melon, fruit of Cucumis melo, a plant of the family Curcurbitaceae (gourd family) native to Asia and now cultivated extensively in warm regions. There are many varieties, differing in taste, color, and skin texture—e.g., Persian, honeydew, casaba, muskmelon, and cantaloupe. The true cantaloupe (var. cantalupensis), introduced to Cantalupo, Italy, from Armenia, is a hard-shelled or rock melon. It is little grown outside the Mediterranean countries; the cantaloupes of the United States are varieties of the muskmelon. Melon is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Violales, family Curcurbitaceae.
"melon." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/melon
"melon." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/melon
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mel·on / ˈmelən/ • n. 1. the large round fruit of a plant of the gourd family, with sweet pulpy flesh and many seeds. ∎ the edible flesh of such fruit: a slice of melon. 2. the Old World plant (Cucumis melo subsp. melo) that yields this fruit. 3. Zool. a mass of waxy material in the head of dolphins and other toothed whales, thought to focus acoustic signals.
"melon." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon-0
"melon." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon-0
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"melon." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/melon
"melon." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/melon
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"melon." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon
"melon." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon
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"melon." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon-1
"melon." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon-1
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"melon." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon
"melon." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon
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"melon." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon
"melon." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/melon
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MELON , two plant species belonging to different botanical genera: the watermelon and the muskmelon.
(1) The watermelon (Heb. אֲבַטִּיחַ, avati'aḥ) is the Citrullus vulgaris. The Bible mentions it among the vegetables eaten by the Israelites in Egypt, for which they hankered in the wilderness (Num. 11:5). The Hebrew name may possibly be connected with the verb בטט (btt) meaning to swell or grow. Watermelons were a familiar plant in Egypt, and a papyrus from the 21st dynasty preserves a pictorial representation of one. The avati'aḥ is frequently mentioned in rabbinical literature. It was comparatively cheap (Ma'as. 2:6) and was usually eaten when ripe, though some ate it as a vegetable while still unripe (Ma'as. 1:5).
(2) The muskmelon, Cucumis melo, is called in the Mishnah melafefon (מְלָפְפוֹן), a name of Greek origin. It is not known if it was grown in biblical times and no Hebrew name exists for it. The Palestinian Targum identifies the biblical avati'aḥ with melafefonya, i.e., the muskmelon, but this does not appear likely, since in a number of places in the Tosefta and Talmud they are mentioned together (Tosef., Kil. 1:1). Some held that these two species do not constitute a mixed species (*kilayim; ibid.) for "a man takes a seed from the upper part of the avati'ah and plants it – and it becomes a melafefon" (tj, Kil. 1:2, 27a), i.e., these species may be interchangeable. This view was taken over from Greek and Roman agricultural folklore which assumed that the characteristics of species were subject to change. An echo of this view is found in the Palestinian Targum in the philological explanation of the name melafefon given by R. Judah: "A man takes one seed from the upper part of an avati'aḥ and one seed from the upper part of an apple and puts them into the same hole, they grow together and become a hybrid species, that is why in Greek it is called melafefon." The Greek μηλοπέπον and the Latin melopepo both mean "apple-watermelon" probably because the taste of the muskmelon is reminiscent of both the apple and the watermelon. According to Pliny the melopepo originated in Campania from a species of cucumber which looked like a quince (Natural History 19:67). There is certainly no substance for these views, which are based on the polymorphism of the family Cucurbitaceae. The plant Cucumis melo var. Chate, identified with the kishut, kishu'im (see *Cucumber), that belongs to the same botanical genus (and apparently even to the same species) as the muskmelon, is especially polymorphic. It could be that pollination between these two species gives rise to hybrids and is the reason for the halakhah that the kishut (Chate melon or cucumber) and the melafefon do not constitute kilayim (Kil. 1:2). Despite the ruling of the Academy for the Hebrew Language, modern Hebrew has adopted the name melafefon for cucumber.
Loew, Flora, 1 (1928), 528–54; B. Chizik, Ẓimḥei ha-Delu'im be-Ereẓ Yisrael, 1 (1937); H.N. and A.L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible (1952), 315 (index), s.v.; J. Feliks, Kilei Zera'im ve-Harkavah (1967), 44–53; idem, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (19682), 164f. add. bibliography: Feliks, Ha-Ẓome'aḥ, 101, 144.
"Melon." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/melon
"Melon." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/melon
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Julian Barnes 1996Introduction
Julian Barnes's short story "Melon" is divided into three sections, covering three ages in the life of a British nobleman of the late eighteenth century: before, during, and after the French Revolution. Dividing his life into segments without explanation may be confusing for readers at first, but Barnes's precise imagery and thoroughness of detail make his story credible and compelling. Even readers who are unfamiliar with the time period in which this work is set can lose themselves in Barnes's lush rendering of a very specific life.
The characters of this story live lives of privilege; they have no idea where food comes from or what difficulties most people face just trying to provide basic sustenance for themselves and their families. Over the course of the story, the main character grows from a child of privilege to a prisoner of war, but he does not necessarily learn about humanity.
"Melon" was published in Barnes's 1996 short story collection Cross Channel. The stories in this collection, like many of his other works, are concerned with the relationship between France and England, two countries separated by just a few miles of water whose histories have been intertwined.
Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England, on January 19, 1946. His parents were teachers. He attended Magdalen College, Oxford, earning a B.A. with honors in 1968. After college, he held a variety of freelance writing positions. He wrote entries for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement in the early 1970s then became a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1977, he became a contributing editor for the New Review. He has been a literary editor for the New Statesman and the Sunday Times of London and has been a television editor for the New Statesman and the Observer. From 1990 to 1995, he was the London correspondent for the New Yorker, writing a regular column. He was also a contributor to the New York Review of Books.
Barnes published his first novel, Metroland, in 1980, followed by Before She Met Me in 1982. At the same time, he began writing detective fiction, which he published under the pseudonym Dan Ka-vanagh, using his wife's maiden name. He had married Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent, in 1979. In 1984, he published Flaubert's Parrot, which established his international literary reputation. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Geoffrey Farber Memorial Prize in England, and in France, it was awarded the Prix Medícis. He went on to write ten more novels, two under his pen name.
In 1996, Barnes changed the course of his writing, publishing his first collection of short stories, Cross Channel, which contains "Melon." He published essays frequently, including those collected in Something to Declare: French Essays, which dwell on his fascination with Britain's long relationship with France, a theme that is prevalent in Cross Channel. In fact, Barnes's work is so well accepted in France that he was made an Officier de l'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres. He has also won the Somerset Maugham Award and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. A collection published in 2004, The Lemon Table, centers on the theme of aging. He published George and Arthur in 2005, an historical tale in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, plays a prominent role.
The first section of "Melon" is presented as a letter that a young British nobleman, Hamilton Lindsay, writes to his cousin Evelina, in 1774. Lindsay is traveling in Europe and is on his way to Rome with his tutor, Mr. Hawkins, when, at Evelina's suggestion, they change direction and stop at Montpelier, a city in the south of France (now spelled Montpellier). Lindsay makes observations about French food and French culture, noting, for instance, that the people of France seem to have no particular sport that they follow and that the women of the country strike him as homely: he says that pretty women are so rare that once, when one walked into an inn near Lyons where they were dining, everyone stood and applauded. Being a member of the nobility, he makes a distinction between those he refers to as "people of quality," who are even more pampered than they are in England, and commoners, whom he finds to be dirtier and more poorly mannered than the English people of the same, landless class.
His description of France ends with his praise for the melons that are grown in the southern French countryside. Unlike the melons grown in England, which need to be carefully cultivated, the melons of France grow abundantly and have a superior flavor. Lindsay reports that he has been eating these melons often.
The second section of the story picks up in August 1789, the first year of the French Revolution, although that fact is not revealed for some time. Sir Hamilton Lindsay is no longer the narrator, though he is still the subject. He is an adult aristocrat, fattened, with his own estate to manage. He has been married to Evelina for ten years.
The narrative follows Sir Hamilton as he is traveling to Dover to join a team of cricket players who are scheduled to cross the English Channel to play a goodwill competition against a French team. The English team is comprised of both aristocrats and commoners, which cricket enthusiasts such as Sir Hamilton approve since it allows them to recruit the best players. But others of the nobility, particularly the wives of some of the nobles on the cricket team, feel that blurring the class lines by letting servants treat their masters as equals on the cricket field sets a confusing precedent.
Sir Hamilton and his assistant gardener, Samuel Dobson, travel to Chertsey on August 6, 1789, to join other members of the British team. Dobson is required to ride on top of the coach in the rain because Sir Hamilton feels that the wooden cricket bats are more likely to be damaged by the water than Dobson is. During the trip, Hamilton Lindsay reflects on Evelina's opposition to this trip: people in England know that there is trouble in France between ordinary citizens and the aristocracy. Still, Sir Hamilton is not afraid.
The cricket match between the English and French teams has been arranged by John Sackville, third Duke of Dorset. Ever since being appointed ambassador to France six years earlier, Dorset has returned every summer for the cricket season, but this year the political tensions have made his return impossible. To address the bad feelings between the French and the British aristocrats, Dorset has arranged a match on the Champs-Elysée. The British players are traveling to Dover at which point they will sail across the English Channel to France for the game.
As the band of British players approach Dover, they meet Dorset and his followers on the road. The cricket match is called off: a few days earlier, mobs of angry citizens forced the British ambassador to flee from his home in Paris and, presumably, looted the place. Dorset has escaped across the English Channel to England. He hopes that enough of the aristocrats he had arranged to play for the French team have managed to flee to England to enable him to arrange a match there.
The events of this section take place years later. The French government has fallen. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette have been incarcerated and then, in 1793, are beheaded. Many of the people who knew Sir Hamilton Lindsay through cricket have died fighting the French. Sir Hamilton himself has been a prisoner of the government established by Napoleon Bonaparte and has been held for years until he can be traded for a French officer held by the British, a General de Rauzan. Three years into his captivity, Lady Evelina Lindsay was allowed to join him, along with Dobson, who is now the majordomo of the household. Barnes also refers to Dobson as the "chief forager" of the household, indicating that the government does not provide a decent standard of living for the Lindsays but that they must live on whatever can be scrounged.
Sir Hamilton and Lady Lindsay are allowed to walk about the town freely, followed by a French army guard. They attend the Catholic Church every Sunday afternoon, even though Sir Hamilton does not think of himself as a Catholic. The town was sacked by angry peasants during the revolution. They have taken out their anger at the Catholic Church, which supported the aristocracy, by forcing priests to either flee or marry; by dressing mules in religious vestments and parading them in the streets; and by using the Catholic Church for target practice with canons.
Sir Hamilton's mind is as devastated as the town. His thoughts continually turn to the line-up of the cricket team that gathered in Chertsey in 1789, intent on playing against the French, listing each member, each time forgetting the name of one of the players, which Lady Evelina gently supplies for him.
- Barnes's official web site at http://www.julianbarnes.com offers biographical information, background about his many books, interviews, links, and more.
