origins of Cross Channel and speculates about new writers from Scotland.Carey, John. “Land of Make-Believe.” The Sunday [London] Times, August 23, 1998. Carey, a leading British academic and a literary critic, discusses England, England as an unusual combination of the comic and the serious, a philosophical novel that posits important questions about reality.Guignery, Vanessa. The Fiction of Julian Barnes. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Provides an excellent assessment of Barnes’s literary works, including his novels, and presents a compilation of the interpretation of Barnes’s works by other critics.Higdon, David Leon. “’Unconfessed Confessions’: The Narrators of Graham Swift and Julian Barnes.” In The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, edited by James Acheson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Argues that the fiction of Swift and Barnes defines what is meant by British postmodernism. Asserts that the works of the two authors share themes of estrangement, obsession, and the power of the past.Hulbert, Ann. “The Meaning of Meaning.” The New Republic 196 (May 11, 1987): 37-39. Reviewing Staring at the Sun, Hulbert notes Barnes’s continuing interest in the relationship between life and art. She comments on the differences in tone and technique between that novel and his earlier works, particularly Flaubert’s Parrot.Jenkins, Mitch. “Novel Escape.” The [London] Times Magazine, January 13, 1996, p. 18. An interview with Barnes and a wide-ranging discussion of his life and works.Kermode, Frank. “Obsessed with Obsession.” The New York Review of Books 32 (April 25, 1985): 15. Kermode, an English literary critic, in his favorable review of Flaubert’s Parrot, discusses some of the social and literary background of the younger generation of English novelists.Locke, Richard. “Flood of Forms.” The New Republic 201 (December 4, 1989): 40-43. Locke, a professor of comparative literature, places Barnes’s interest in form and style in the context of modern literature, beginning with Gustave Flaubert. Summarizes all of Barnes’s novels, focusing particularly on A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.Lodge, David. “The Home Front.” The New York Review of Books 34 (May 7, 1987): 21. Lodge is an English novelist, of the same generation as Barnes but generally less experimental in form. He finds Staring at the Sun less successful than Flaubert’s Parrot and argues that Barnes attempted to incorporate too many elements into the former work.May, Derwent. “More than Just Sleeve Notes.” The Times, January 11, 1996, p. 1. A review of Cross Channel; notes that there is little emotion or personal drama in the stories but rather that they wittily re-create a passage of social history; discusses several of the stories, especially “Hermitage” and “Evermore,” which May says are the best in the collection.Mosely, Merritt. Understanding Julian Barnes. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. Provides a general introduction to Barnes’s life and work, briefly discussing his novels, stories, and nonfiction. Includes a bibliography of criticism of Barnes’s fiction.Pateman, Matthew. Julian Barnes. Tavistock, England: Northcote House, 2002. Presents an insightful scholarly interpretation of Barnes’s novels through Love, etc.Rubinson, Gregory J. The Fiction of Rushdie, Barnes, Winterson, and Carter: Breaking Cultural and Literary Boundaries in the Work of Four Postmodernists. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Examines how Barnes and three other important postmodern authors–Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, and Angela Carter–use literary devices to challenge culturally accepted ideas about such subjects as race and gender. Include index.Sesto, Bruce. Language, History, and Metanarrative in the Fiction of Julian Barnes. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Includes chapters on Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10 Chapters, and The Porcupine. Bibliography.Stout, Mira. “Chameleon Novelist.” The New York Times Magazine, November 22, 1992. Offers a brief biographical sketch, covering Barnes’s childhood, his circle of friends, and his marriage to agent Patricia Kavanagh, and then discusses Barnes’s experiments with various narrative forms and his common themes of obsession, dislocation, death, art, and religion.
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