The story ends with their having dinner one Sunday after church service. While Sir Hamilton mutters about the cricket team, Lady Evelina tries to focus his attention on pleasant thoughts. While he talks incoherently about past events, about the people who are gone, and about his theory that the entire revolution might have been avoided had the cricket game between the French and English nobles been played, she points out what a delicious melon they have with their meal.
Bedster appears in this story as an example of the flexibility of the English class system: at one time the butler to the Earl of Tankerville, Bedster is described as having been able to rise in society to become a publican, or tavern manager, in Chelsea.
Dobson is the second under-gardener at Sir Hamilton Lindsay's estate. He is not a very good gardener, but Sir Hamilton hired him away from his previous employer because he is a good cricket player. When he travels with Sir Hamilton to Dover in August 1789 to participate in the match against the team of French nobles, he is required to ride outside the coach in the rain. Sir Hamilton's reasoning is that Dobson can survive the extreme weather better than the wooden cricket bats.
In the later years of Sir Hamilton's life, when Hamilton is mentally unstable and being held by the French government, Dobson is brought from England to live with him. The doctor caring for the nobleman thought "it might be advisable to send for the man Dobson, to whom the General made such frequent allusion that the doctor had at first taken him to be the patient's son." It is clear that Sir Hamilton places great importance on Dobson's participation in the game, which illustrates the way that cricket can be used to bridge class distinctions.
In the story, John Sackville, the third Duke of Dorset, was appointed the ambassador from Great Britain to France in 1783. He is rumored to have been romantically involved with Marie Antoinette, the French queen, referred to here as Mrs. Bourbon after the family name of King Louis XVI. The way Dorset runs his home in Paris scandalizes several proper British matrons. Being an avid cricket enthusiast, he returns each year to England for the cricket season.
In 1789, the intensifying French Revolution makes it difficult for him to travel, so Dorset devises a new plan: in response to some slanderous remarks made against England by some French nobles, he arranges a cricket match between British and French teams to be played in Paris.
The players for the British team are on their way to Dover, the port from which they will sail to France, when they run into Dorset and his party, who have been put off their Parisian estate on August 8, 1789, in the midst of the French Revolution. Despite his brush with death and race to get out of the country, Dorset is still cheerful, ready to try to arrange the same match in England with French nobles who, like him, have been driven from the country.
A few years after his return to England, Dorset is thrown into depression when he hears that the French royalty have been arrested. There are rumors that he gave his cricket bat to Mrs. Bourbon and that she kept it hidden in her closet until the palace was ransacked by revolutionaries. He locks himself in his room and never ventures outside again.
General du Rauzan
Du Rauzan is a French general who was captured by Sir John Stuart at Maida. He is being held by the English army, and so the French army is holding Sir Hamilton Lindsay as a bargaining piece for an exchange. The exchange, however, is on hold indefinitely. The problem seems to be that du Rauzan is not held in much favor by Napoleon, so there is no urgency to get him back.
In the first section of the story, Mr. Hawkins is tutor and companion to the young Hamilton Lindsay, on his trip through Europe. Hawkins is presented as a stern, unpleasant man, though that characterization might just be the perspective of a boy in his care.
Later, when the revolution is underway in France, Sir Hamilton invites Hawkins to join him in traveling to that country for a cricket match, but Hawkins says that he would rather remember France as the peaceful place it had been fifteen years earlier.
Mrs. Jack Heythrop
Mrs. Heythrop defends the traditional class structure. She disapproves of the way that Dorset has lived in Paris during his six years as ambassador to France, with gamblers and prostitutes coming and going freely from his house. She is also a source for the argument against letting commoners play on the same cricket teams as aristocrats, supporting racing as a good sport instead because all of the participants—owners, trainers, jockeys, and grooms—know their social place and stay separated.
Lady Evelina Lindsay
The first part of the story is presented as a letter from young Hamilton Lindsay to his cousin Evelina. She is explained as being the reason that he travels to France in the first place, as she is living in Nice and has encouraged him to see the country. He refers to her as a cultivated woman whom he greatly admires and wants to impress, feeling that she will tease him for his awkwardness as a letter writer.
Evelina does not appear in the second section of the story either, but she is mentioned. By this time, Hamilton Lindsay and she have been married for ten years. Sir Hamilton believes that she does not approve of his passion for cricket. When he leaves for France, which coincides with the start of social upheaval, she is crying and whispering instructions to Dobson, who is making the trip with her husband. Although he feels badly about her crying, particularly because she has never cried before when he has gone off to play cricket, he does not realize that she understands the perilous situation in France better than he does.
Lady Evelina is an important presence in the third section of the story. She and her husband are living in a French village under the guard of one of Napoleon's soldiers. Sir Hamilton's mind wavers between past and present events. Still, Lady Evelina has come to France to be with him and take care of him. She speaks to him as rationally as she can but also tries to pull his mind away from melancholia and toward more pleasant thoughts.
Sir Hamilton Lindsay
This story follows Sir Hamilton through three phases of his life, focusing on his relationship with France as a measure of his maturity.
In the first section, Hamilton Lindsay is a young man, traveling with his tutor and relating his impressions of the country to his cousin Evelina in a letter. Because he is young, he reports on issues, such as the suppression of religion, that are important causes of the coming French Revolution without recognizing their significance. Because he has only known a life of privilege, he does recognize the class distinctions between the aristocracy and the common people, but his observations about these distinctions lack depth. For instance, he tells the story of a coachman who whipped his horse and then was in turn whipped by his master, a story that ends with the coachman hugging the horse; Hamilton Lindsay admits in his letter, "I draw no lesson from this."
In the second section of the story, Sir Hamilton is a jaded, callous aristocrat. He is married to Evelina, but his real passion is cricket. He treats his cricket bats better than he does his servants, although he is well aware that other aristocrats feel that he treats his servants too well because he treats Dobson, an assistant gardener, as an equal on the cricket field. Sir Hamilton is aware that there is political strife in France, but he does not take it seriously. He still believes in the class system and cannot even conceive of the idea that lower-class people might want to harm the aristocracy. He is so wound up in his passion for cricket that he and his friends are in the process of traveling to France for a cricket game when they find out that the some French aristocrats are just barely escaping the country with their lives and others have not been so lucky.
In the third section, Sir Hamilton is a broken man with a damaged mind. He has been a general in the war against France, and the war has ruined him. He is held as a prisoner of the new French government, though they do not think him much of a threat and have him watched by a guard as a token gesture. A doctor has advised that his wife and valet should be allowed to come from England to be with him, to soothe his troubled mind. Much of the time, he does not make sense when he talks, blurring the past and the present, sometimes talking about people who have died as if they are still around and at other times showing himself to be well aware of his and his friends' situation. In between his periods of inchoate verbal wandering, he is still fixated on the cricket game that was called off by the revolution, feeling that if it had occurred, all of the social turmoil of the country might have been avoided.
Stevens, a gardener for the Earl of Tankerville, is a common man who has earned Sir Hamilton Lindsay's respect with his cricket prowess: once he won a bet for the earl by hitting a feather on the ground with a cricket ball one in four times. Later in his life, when his mind is snapped by the ravages of war, Sir Hamilton often refers to Stevens's feat, especially when he is considering the damage done to the Catholic Church by revolutionaries who have used it for target practice, musing that Stevens's aim was much, much better than theirs.
"Melon" focuses on a particular member of the English aristocracy, showing different facets of him over the course of years, highlighting the different perspectives that one can have as a member of the ruling class. When he is young, he is not the master of his world but instead is watched over by his tutor, Hawkins. Hawkins does not have control over his youthful employer, as might be expected of an older, experienced man: for instance, it is young Hamilton Lindsay who dictates the route of their trip, telling Hawkins where they are to go without asking his permission. At the same time, Lindsay is not autonomous but must rely on Hawkins's guidance, even if he does so begrudgingly. At this point of his life, he is trying to understand the social order by affecting a knowing tone that does not sound entirely convincing. He tells his cousin Evelina his views about "the people of quality" and the "common people" in France and how they compare to comparable social classes in England. Still, when he sees a man beat another man like a horse, it is so beyond his experience that he cannot explain it.
Fifteen years later, Sir Hamilton, now an estate holder, has grown into a comfortable aristocrat. He is so secure with his servants that he does not feel the need to actively enforce the differences between the social classes; he is not worried about allowing them to play as equals to him on the cricket field. More significantly, he does not concern himself at all about politics, feeling that his hobby, cricket, is more important. His unshaken faith in his own entitlement makes him sure that his rank and privilege will remain constant.
By the end of the story, Sir Hamilton Lindsay is an example of the powerless, clueless aristocracy that the social revolutions of the late eighteenth century attempted to cast aside. He is kept from knowing how powerless he is by a new ruling class that still has some respect for his type. He is allowed to have his wife come and live with him in captivity and is told that he may be useful in a prisoner trade, justifying his existence. Because he has known mostly leisure for his whole life, his only point of reference is his favorite leisure activity, cricket.
One reason that Sir Hamilton Lindsay cannot comprehend the political reality of the coming French Revolution is that he focuses obsessively on cricket. Because of this obsession, he fails to see the importance of the historic events occurring around him. He does not properly understand his wife's concern about his proposed trip into France at a time when mobs are rising up against the nobility, interpreting her objection as prompted by a dislike of his favorite sport. He does not note the evacuation of French aristocrats, but he does note that his friend, the Duke of Dorset, has missed the cricket season for the first time in years. At the end of the story, as Sir Hamilton looks back on the events, he asserts the naïve belief that the whole revolution could have been avoided by a good cricket match.
To some extent, his final theory might be more than just the enthusiasm of a man with an obsession. While England has a class system at the time of this story, the ruling class's obsession with cricket overrides some of its more conservative members' commitment to hierarchy. On the cricket field, noblemen commingle with servants and come to recognize them as people. In a perfect world, such an obsession might have caused the French aristocracy to mix with the peasantry and have created a sense of familiarity between the two sides that may have prevented bloodshed.
During the French Revolution, religion came to signify the breach between the established Catholic Church, which had been the largest landowner in the country, and the self-determination available to ordinary people through Protestantism. In Sir Hamilton Lindsay's personal story, though, religion represents the status quo in a much more specific way. In his later years, after having witnessed brutal fighting between social classes, he becomes a regular churchgoer, even though, as Barnes explains, "he would as soon step inside a mosque or a synagogue as inside a papist shrine." The revolutionaries in this small French town have created an alliance between the Protestant aristocracy of England and the French Catholic peasantry: the same people who sacked the church and humiliated the priests are the ones who burned down the hôtel of the Duke of Dorset. In this case, the religious convictions of the commoners have been strong enough to overcome the revolutionaries and keep the church standing. Sir Hamilton relies on the same residual respect for authority to keep him in the villagers' good graces and to protect him from the revolutionaries' hostility. Though religion is a small, almost inconsequential matter to him and a symbol of the hated aristocracy to the revolutionaries, it is a source of potential change for the working people.
Shielded by privilege and money from the harsh realities of the hungry working classes, Hamilton Lindsay is unaware of the bitter ferocity with which the French peasants are willing to revolt against the prevailing class system. Although he is aware that something is going on in France in August 1789, it does not seem like anything serious enough to interrupt the cricket game planned for the Champs-Élysées in Paris. He naively feels that a squad of eleven noblemen, armed with cricket bats, has nothing to fear by entering a country that is in the throes of violent social upheaval.
In fact, the French Revolution was the culmination of great frustration with the prevailing social order and, like other political revolutions, was exceedingly brutal. Violence was aimed indiscriminately against anyone who had benefited from the old social order—nobles, aristocrats, landowners, and the clergy, most notably. Also like other revolutions, the change, long in the making, came suddenly. Social observers who were aware of the mood of the majority could see the change coming and could predict that government's efforts to suppress the revolution would only serve to make it more violent. However, powerful individuals denied being at risk for as long as they could. The Bourbons had been on the throne of France for nearly three hundred years; they could not see the mayhem of revolt coming.
In the last part of this story, Barnes shows an aspect of revolution that is seldom described: the rational side, once the rampant bloodshed has ended. The people of the French town where Sir Hamilton is held know that they have no grievance against him, an Englishman, and so they allow him to go about his days in peace. The new government of Napoleon Bonaparte even allows his wife and servant to join him in confinement. In this interlude, before Wellington's defeat of Bonaparte at Waterloo and the return of the Bourbons to the throne with Louis XVIII in 1814, the French people do not recognize the English as their enemy.
Topics For Further Study
- Make a poster showing the kinds of clothing gentlemen of the late 1700s wore while playing cricket. If you cannot find any sources showing the exact outfits for cricket, then show what would be considered casual clothes of the time.
- Research the ways that Napoleon spent his time when he was held in exile at St. Helena, a situation that parallels Sir Hamilton Lindsay's at the end of this story. Write a short story in which melons from the south of France lead Napoleon to a realization about his life.
- The first section of this story is presented as a letter from young Hamilton Lindsay to his cousin. Find an old letter that someone wrote to you and analyze it, pointing out things that you did not know when the letter was first sent and how they are hinted at within it. Write an essay on your conclusions.
- Barnes hints at an affair between the Duke of Dorset and the queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Read a biography of Marie Antoinette and write an explanation that either takes the position that her reputation has been slandered or that the story captures the sort of person she actually was.
- Sir Hamilton Lindsay agrees that nobles and commoners ought to play together on the cricket field. Find a movie that shows people in contemporary times crossing class lines, perhaps in order to engage in sports, and write a comparison that shows how much and how little that story has in common with this one. The movie, Chariots of Fire, may be one possible choice for a recent film.
Barnes conveys the significance of the story through the use of symbols. One of the most obvious symbols is the game of cricket. To Sir Hamilton, cricket represents a community of rich and poor, brought together by individual skills. Barnes uses the game as a means of revealing social assumptions. The privileged aristocrats enjoy the leisure activity. Sir Hamilton mulls over the various ways that he and his friends care for their cricket bats, while his gardener is forced to ride outside of their coach in the rain. Sir Hamilton could consider the real needs of the working poor around him, but nothing in his education or lifestyle encourages him to do so. He occupies himself with the game instead.
Melons, too, are given special attention in this story, so that readers can hardly avoid pondering their possible symbolic significance. They appear in the first section as a local delicacy, a natural wonder that represents the best of southern rural France. Their sweetness is so remarkable that even a young nobleman who is trying to affect a cool attitude raves about them. In the story's last segment, Lady Evelina tries to keep Sir Hamilton from slipping into depression by urging him to focus on the wonderful melons they have with their lunch. He finds himself unable to concentrate, though: for him, the melons resemble such things as the cannonballs that have been used to smash the Catholic Church (representing the wanton violence that escalated throughout the revolution) and, of course, cricket balls (representing, for Sir Hamilton, humanity's potential for excellence). The connection is in the layered meanings: the wealthy aristocrats ate melon and played cricket while other human beings starved; the revolution hurled at them in response, changing their personal worlds permanently, though not permanently removing upper classes from power.
Barnes establishes the character of Hamilton Lindsay by having him speak for himself in the first section of the story. Given the type of person he is, it is effective to have him express himself in a letter. A work of fiction that is presented as if it is a letter written by one character to another is called "epistolary."
There are several reasons why the epistolary style works well for this character. For one thing, he is literate and thus has the means to record his thoughts and ideas effectively. For another, as a gentleman, he would use this formal form of communication. Finally, as an apparently historical document, the letter comes to the reader as an artifact of that era, a way of seeing the aristocratic lifestyle prior to the revolution and the attitudes that incited lower classes.
Later in the story, Barnes drops the epistolary form with its first person point of view and adopts the third person to describe Sir Hamilton's mind. This shift gives readers some distance from the character, enabling them to see the level to which he falls, against the backdrop of massive social and political change.
The Reign of Louis XVI
The first part of this story takes place around the year 1774, or roughly the time when Louis XVI ascended to the throne. For more than a century before Louis XVI's reign, France had suffered under the rule of the self-indulgent monarchy. Wars and poor management of the country's wealth had burdened the population with increasing debt. Those in power—the nobles and the clergy—benefited from the status quo, and so they worked to suppress any measures to make the system more fair. Heavy taxes were imposed upon the peasantry, with attempts to revise the tax codes, such as increasing taxes on property owners, defeated by aristocrats. Religious worship other than in the Catholic Church was severely punished, such as the episode young Hamilton Lindsay describes in "Melon," in his letter to his cousin, about seeing a Protestant minister hanged in the marketplace for the crime of conducting religious services.
By 1788, the country was bankrupt. Louis XVI, who was not a strong king, was forced to take some step to address the social inequality that made life miserable for the majority of the population. He convened the Estates-General in 1789 for the first time since 1614. This group consisted of the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the bourgeoisie (Third Estate). Though the Third Estate included commoners in theory, they were in practice excluded.
The Estates-General convened in May 1789. After fighting off challenges to structure and methods to be used, the body eventually decided to vote themselves a National Assembly, answerable not to the ruling establishment but to the people. They agreed to remain in session until France had a new constitution. The king reacted by locking them out of the hall where they met and then restructuring his ministry on July 11.
Violence broke out in Paris three days later, when angry mobs forced their way into the Bastille prison. They only released seven prisoners, but the symbolic act of defiance against the established regime ignited the passions that had been seething for so long. The mob went on to take the city hall and kill several government officials, including the mayor of Paris.
After this, the king and his followers backed down, and tensions subsided for a few weeks. The spirit of revolution began, though, and violence broke out in various places throughout the country. On August 4, 1789, the old political order collapsed when the National Assembly declared an end to feudalism: those who had been in power, such as clergymen, and certain politicians, lost their standing and were forced to flee for their lives (the story specifies August 8 as the day that the Duke of Dorset abandoned his embassy and headed back to England). Louis XVI, his family, and his supporters, were held under arrest at Tuileries Palace. They lived there for two years, escaping in June 1791 by dressing in peasants' clothes, but they were recaptured before they could reach Varennes. Their attempt to escape made it clear that, despite their proclamations, they opposed the revolution. In January 1793, Louis XVI, was executed; his wife, Marie Antoinette, a regal woman who openly disdained the common people, was beheaded before a cheering crowd on October 16 of that year, her body thrown into an unmarked grave.
Compare & Contrast
- A young aristocrat can travel with his entourage across France, knowing that the peas ants will not dare interfere with someone of his social class.
Today: Wealthy people travel with security details, knowing that the possibility of kidnapping is a threat.
- Cricket is the craze among the British aristocracy. Though the game has historical roots dating back to the 1300s, the organization of teams and leagues in the second half of the eighteenth century propels the game to become Britain's national pastime.
Today: Soccer, a game that is played by people of all social classes around the world, has more popularity, though Britons still recognize cricket as connected to their national identity.
- Local delicacies, such as melons, strawberries, or oranges, are only enjoyed by people with the means to travel to exotic places.
Today: Modern methods of refrigeration and transportation make it possible for people in developed countries to enjoy fruits and vegetables that are not indigenous.
- The idea of democracy is new to Western culture, with revolutions in the United States and France replacing monarchies with governments run by the citizens.
Today: The fledgling democracies of the Middle East are in the same early stages that the Western democracies were in during the 1790s.
- Sir Hamilton Lindsay's trip by horse-drawn coach across England to Dover, where he will depart for France, takes three days.
Today: Sir Hamilton could leave his estate in the early morning and, traveling by airplane, be at de Gaulle Airport in Paris before noon.
The French Republic
In 1793, the other monarchies of Europe, fearing that the revolutionary spirit that overran the French government would spread, opposed the new order in France. The new government went to war against Great Britain, the United Netherlands, Austria, and Spain, losing in each. To keep up military strength, conscription laws required military duty of hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen: this, along with the rejection of the Catholic clergy, fueled the counter-revolutionary spirit.
The government responded in June 1793 with actions so repressively brutal that they came to be known as the Reign of Terror. New laws were passed to punish those who opposed the centralized government, and tribunals were convened across the country with the power to sentence insurgents to death. People were as likely to be executed for suspicion of crimes as for actual treason. The government that had fought against the injustices of the old feudal system was only able to stay in power by its own injustices.
In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte, the commander of the army and one of the most brilliant military strategists the country had ever known, staged a coup, taking control of the French government, seizing control of the legislature, and having himself appointed First Consul. Later, after suppressing a coup against him by the Bourbons, the relatives of Louis XVI, Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France, a position that he held until he was forced to abdicate in 1815. Louis XVIII, the brother of the former Louis XVI, took the throne after the fall of Napoleon.
Julian Barnes has been long considered one of England's finest novelists, and his reputation grew to international acclaim with the 1993 publication of his breakout novel, Flaubert's Parrot. Still, as of 2006, he had not established much of a reputation as a short story writer. Cross Channel, the book that contains "Melon," was his first collection of short stories, published at a time when his reputation as a fiction writer was already well established. Reviews of the stories were mixed, but generally positive. Barbara Hoffert, writing in the Library Journal, refers to Barnes's "typically luminous, literate, restrained prose," noting, "Throughout, Barnes exhibits a wonderful sense of time and place and an exactitude of detail." She recommends it for most library collections. A brief review in the Virginia Quarterly Review expresses the opinion that Barnes proved with Flaubert's Parrot that he is the rightful heir to Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov. The review states of Cross Channel: "This smart collection of stories only adds to his patrimony. Barnes's prose is always a delight to read, not only for the imagination and simplicity of the tale, but for the sheer lyricism and intelligence of the page. This writer, clearly, is a master." The New Yorker, one of the most influential of American publications, praised Barnes in a light-hearted way, noting, "In his first collection of stories Barnes again proves that there will always be an England."
Though Barnes has published short stories infrequently, his reputation as a short story writer did continue with the publication of his next collection, The Lemon Table, in 2004. The San Francisco Chronicle called that collection "stunning," assessing it in much the same manner that Cross Channel had been portrayed. "Playful, angry, wry or humorous," the reviewer notes, "his tone is right on. Everywhere he ventures, Barnes is sure-footed: Each word, each tone, each nuance of phrase is just right."
Kelly teaches creative writing and literature at two colleges in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly explains that the life of the story's protagonist, Hamilton Lindsay, is organized backwards, slipping increasingly away from maturity.
Julian Barnes's short story "Melon" has many political implications. It is the tale of an English nobleman's encounters with French culture at three distinct times in his life, giving readers his view of that country before, during, and after what is arguably the most significant event of the country's history, the revolution that transformed it from a monarchy to a republic. Still, this history lesson might have less impact if it were not attached to the personal story of a credible protagonist. Barnes makes his readers think, as they piece together the dates and places mentioned in the story into a recognizable timetable that corresponds with the French Revolution. But putting too much emphasis on the external events, the researchable aspect of the story, can distract readers from an important part of its design. The French Revolution adds highlights to the story of Hamilton Lindsay, the protagonist of "Melon," but it should not be allowed to eclipse the story entirely: without a basic structure that can stand on its own without historical events, this story would be less meaningful.
The primary story, told in three distinct segments, concerns how Hamilton Lindsay, a man of leisure, seems to age backwards, going from maturity when he is young, through a decidedly adolescent middle age, and ending up his final years in infancy. Barnes makes this a story that could happen to anyone, really, regardless of their historic period or social class. It helps that Lindsay is a member of the upper classes, of course, because that gives him the luxury of focusing on frivolous matters that a lower-class working person could not afford.
In the first phase of the story, Hamilton Lindsay is probably a teenage boy or young man. He is too young to travel on his own and tours the continent with his tutor, Mr. Hawkins, whom he criticizes for treating him like "some feeble-minded boy." It also becomes clear that this trip—originally intended for Italy and rerouted at Lindsay's discretion—is meant to be educational, a grand tour of Europe intended to broaden his knowledge of culture and history. Hamilton is not yet considered mature enough to act independently.
Even so, he is mature enough to write a letter to his cousin Eveline, giving a detailed account of his trip that includes acute observations and even some sharp reflection on himself, indicating that he is smart enough to know what is lacking in his own education. Of course, he has some childish ways about him, but he also has an eagerness to look at the world and learn from experience. His tone with his cousin has the sort of sniping, faux-angry flirtatiousness that might be expected of a boy but that balances nicely with his formal closing, including regards to her parents and an appropriately expressed desire to see her again.
In the first section, Hamilton Lindsay clearly knows his limitations. He may complain that his chaperone holds old-fashioned ideas, but he is smart enough to evolve, to change his assessment of French customs when he can see that he has been wrong: "I have come to a warmer understanding about such things," he explains about the local oddities of dog barbers and open-air lemonade stands. It is made clear throughout his letter that he is willing to see things anew. At this stage in his life, certain outside experience can change him. Unaware of the degree to which privilege blinds him to the realities of the working classes, he nonetheless is perceptive and recognizes cultural differences.
The same cannot be said of Lindsay in middle age. In the second section of the story, when he is most likely in his thirties, Hamilton Lindsay, now titled, is no longer interested in exploring strange lands, different cultures, unfamiliar foods, or the relative differences between nationalities. His attention is so narrowly focused on the game of cricket that he can dismiss the distant rumblings of the French Revolution; the sort of issue pressing on his mind is whether butter, ham fat, or urine might be best for curing the wood of a cricket bat. Thus focused on entertainment and game, he is slow to realize that the French peasantry is capable of violence against the country's aristocracy. When he senses this threat, he locates it away from himself, among the French, and with denial well rooted in noble privilege, he assumes the political and social upheaval in a neighboring country has nothing to do with him: the only adjustment he makes in light of the news of difficulty in France is to consider a new venue for the match that was scheduled for Paris.
As an adult, Hamilton Lindsay focuses on playing a game. He has the attention span and ego of a child. Affluence has indulged him and blinded him to the wider world. He was born into the world he now enjoys, one that has existed with little alteration for generations. Its origins are medieval; its system is feudal. If it is unfair, the ones favored by it would be the last to notice. The upper classes, people of Sir Hamilton's social circle, have the luxury to live for the day, not to think about what tomorrow brings, since all the tomorrows they have known provided for all their needs and desires and then some. In this section of the story, which takes place in England, France is described through John Sackville, the third Duke of Dorset, who, as Great Britain's ambassador, is placed as close to the revolution's epicenter of French ruling groups as an Englishman can be. Lindsay views the revolution through Dorset's description. But the trouble can be put out of mind; upon his return to England, Dorset immediately directs his attention to rearranging cricket matches. Leisure is a mindset and over time generates blind spots.
What Do I Read Next?
- Barnes wrote the introduction to a collection of essays called Paris and Elsewhere: Selected Writings, by fellow Englishman Richard Cobb. The first essay in the book, "Experiences of an Anglo-French Historian," speaks of the kind of research one would do to write a story like "Melon." This collection was first published by the New York Review of Books in 1998.
- Most critics agree that Barnes's greatest novel is Flaubert's Parrot (1984), which chronicles the travels of a British doctor who follows the life of Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, in order to determine if a stuffed parrot he has obtained was actually once owned by the famous French novelist.
- Christopher Hibbert's historical narrative The Days of the French Revolution covers the time from the meeting of the Estates-General in 1789 to Napoleon's triumphant conquest of the country ten years later. It was first published in 1990 and is available as of 2006 from Harper Perennial.
- Barnes's essay collection Something to Declare: Essays about France covers a range of topics, from Flaubert and Baudelaire to the Tour de France (the subject of two essays: "Tour de France 1907" and "Tour de France 2000"). His insights are enlightening, and his writing is always clear and delightful.
- Martin Amis is another London novelist, whose career has paralleled that of Barnes. Amis focuses on subjects that are more contemporary and more politically charged. A good example of his work is the novel Time's Arrow, concerning a doctor who participated in torture at a Nazi concentration camp, looking back over his life. The book was first published in 1991 and is as of 2006 available from Vintage.
- Barnes discussed the publication of Cross Channel, as well as other aspects of the writing life, with Kate Kellaway, in an interview, "The Great Fromage Matures." It was published in the London Observer Review on January 7, 1996.
In the last section, Hamilton Lindsay is a prisoner in France, circumstances which should bring about a sense of one's own mortality that would turn a person's thoughts toward the serious. The town in which he lives is burned out: the church has been damaged, and food is scarce. People he knows have died. Still, it is cricket that consumes Sir Hamilton's thoughts. Unlike his middle-aged self, though, he does not live in the present plan for the game. Now, he lives in the past, struggling to keep clear about his all-star cricket team. Mentally unstable, Sir Hamilton cannot list the members of his team correctly, even though the same eleven names have been with him for, perhaps, decades. His wife attempts to distract him from morbid thoughts of his fallen station by directing his attention to a sweet melon, but he is not able to remain in touch with reality for any length of time. He has the mind of a child, frustrated at times because he can at times recognize his limitations but cannot master them.
It is no coincidence that "Melon" crosses a time when the world is undergoing an unprecedented growth spurt with the story of one individual who is devolving from maturity to infancy. The shielded, privileged lifestyle that enabled a man to concentrate on a game throughout his adult life was bound to fall someday in the face of a massive shift in political thinking. Against a distant backdrop of the French Revolution, Barnes creates a representative of an endangered specie in Sir Hamilton Lindsay: a man so addled by privilege that his entire life is a backward slide toward an infantilized state. This story is about a person, not an age: unlike many stories, though, it is tempting to read "Melon" as a history lesson, rather than a lesson about the workings of the mind.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Melon," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Contemporary Authors Online
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Barnes's work.
"Julian Barnes," wrote Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Merritt Moseley, "is one of the most celebrated, and one of the most variously rewarding, of Britain's younger novelists." His work, the critic continued, "has been acclaimed by readers as different as Carlos Fuentes and Philip Larkin; reviewers and interviewers sum him up with praise such as Mark Lawson's claim that he 'writes like the teacher of your dreams: jokey, metaphorical across both popular and unpopular culture, epigrammatic'" In addition to novels such as Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters, and The Porcupine, Barnes has also won a reputation as a writer of innovative detective fiction and an essayist. "Since 1990," Moseley concluded, "he has been the London correspondent of the New Yorker magazine, contributing 'Letters from London' every few months on subjects such as the royal family and the quirkier side of British politics." Barnes was also one of many writers—among them Stephen King and Annie Proulx—invited to read from their works at the first-ever New Yorker Festival in 2000.
Barnes published four novels, Metroland, Before She Met Me, and the detective novels Duffy and Fiddle City—both written under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh—before he completed Flaubert's Parrot, his first great success. Critics have acclaimed these early books for their comic sensibility and witty language. Metroland tells the story of two young men who "adopt the motto epater la bourgeoisie," explained New Statesman contributor Nicholas Shrimpton. "But this grandiose ambition is promptly reduced to the level of 'epats,' a thoroughly English field-sport in which the competitors attempt to shock respectable citizens for bets of sixpence a time." "After this vision of the Decadence in short trousers," the reviewer concluded, "it is hard to take the idea of outrage too solemnly." Before She Met Me is the tale of an older man who falls into an obsession about his actress wife's former screen lovers. The book, stated Anthony Thwaite in the Observer, presents an "elegantly hardboiled treatment of the nastier levels of obsession, full of controlled jokes when almost everything else has got out of control."
Barnes's detective fiction also looks at times and characters for whom life has gotten out of control. The title character of Duffy is a bisexual former policeman who was blackmailed out of his job. "The thrillers are active, louche, violent, thoroughly plotted," stated Moseley. "Duffy shows the result of serious research into the seamy world of London's sex industry; in Duffy, as in its successors, the crime tends to be theft or fraud rather than murder, though Barnes successfully imbues the book with a feeling of menace." Fiddle City, for instance, takes place at London's Heathrow airport and looks at the smuggling of drugs and other illegal items.
It was with the publication of Flaubert's Parrot, though, that Barnes scored his greatest success to date. The novel tells of Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired English doctor, and his obsession with the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert. After his wife's somewhat mysterious death, Braithwaite travels to France in search of trivia concerning Flaubert; his chief aim is to find the stuffed parrot that the writer kept on his desk for inspiration while writing Un coeur simple, the story of a peasant woman's devotion to her pet. Barnes "uses Braithwaite's investigations to reflect on the ambiguous truths of biography, the relationship of art and life, the impact of death, the consolations of literature," explained Michael Dirda in the Washington Post Book World.
Far from a straightforward narrative, Flaubert's Parrot blends fiction, literary criticism, and biography in a manner strongly reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, according to many critics. Newsweek reviewer Gene Lyons called it "too involuted by half for readers accustomed to grazing contentedly in the best-seller list," but recommended it to readers "of immoderate literary passions." Other reviewers stressed that, while a complex and intellectual work, Flaubert's Parrot is also "endlessly fascinating and very funny," in the words of London Times contributor Annabel Edwards. Dirda concluded that this "delicious potpourri of quotations, legends, facts, fantasies, and interpretations of Flaubert and his work … might seem dry, but Barnes' style and Braithwaite's autumnal wisdom make the novel into a kind of Stoic comedy … Anyone who reads Flaubert's Parrot will learn a good deal about Flaubert, the making of fiction, and the complex tangle of art and life. And—not least important—have a lot of rather peculiar fun too."
Of Barnes's more recent works, A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters and The Porcupine are probably best known to U.S. readers. A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters "builds on Barnes' reputation as one of Britain's premier postmodernists," stated Village Voice Literary Supplement contributor Rob Nixon. "The anti-novel that emerges attempts to double as a novel of ideas—never Brit lit's forté … The principal concern of the novel, which begins with corruption on the Ark and ends in the tedium of heaven (pretty much like life with lots of shopping), is to debunk religion and that most seductive of theologies, History." Barnes conceives of history in the book as a series of different, mostly unrelated events, and the connections individuals invent to link them together. "One of Barnes's characters rather improbably describes her supposed mental condition—imagining that she has survived a nuclear disaster, which, as it turns out, she has—as 'Fabulation. You keep a few true facts and spin a new story about them,'" declared Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books. "This is what Barnes himself, in this book, attempts. He fabulates this and that, stitches the fabulations together, and then he and we quite properly call the product a novel." "As a 'historian,'" stated Anthony Quinn in the New Statesman and Society, "he is unlikely to dislodge Gibbon or Macaulay; but as satirist and story-teller he has few equals at present."
The Porcupine is a short novel set in a fictional Eastern European country in the post-Communist era. "Stoyo Petkanov, the former president, a cross between [former Rumanian premier] Nicolae Ceaucescu and Bulgaria's Georgi Dimitrov," explained New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Stone, "is on trial in the courts of the shakily democratic successor government." His prosecutor is Peter Solinsky, born into a family prominent under the Communists. Solinsky is shaken by Petkanov's sincere belief in the principles of Communism. Contrasting them with the poverty and lack of respect that the reforms have brought, Solinsky begins to turn away from his new democratic ideals. "In the end," Mary Warner Marien declared in the Christian Science Monitor, "nothing is resolved except a clearer vision of the stupendous obstacles facing the former communist country." "Admirers of the earlier, Francophile Julian Barnes may regret that in his latest work … the author of Flaubert's Parrot and Talking It Over has shed his brilliance and dandyism to become a rather somber recorder of his times," stated London Review of Books contributor Patrick Parrinder. "The grayness seems inherent in his subject-matter, but it has not infected his acute and spiny prose."
England, England, a darkly satiric novel set in the twenty-first century, incorporates conflicting world situations and their connectedness to greed for power and money. Protagonist and businessman Sir Jack Pitman plots to replace England with a replica island—a Disneyland-type fantasy world—intending to reap huge financial rewards. John Kennedy, writing for the Antioch Review, concluded that the book falls short because the characters are underdeveloped. Even so, he commended Barnes's writing style, adding that he "cleverly puts his finger upon a central issue: how do we find our personal uniqueness and salvation when 'memory is identity' and everywhere history and heritage are being manipulated for profit." Philip Landon, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, dubbed England, England "a novel of downright Swiftian darkness and ferocity." Comparing the fantasy island to Lil-liput, Landon called the work a "stinging caricature" that "chills with the bleakness of its cultural panorama."
Commenting on Love, etc. for Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri, a reviewer called Barnes a "sensitive writer, whose specialty is a down-to-earth lucidity about the sad paradoxes of love and marriage." Love, etc. is a ten-years-later look into the lives of the characters of Talking It Over, although reading the latter is not a prerequisite to enjoying the former. Steven Rea, reviewing the book for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, noted that Love, etc. "is penned in confession mode—in the voices of its protagonists, a knotty triangle of love, loathing, trust and betrayal known as Stuart, Gillian and Oliver." He called Barnes's prose "lively, lucid, ricocheting with wryly observed commentary on the human condition," adding that Barnes "pokes and prods into the dark corners of contemporary relationships." Dale Peck in the New Republic, however, found the writing clever but the story ultimately "soulless." As Peck explained, "Barnes is a terribly smart man, a terribly skilled writer … [but] intelligence and talent in the service of a discompassionate temperament are precisely the opposite of what one seeks from a novelist, or a novel."
In a departure from his longer fictional works, Barnes experimented with the short-story form in 1996's Cross Channel. A collection of ten short stories that span centuries, each tale is also linked by its depiction of a Brit heading for the far bank of the Channel, lured by the pleasures of neighboring France. Drawing on the similarities between the British and their Gallic cousins, Barnes's "imagination seems to work comfortably in a historical context, building fiction on bits of fact," according to Chicago's Tribune Books reviewer Bruce Cook. Among the stories—each set on French soil—are "Junction," which revolves around the perception of the French-born Channel-spanning railroad's builders' perception of their British co-workers during the railroad's 1840s construction. "Melon" finds a cross-cultural cricket match interrupted by the French Revolution, much to the dismay of the story's high-born protagonist who had hoped to sideline the populace's rush to rebel by sparking a far more healthy interest in sport. And in "Inferences," an older-than-middle-aged English musical composer now living in France awaits the performance of his latest composition on the radio, hoping to surprise his young mistress with its magnificence.
Slipping back and forth between the centuries, Barnes's "prose slips quietly back from its modern cadences into those of the early nineteenth century, into the cherished foreignness of the past," noted Michael Wood in a New York Times Book Review critique of Cross Channel. The author also slips back and forth between outlook, between the way the British view the French and vice versa, understanding the French perspective yet clearly aligned with the British. "Cross Channel reconfirms Barnes' sympathy for those characters whose Englishness accompanies them, like a sensible mackintosh, into the unpredictable depths of France," quipped critic Gerald Mangan in his review of the collection for the Times Literary Supplement. Praising the volume for its sensitive portrayal of a myriad of cultural subtleties, Cook had particular praise for the dry wit that imbues the collection. Barnes "may indeed be a comic writer at heart—and that may be why he appeals to French readers," surmised the critic. "His humor is the sort that translates well. It travels."
Returning again to the short-fiction format in The Lemon Table, Barnes combines eleven unique short stories that focus on individuals whose lives are connected through the unnerving themes of death and aging. As readers plunge into the lives of the characters, dark secrets are revealed, along with chilling answers to much-feared questions. Barbara Love in Library Journal called The Lemon Table a "superb collection" and added: "This is Barnes at his best." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that the short tales "are as stylish as any of Barnes's creations, while also possessed of a pleasing heft … the reader is taken for a delightful ride."
Source: Contemporary Authors Online, "Julian Barnes," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay, Childs presents the function of art and history in Barnes's writing.
Barnes is sometimes considered a postmodernist writer because his fiction rarely either conforms to the model of the realist novel or concerns itself with a scrutiny of consciousness in the manner of modernist writing. He has been said to stretch the bounds of fiction in his novels but it has just as often been suggested that he is an essayist rather than a novelist and his experimental books do not question the bounds of the novel but fall outside them.
With regard to his own practice, Barnes rarely discusses fictional technique in his novels, except through Braithwaite's meditations in Flaubert's Parrot, and instead uses painting and other kinds of imaginative and imitative art to discuss indirectly the function of writing, as well as to address wider issues of aesthetics and criticism that are common to a range of cultural practices. This goes from the debates between Toni and Chris in Metroland through to the imitative world created by Jack Pitman in England, England. Chris explains that his and Toni's reason for constantly visiting the National Gallery in London is because they agreed that 'Art was the most important thing in life' (M, 29). The boys consider it rewarding and ameliorative: 'It made people not just fitter for friendship and more civilized … but better—kinder, wiser, nicer, more peaceful, more active, more sensitive. If it didn't what good was it?' (M, 29). Their 'constructive loafing' is exemplified by studying the ways in which people are 'in some way improved' when they see works of art in the Gallery.
The belief in the supremacy of art is reinforced by Geoffrey Braithwaite quoting Flaubert: 'Superior to everything is—Art' (F, 108); yet the idea that art is the most important thing 'in life' is partly paradoxical because in Barnes's books art and life are often contrasted: 'Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't' (F, 168). This partly expresses the attraction of art—there is its beauty but its intellectual value lies in its attempt to make sense of the world. This is also the argument of the 'Shipwreck' chapter of A History of the World, but in Flaubert's Parrot the differences between life and art are brought out in Braithwaite's attempt not just to understand his own life but that of the nineteenth-century writer who famously claimed that the life of novelists has nothing to do with their writing.
Braithwaite asks early on: 'Is the writer much more than a sophisticated parrot?' (F, 18), and there are many intimations in Flaubert's Parrot that the reader cannot reliably get to 'know' the writer any better than Braithwaite can get to 'know' which of many parrots was the Loulou of Flaubert's Un Coeur Simple. 'How do you compare two parrots, one already idealized by memory and metaphor, the other a squawking intruder? My initial response was that the second seemed less authentic than the first. Mainly because it had a more benign air' (F, 21). Braithwaite goes on to say: 'The writer's voice—what makes you think it can be located that easily? Such was the rebuke offered by the second parrot' (F, 22). So, though the novel's facts about the French author are not in dispute even the first image of Flaubert encountered in the book is potentially misleading: 'The statue isn't the original one', Braithwaite laconically assures us (F, 11).
Biography is ultimately considered a string of words designed to encompass the writer just as a fish net is a tool to catch fish; but, argues Braithwaite, a fish net can be logically deemed a collection of holes tied together with string: and so can a biography (F, 38; cf. Barnes use of the metaphor in interview, Cercles, 263). This description also fits well with Barnes's view of history. 'History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, a plan, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable' (H, 242). Historiography is a narrative composed of connections, threads that reach across the gaps in knowledge and understanding where most of the past falls through the net. History emerges for Barnes as a kind of tapestry, a text(ile) woven out of other texts and strands of memory.
But what are his books' objections to the ways in which history is understood? They seem to focus on gaps: what falls through history's net: 'How do we seize the past? How do we seize the foreign past? We read, we learn, we ask, we remember, we are humble; and then a casual detail shifts everything' (F, 90). For Braithwaite, it is only distance, the passage of time that enables us to feel we are able to understand history: 'So how do we seize the past? As it recedes, does it come into focus? Some think so. We know more, we discover extra documents, we use infra-red light to pierce erasures in the correspondence, and we are free of contemporary prejudice; so we understand better. Is that it? I wonder' (F, 100).
Braithwaite's scepticism seems to be based on the view that distance enables us to understand history better only because with the passing of time some events and perspectives are forgotten while others, those that fit our theory of history, remain: 'what a curious vanity it is of the present to expect the past to suck up to it' (F, 130). So theories that fit our present beliefs arise to turn history into a process, a force, a pattern, but Barnes is sceptical: 'And does history repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? No, that's too grand, too considered a process. History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago' (H, 241).
In Barnes' History of the World, what we find throughout the book is a number of parallels, between occurrences of boats, beetles, and behemoths. The reason for this is not because history has a number of parallels, but because the past is habitually perceived in a certain way—stories lead on to other stories and human beings always look for patterns, for systems, for explanations. 'History', this suggests, is a way of constructing reality, of explaining what happens, of tracing patterns in events, of creating a form, a narrative structure, from what has happened in the world.
Barnes has said that against history bearing down on us we can put three things: religion, art, and love. Religion, he thinks, is not true, art does not satisfy everyone, and so love is the final 'fallback position' (Moseley, 120). History does not give us truth, it just finds things out (H, 242), whereas 'love and truth: that's the vital connection' (H, 240, 245). For Barnes, and this is in many ways the story of Braithwaite's explorations in biography too, 'The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love' (H, 240). History is therefore seen as impersonal; it leaves out the most important human elements—faith, art, love—and its march of progress, power, and politics leaves many casualties: 'when love fails, we should blame the history of the world. If only it had left us alone, we could have been happy' (H, 246).
Source: Peter Childs, "Julian Barnes: 'A Mixture of Genres,'" in Contemporary Novelists: British Fiction since 1970, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 86-88.
In the following essay, Moseley gives a critical analysis of Barnes's life and work.
Julian Barnes is one of the most celebrated and most variously rewarding of Britain's younger writers—that is, those who were born in the late 1940s and began publishing in the late 1970s or the 1980s, a group that also includes Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. The author of seven novels under his own name—Flaubert's Parrot (1984) and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989) are probably the ones best known in the United States—he has also published four exceptional detective novels under the pseudonym "Dan Ka-vanagh" and a book of short stories. Furthermore, he is a busy and knowledgeable journalist. From 1990 to 1995 he was the London correspondent for The New Yorker, contributing the "Letter from London" column every few months on topics such as the royal family and the quirkier side of British politics. These pieces, which were published in book form in 1995, demonstrate his skill as an interpreter of British culture to a foreign audience; in his other writings he has often been an interpreter of, or guide to, France for his own countrymen.
Barnes's fiction has been acclaimed by readers as different as Carlos Fuentes and Philip Larkin; reviewers and interviewers sum him up with praise such as Mark Lawson's claim that he "writes like the teacher of your dreams: jokey, metaphorical across both popular and unpopular culture, epigrammatic." On the other hand, he has been subjected to a persistent argument that the books he calls novels are really collections of short stories or essays or some other nonfiction genre and are only "marketed" as novels. Although he is regularly called "erudite" and "philosophical," he is also witty and humane; as David Coward explains in the Times Literary Supplement (5 October 1984), "The modern British novel finds it easy to be clever and comic. Barnes also manages that much harder thing: he succeeds in communicating genuine emotion without affectation or embarrassment." Barnes's work has stimulated considerable critical discussion over its allegedly postmodern traits, including questions about whether it is dangerously relativistic or nihilistic. That his novels have never won the Booker Prize, the most prestigious award for British fiction—although Flaubert's Parrot was one of the six finalists for the prize in 1984—has baffled some observers. His Metroland (1980) won the William Somerset Maugham Prize, which is given for an outstanding first book; he has won other English literary awards, and Flaubert's Parrot was honored in France with the Prix Medicis. Barnes has also been named an Officer de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Partly because of comparisons with his slightly younger contemporary Amis, a famously precocious author, Barnes sees himself as a late starter: he was thirty-four when Metroland was published. It was, however, the product of a long gestation period, and he published another book—his first Dan Kavanagh detective thriller, Duffy (1980)—that same year. Since then his output has been impressive in quantity as well as quality.
Julian Patrick Barnes was born in Leicester, an industrial city in England's East Midlands, on 19 January 1946; his parents, Albert Leonard and Kaye Scoltock Barnes, were teachers of French. The family moved to the London suburb of Northwood when Barnes was quite young; he attended the City of London School on a scholarship, commuting on the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground—an experience that helped to produce Metroland. He studied languages at Magdalen College, Oxford, teaching in France in 1966–1967 and receiving a B.A. with honors in 1968. He took a job as editorial assistant at the Oxford English Dictionary. As a man working mostly with women, he explained in a 1989 interview with Amanda Smith, he was assigned most of the "rude words and sports words."
In 1972 he moved to London, where he studied law and passed his final bar exams. He also became involved in journalism, reviewing novels and then serving as assistant literary editor and television critic of The New Statesman, contributing editor of the New Review (where he published under the name "Edward Pygge"), deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times, and television critic for The Observer (London). During this period he also wrote a restaurant column for the Tatler under the pseudonym "Basil Seal," named for one of Evelyn Waugh's characters. He left The Observer in 1986 to become a full-time writer, but he wrote the "Letter from London" column for The New Yorker for five years and still reviews and comments regularly for such journals as the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. Since 1979 he has been married to Pat Kavanagh, a prominent literary agent. His pseudonym Dan Kavanagh seems to be a tribute to his wife, to whom many of his novels are dedicated.
Mira Stout has called Barnes "the chameleon of British letters" because each of his "mainstream" novels is distinctive. This is less true of the detective novels: as Dan Kavanagh he seems able to satisfy any need he may feel for predictability, formula, and generic continuity, while as Julian Barnes he is careful not to repeat himself. In the interview with Amanda Smith he speaks contemptuously of some reviewers' expectation that after Flaubert's Parrot, his first great success, he would repeat himself by writing "Victor Hugo's Dachshund."
Barnes's first novel took him eight years to write. The deceptively calm Metroland, like many first novels, is a story of adolescence and coming-of-age; but a mark of the work's maturity is that it shows coming-of-age as involving a coming to terms with lowered expectations. Metroland demonstrates certain features that will be constants in Barnes's fiction: wit, familiarity with French culture, shapeliness and high finish, and a delicate concern with love and jealousy.
In the first part of this three-part novel, "Metroland (1963)," the teenage Christopher Lloyd, who lives in one of the London suburbs served by the Metropolitan Underground line, and his friend Toni are disdainful of school, sports, and, especially, the English middle-class culture represented by their parents. The values they treasure are art, sexual liberation (which is entirely theoretical to them as yet), and France. They spend much of their time in art museums making fun of the bourgeois families they see there. They wish to affront the smooth mediocrity of their times, but their rebellion is mostly verbal and quite funny. Barnes presents Christopher as a young man who is sufficiently unusual to be interesting while sufficiently typical to be a representative of the intelligent, urban adolescent filled with longing and dissatisfaction. Part 2, "Paris (1968)," finds Christopher in the French capital during the May 1968 student rebellion—of which, ironically, he is completely unaware. He has come to France ostensibly to write a thesis but really to satisfy his youthful fascination with French culture and to take advantage of the opportunities for sexual liberation he associates with Paris. He does achieve a sexual initiation with a French girl, Annick, who eventually leaves him because of his dishonesty about his attraction to an English girl whom he later marries. As for art, Christopher does some desultory writing; it is, predictably, derivative—in this case, of Charles-Pierre Baudelaire. In the third part, "Metroland II (1977)," Christopher is back in metropolitan London. He has settled down into marriage, gone into business, and forgotten about the artistic life. His bourgeois existence is complicated by arguments with Toni, who is not nearly as assimilated to middle-class "adulthood," and by stresses in his mainly happy marriage.
Metroland is a short, unexciting, but highly accomplished study of becoming adult—with all that that implies about narrowing horizons, settling down, and accepting one's ordinariness. Although it is possible to argue, as Paul Bailey did in an unsympathetic review in the Times Literary Supplement (28 March 1980), that Metroland is a "prig's progress" and that it is about "settling for suburbia," Christopher is no prig. Barnes allows the reader to choose between Christopher's realistic accommodation to normal life and Toni's embodiment of the artist as untameable wild man.
Barnes's first Dan Kavanagh novel, Duffy, published the same year as Metroland, is a tense thriller set in London's sleazy Soho district; the title character is a bisexual private detective who is no longer with the police because he was blackmailed by crooked cops. Barnes went on to write three more Duffy novels: Fiddle City (1981), Putting the Boot In (1985), and Going to the Dogs (1987). Not only are these louche, violent, thoroughly plotted thrillers published under the Kavanagh pseudonym quite different from the mainstream novels published under his real name, but he also writes them in a different place (in the country; he writes the mainstream novels of his home in the city) and on a different typewriter. There has been considerable speculation about the reason for this split career; perhaps the conventional plot-making that some critics miss in Metroland or Flaubert's Parrot is held over for the Duffy books. The first two Duffy novels appeared in the United States in 1986 as paperbacks in the Pantheon International Crime series; Putting the Boot In has not yet received an American publication.
Nick Duffy is a complicated man, rather tormented in his bisexuality. He loves a woman, Carol, but is currently impotent with her as a result of trauma, while he is perfectly capable of performing in his casual affairs with men. As the series moves through the 1980s the rise of AIDS is reflected in Duffy's fear of the disease and in his less promiscuous behavior. All of the books are firmly anchored in what feels like reality. While the central crime in each book tends to be theft or fraud rather than murder, Barnes imbues the novels with a mood of menace. There is, to be sure, plenty of overt violence in the series: Duffy is beaten up, motorists are run off the road, women are tied up and slashed, thugs throw paraffin (kerosene) heaters into shops. Sometimes the criminals commit imaginative sorts of violence against animals, such as cooking a cat in an oven; such incidents are perhaps more troubling to the animal-loving British readership than are acts directed against people.
In the tradition of hard-boiled American detectives, Duffy is no paragon of respect for the law, partly because he was driven from the force by dishonest policemen and still has dealings with "bent coppers" and partly because he pursues moral rather than legal justice. In Fiddle City the narrator explains this ethos:
Duffy's moral outlook had always been pragmatic. Three years in the force had made it more so, and it wasn't going to change now. He wasn't idealistic about the law, or about how it was implemented. He didn't mind a bit of give-and-take, a bit of blind-eye, a bit of you-naughty-boy-on-yer-bike and forget it. He didn't think the ends justified the means—except that sometimes, just occasionally, they did. He didn't believe all crimes were equal; some he couldn't get worked up about. But always, at the back, there were absolutes. Murder was one, of course, everyone agreed on that. Bent coppers was one; but then, Duffy had a little private experience of that, and could be expected to feel strongly. Rape was one; Duffy was disgusted how some coppers thought it was little more than a mild duffing up with a bit of pleasure thrown in. And heroin was one as well.
In the first three Duffy books the detective does not so much "solve" crimes—he usually already knows who the malefactor is—as restore some sort of moral balance. In Duffy, for instance, in pursuing the question of who slashed Mrs. McKechnie he enters the slimy world of the Soho sex industry, with his client turning out to be a pornography merchant and his opponent a Maltese Mr. Big. The action includes a harrowing assault on Duffy in a massage parlor. At the end Duffy exacts a sort of rough justice, aware that the police—especially those in his old beat, Soho, who are shown as particularly corrupt—are not likely to achieve justice of any kind.
The next installment in the Duffy series is set at Heathrow Airport, called "Fiddle City" because of the enormous opportunities it provides for crime (fiddle is British slang for cheating or graft). The novel's beginning is reminiscent of that of Duffy, which opens with the laconic sentence "The day they cut Mrs. McKechnie, not much else happened in West Byfleet." Fiddle City begins, "The day they crashed McKay, not much else happened on the M4 [highway]." Duffy takes over the investigation McKay had been conducting; through a series of developments, including a one-night stand with a man he meets in a bar, he goes underground at a shipping concern. Most of the menace to Duffy in this book comes from his coworkers and supervisors at the warehouse. He solves the mystery of who ran McKay off the road (McKay did not die but was seriously injured) and the much bigger one that involves a major heroin-smuggling ring. The solution brings him great satisfaction, both because he is able to gain revenge against the sadist who ripped the stud out of his ear with a pair of pliers and because his friend Lesley died as a result of heroin abuse. He reflects, "At one end of the chain there were dead babies in Thailand"—a reference to an account he has been given of women hollowing out dead babies to carry heroin across borders; "at the other end there were Lesleys fixing themselves to death."
Almost all of Barnes's novels, whatever their main themes may be, are partly about love and jealousy. A relatively understated, tender, but penetrating treatment of infidelity and jealousy appears in the last section of Metroland, but Barnes's next mainstream novel, Before She Met Me (1982), displays the strongest, grimmest, and most menacing kind of jealousy. Graham Hendrick, a dull university lecturer, is married to Ann, a former actress for whom he left his first wife, Barbara. Still bitter, Barbara urges their daughter, Alice, to ask Graham to take her to see a certain movie; as he soon realizes, the point is for him to see Ann, in a minor role, "committing adultery" with an actor in the picture. Although Ann has been totally faithful to Graham since their marriage, he becomes obsessed with her sex life before they met. He neglects his work to travel all over London to see all of her movies again and again, studying the actors with whom she had love scenes and worrying about whether she had slept with any of them in real life (she had); he goes to the other movies of the actors with whom Ann had worked; he cross-examines her and makes exhaustive mental notes. Clearly he has become unbalanced. For consolation and advice he consults Jack, a novelist friend; unbeknownst to him, Jack is another of Ann's former lovers. The novel ends extremely violently.
Before She Met Me is gripping, disturbing, and moving. It is comparable to the macabre, unsettling novels Barnes's contemporaries Amis and McEwan were writing—for instance, Amis's Dead Babies (1974) and McEwan's The Cement Garden (1978), which deals with oedipal and incest themes. In the interview with Smith, Barnes calls Before She Met Me
a rather nasty book about unpleasant sexual feelings, jealousies and obsessions. It was meant to have had a rather sour and hard-driving edge to it. I think it's my funniest book, though the humor is rather bleak and in bad taste usually.
The novel certainly is funny, and its black humor survives even its growing horror. It is this book, perhaps more than any other, that has led critics to oversimplify Barnes as a writer obsessed with obsession, but Graham Hendrick is obsessed in a way that none of Barnes's other characters is. Barnes's recurrent subjects of infidelity (in this case, wholly imaginary) and jealousy occur here in their starkest form. He will go on to revisit and refine these themes.
In a 1987 interview with Patrick McGrath, Barnes emphasizes the novel's social commentary:
In a way it's a sort of anti-'60s book. It's against the idea that somehow the 60s sorted sex out, that everyone was all fucked up beforehand. Queen Victoria was still in charge—and then along came the Beatles, suddenly everyone started sleeping with everyone else, and that cured the lot. That's a rough plan of English sexual history, as seen by many people. And I just wanted to say, it's not like that; 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.
Obviously it is not a superficial change for Graham Hendrick or for some of Barnes's other troubled and cuckolded men; but this affirmation is important to keep in mind in considering Barnes's central novelistic concerns.
In 1984 Barnes published his "breakthrough" novel, Flaubert's Parrot. He says that he feels "enormous affection" for it "because it's the book that launched me." Experimental in both form and content, Flaubert's Parrot presents itself as a non-fiction book about Gustave Flaubert written by a widowed English doctor, Geoffrey Braithwaite. Braithwaite's book grows out of the discovery that there is more than one stuffed parrot in Normandy that is identified as the bird Flaubert borrowed while he was writing "Un Coeur Simple" (1877; translated as "A Simple Heart," 1923) and develops into a subtle, witty speculation on the relationship between life and art, the knowability of the human personality, the nature of fame, and many other topics. There are also a sly but increasing emphasis on Braithwaite's autobiography and, as usual with Barnes, serious discussions of the nature and meaning of married love. The book is eclectic in form: it includes alternative chronologies of Flaubert's life, a dictionary of received ideas about the author, an examination paper on Flaubert by Braithwaite, and an account of Flaubert as it might have been written by his mistress, Louise Co-let. It is an erudite and playful work; in Coward's words, it is "an extraordinarily artful mix of literary tomfoolery and high seriousness."
It is also the first of Barnes's novels to be thought of as some sort of "case," or even as a "problem." For some critics it was distinguished from Barnes's earlier works by its postmodernism—a tendency that was welcomed or rejected, depending on the critic's point of view. John Bayley disapproved of the "modish"—that is, slippery postmodern or poststructuralist—notions that he believed the novel espoused:
The conscious implication of Flaubert's Parrot is that since one cannot know everything about the past, one cannot know anything; but its actual effect—and its success—is to suggest something different: that the relative confirms the idea of truth instead of dissipating it, that the difficulty of finding out how things were does not disprove those things but authenticates them. It may be that few things happened as they are supposed to, and many things did not happen at all, but why should this be a reason for abandoning traditional conceptions of history, of art, of human character?
James B. Scott, on the other hand, approved of the postmodern skepticism about truth and know-ability he, like Bayley, saw in the novel:
reality and truth are the illusions produced when systems of discourse (especially artistic discourse) impinge on human consciouness. In practice, this has led postmodern novelists to strive to undermine hermeneutic responses to art by foregrounding the discourse that informs their artifact, thereby implying that not only is the final "meaning" of a work of art forever unknowable, but also any orthodox truth is actually a discourse-generated fluke.
Bayley's theory is probably closer to what Barnes is trying to suggest in the novel: that is, he is not endorsing the idea that all truths are contingent, discourse-generated, and unreliable.
Some reviewers and literary journalists suspected Flaubert's Parrot of not being a novel at all. One line of argument was summed up by David Sexton in the Sunday Telegraph (11 June 1989): "Barnes writes books which look like novels and get shelved as novels but which, when you open them up, are something else altogether. Flaubert's Parrot was for the most part a set of studies of Flaubert and his parrot." A burlesque by Eric Metaxas, titled "That Post-Modernism," pretended to describe "Flaubert's Panda," by "Boolean Jarnes," as "part biography, part literary criticism, part fire hydrant, and part decayed wolf's pelt—in short, the post-modernist novel at its best." Defending his claim that the book is, indeed, a novel, Barnes is quoted by Sexton as invoking the more experimental Continental novelists and showing that his work fits the definition of the genre: "It's an extended piece of prose, largely fictional, which is planned and executed as a whole piece."
Questions of the knowability of truth are important in Barnes's later novels A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Talking It Over (1991), and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters was subjected to even sharper challenge on the grounds that it was not a proper novel. So Flaubert's Parrot helped to create the critical atmosphere in which Barnes's novels would be received, not least by making him a celebrated novelist whose works henceforth would receive a great deal of attention—not all of it admiring.
Barnes's next book was another Dan Kavanagh Duffy mystery, Putting the Boot In, set in the world of minor-league professional soccer. Like his first two detective books, it shows a command of the conventions of the genre and the kind of authority that comes from getting the details right. The soccer scenes are quite well done; this authenticity may, in fact, explain why the book has never been published in the United States, where the sport does not have a large following. Duffy, previously a moderately promiscuous bisexual, is so terrified of AIDS that he is now celibate (though he and Carol share a bed).
The first, third, and fifth parts of the novel, titled "Warm-Up," "Half-Time," and "Extra Time," respectively, are an amusing account of a soccer match played by the Western Sunday Reliables, for whom Duffy keeps goal. Geoff Bell is a member of the team and uses his electronics skills to eavesdrop on the other team's plans. Framed by the match is a story of small-town corruption and mayhem centering around a lower-division soccer club, the Athletic, whose run of bad luck turns out to be part of a scheme to ruin the club and make its property available for development. Although Duffy uncovers the conspiracy, nobody is arrested or even discomfited; and the novel ends without even the rough balance between the forces of right and wrong that was restored in the first two Duffy books.
The next novel published under Barnes's real name was Staring at the Sun (1986), an understated study of a woman named Jean Serjeant from her childhood during World War II to the 2020s. The main character, while she is quietly strong, enduring, and even heroic, is an "ordinary," "private" woman. The events of her life are not particularly exciting; the high points are a game of golf, a visit to the Grand Canyon, some other tourism, and an airplane flight that gives rise to the central image of the novel: by diving his plane dramatically at dawn, the pilot can see the sun come up twice. This phenomenon is described as an "ordinary miracle," and Jean Serjeant's life is meant to be the same sort of miracle. Barnes wants to reveal the heroism that exists within the ordinary; in the interview with McGrath he pointed out that people "tend to think of courage as a male virtue, as something that happens in war … but there are 85,000 other sorts of courage." In this book Barnes, who was reared without religion and has never been a churchgoer, delves into ultimate questions about death, an afterlife, and God; in a 1989 interview with Kate Saunders he described the contents of Staring at the Sun as "DIY [do it yourself] theology."
Although it received many positive reviews, Staring at the Sun disappointed some readers; after the tour de force of Flaubert's Parrot they found it tame, even a bit dull. Barnes clearly has been nettled by this reaction. In a 1991 interview with Andrew Billen he said: "As soon as you say you were disappointed, I get deeply protective about the novel. I say: Carlos Fuentes [who reviewed it in The New York Times] liked it—so sod you. This is the writer's response. It's like criticising your fourth child."
In 1987 Barnes published what he has claimed is his last Duffy book, Going to the Dogs; in a 1991 interview he told Mark Lawson that a "recyclable hero" had proved to be "more tiresome than he expected," and this Duffy novel is weaker than its predecessors. The title refers both to greyhound racing, which plays a minor role in the book, and rich people's pets, one of which comes to a violent end in the novel. Duffy is called in to solve a crime for an old acquaintance, a not entirely honest but successful man whose wealth has permitted him to live the country life and make friends with snobs and pretentious idlers. In this novel Duffy's class consciousness comes strongly to the fore. There is also some self-referential humor as Duffy, flirting with a beautiful socialite, derides the restaurant column in the Tatler written by "Basil Berk." In fact, the restaurant columnist for the Tatler at the time, writing as "Basil Seal," was Barnes himself.
In 1989 came the novel that, in ambition, complexity, and experimental quality, seemed to be the real successor to Flaubert's Parrot. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is really a history of the world: the first chapter is about Noah's ark, the last about heaven. In between are chapters on a medieval church prosecution of termites, an American astronaut's quest for the remnants of the ark, the making of a movie in a South American jungle, and Théodore Géricault's painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819). The chapters are as variable in form as in content, including art criticism, letters, a journal, the records of a trial, and a dream.
Like Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters challenges conventional definitions of the novel. It lacks a unified plot, developing characters, consistent fictionality, and consistent verisimilitude. In the interview with Lawson, Barnes responded to critics who say that he is really an essayist who disguises his essays as fiction for commercial reasons: "My line now is I'm a novelist and if I say it's a novel, it is…. And it's not terribly interesting to me, casting people out of the realm of fiction."
One of the characters in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters announces that "Everything is connected, even the parts we don't like, especially the parts we don't like." Although she may be delusional, her comment is true, at least, of the novel in which she appears. Its parts are connected by a network of motifs, the most obvious one being voyages of salvation by water: Noah and his ark recur in most of the chapters. Another striking motif is woodworms; a slightly less important one is reindeer.
Like most of Barnes's books, this one is philosophically rich. There is meditation on the meaning of human life, on religion and the afterlife, on the nature of history—is there History, or are there only various "histories"?—and, most prominently, on love. The "half chapter" is about love, and its message is that in a universe where history is an unreliable set of stories of disasters, salvation is to be found in love: "We must believe in it, or we're lost." Perhaps the voice that speaks these words is, like the other voices in the book, wrong; perhaps this chapter is ironic. But such does not seem to be the case. Love is set against history and connected with truth. As in Flaubert's Parrot, the possibility of truth is contested in this novel: is there a truth, or are there merely competing truths? The first chapter—the unorthodox story of Noah's ark as told by a stowaway woodworm—seems to suggest that there are only alternate versions. And yet the claim that people tell the truth when they are in love implies that some truth exists for them to tell, and it justifies Joyce Carol Oates's description of Barnes as a "quintessential humanist, of the pre-post-modernist species."
Barnes's next book, Talking It Over, returns to the territory of Metroland: it is a study of love, sex, and marriage set in contemporary London. The rather dull but worthy Stuart feels, and is treated as, inferior to his witty and flashy friend Oliver. Soon after Stuart marries Gillian, Oliver decides that he loves Gillian and dedicates his life to making her fall in love with him; eventually he succeeds. Talking It Over is a story of how love works and how jealousy feels. The two men and the woman are artfully distinguished, particularly stylistically: Stuart writes dully; Oliver has a clever, allusive style, to which Barnes has added some of his own favorite turns of phrase. Each of the three addresses the reader much more directly than is common in novels, pleading with the reader, asking questions about the other characters, suggesting ways to test the truth of the story, asking for belief and even assistance; each has his or her own version of the story, none of which is completely reliable. One minor character, a discarded girlfriend of Stuart's, provides a unique perspective on the plot—she is highly dubious of Gillian's motives, for instance—but is "thrown out" of the novel through the combined efforts of Stuart and Oliver and despite an appeal to the author. Talking It Over is both moving and funny.
The Porcupine (1992) is set in a fictional country clearly based on Bulgaria; it was first published in that country and in Bulgarian. An overthrown dictator, Stoyo Petkanov, justifies himself, resists the attempts of his accusers (many of whom were formerly his supporters) to change the rules by which Stalinist societies measure successful government, and tweaks his prosecutor, the anguished former communist Peter Solinsky.
Although Petkanov is a monster, he is given arguments that are by no means easy to dismiss; in their disputes he often seems to get the better of Solinsky. As Solinsky's obsession with convicting Petkanov—on charges other than the ones of which he is really guilty—grows, his own self-doubts strengthening his determination, his wife loses her respect for him and leaves. Solinsky gives himself to evil means for a good end; were Petkanov's crimes any different? The apparent convergence of Solinsky and Petkanov raises questions about the moral superiority of the reformed system over the communist regime.
Letters from London: 1990–1995 (1995) is a collection of Barnes's columns from The New Yorker. There are essays on garden mazes, on the financial problems of Lloyd's of London, on Harrods, and on literary topics, including former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's memoirs. Barnes, a Labour Party supporter, is at his best when writing about politics. His account of himself campaigning with Glenda Jackson for Parliament is engaging, but his language becomes richest in satire: he describes Thatcher at Prime Minister's Question Time, standing "rather stiffly at the dispatch box, with swept-back hair, firm features, and an increasingly generous embonpoint thrusting at her tailored suit of Tory blue or emerald green; there, butting into the spray and storm of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, she resembles the figurehead on the prow of some antique sailing ship, emblematic as much as decorative." For one who is often characterized as a postmodernist mandarin playing intellectual games, he is solidly in touch with the real world, and he always finds something unusual to report (for example, changing fashions in pictures on currency) or a new approach to a familiar topic (such as Thatcher or her successor as prime minister, John Major) and a witty way of expressing it.
As a prepublication announcement in Granta (Spring 1994) put it, Barnes's Cross Channel (1996) is "a collection of short stories occasioned by historical meetings between the English and the French." Three of the stories were originally published in The New Yorker, another in Granta; the others appear for the first time in the book. Themes include the wars of religion, the nature of the artist, the trickery of memory, and sexual infidelity. In "Interference" an aging English artist living in France thinks about the problem of belonging:
He was an artist, did she not see? He was not an exile, since that implied a country to which he could, or would, return. Nor was he an immigrant, since that implied a desire to be accepted, to submit yourself to the land of adoption. But you did not leave one country, with its social forms and rules and pettinesses, in order to burden yourself with the parallel forms and rules and pettinesses of another country. No, he was an artist. He therefore lived alone with his art, in silence and in freedom.
In "Experiment" the narrator recounts some sexual experiments among the Surrealists, with whom his English uncle Freddy became involved in 1928. The story is full of delightful wordplay—Freddy may have said "je suis, sire, rallyiste," meaning that he was in town for a motor rally, and been misunderstood as declaring himself to be a Surrealist—and deepening levels of complexity as the narrator discovers truths Freddy could not have known.
In a 1996 interview with Carl Swanson for the on-line magazine Salon, Barnes claimed that he is "the one middle-class English writer who loves France but doesn't have a house there." He spends much time there, however, and is sometimes accused by English friends of being too French. He explained to Swanson:
I think everybody needs another country…. You need another country on which to project, perhaps, your romanticism and idealism. I think this is a good idea, but I don't think it happens to most people. Most people think mostly about their own country, and idealize their own country, and I think that's dangerous. I think one's own country should be scrupulously and skeptically examined [as in Letters from London, perhaps]. And you should allow your idealism and romanticism to be projected onto something else.
It is a telling comment, both about Barnes's attitude toward France and about his combination of skepticism with romanticism and idealism.
Lawson, trying to encapsulate Barnes's style, offers the phrase "alternative versions." It is an apt characterization of a writer whose characters Stuart and Oliver in Talking It Over present alternative versions of how Oliver ended up with Stuart's wife; who depicted, in the same year, the ironic domesticity of Metroland and the desperate and squalid vice of Duffy; and who offers with each new book a different approach, even a new and distinctive voice. There are constants in his fiction: high craft, verbal brilliance, a determination to deal in ideas without giving way to didacticism, frequent experimentation in subject or form or both; but another constant is variation itself. His career illustrates his adherence to his maxim that a novel should be novel; "what is constant," as he told McGrath, "is the human heart and human passions."
Source: Merritt Moseley, "Julian Barnes," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 194, British Novelists Since 1960, Second Series, Gale Research, 1998, pp. 27-37.
In the following review, Woods compares Barnes to Willa Cather and E. M. Forster, attributing Barnes with a penchant for tidiness in writing, an "addiction" to facts, and weaving mysteries into his stories. He describes Barnes's books as "a picnic of the mind."
Two landscapes, one American and one English, from roughly the same period. The American landscape is seen by Willa Cather in My Antonía (1918), and the English landscape is seen by E. M. Forster in The Longest Journey (1907).
Cather's narrator sits by a window in Lincoln, Nebraska. "My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it." The man is reading Virgil's Georgics. He is bluntly halted by a line of the poetry: "for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country." This is a moment of soft revelation for the narrator. It is also the means by which Cather establishes her own originality, the obligation she might feel, as a novelist of the West, to bring the Muse into her country; but at no point does Cather say this, or even play with direct statement. Instead she rustles with suggestion, letting us know, as if this moment were like the prairie itself, that we are on the verge of a discovery that can hardly be voiced. "We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing of a great feeling …"
Forster's hero, Rickie, sits on a hill in Wiltshire. Forster comments: "Here is the heart of our island: the Chilterns, the North Downs, the South Downs radiate hence. The fibres of England unite in Wiltshire, and did we condescend to worship her, here we should erect our national shrine." Rickie reflects on how much he loves "these unostentatious fields." Then he pulls out a volume of Shelly and recites a poem. The poem annoys him, but it is clear that in some way Shelley consecrates this moment and this piece of land.
Both passages are characteristic of their authors, and of the literary traditions that produced them. Cather's land is ancient—as ancient as Virgil's soil—but anciently unknown. It is unliterary. If literature is brought to plow it, then this imposition will be a strenuous and artisanal task, with "an earthy wind blowing through." Just as Cather's narrator leaves the classroom quietly, so does her writing. It swerves away from the academic, away from knowledge, away from cleverness, away from the merely known. Its window is open. Yet the writing trembles hugely, with an earnestness toward truth, and an aroused plainnes.
Forster's English landscape is not unknown, it is already sacred. Forster can condescend to the idea of erecting a national shrine precisely because the land is already its own shrine, hallowed and binding. England is known, named, literary. Forster's writing is cozy, prissy-clever. It has a contract with the reader, to whom Forster makes direct address ("our island"). It is slackly written: the word "fibres" is at once lame, in a literary sense, and awkwardly hints at moral fiber or backbone. Cather is suggestive, stroking the not-said; Forster is explicit, and eager to clear things up. Where Cather respects a mystery, Forster engulfs one.
Despite his reputation as "a novelist of ideas," his interest in France and his Anglo-American suavity, Julian Barnes is a very English writer who is squarely in Forster's descent. Like Forster, he is brisk with mystery, a little fussy, undeniably clever and certainly cozy. He is Forster without the grand liberalism, and without the triumphant uncertainties of A Passage To India. He has adapted Forster's penchant for interrupting his texts (Virginia Woolf complained that Forster was like a light sleeper who was always getting up to come into the next room) into a mode of direct address with his readers. He is thoroughly literary, and fond of literary sports. Like Forster, he has an essentially neat mind. He clears up his intellectual mess as he goes along.
Life, in Barnes's books, is a picnic of the mind. Barnes spreads a cloth and presents riddles and games for our ingestion. Actually, under skeptical investigation, these riddles and games begin to look like simplicities that are merely camouflaged as fiendish complexities. His fiction is beguiling because it is confident about the known and jauntily undaunted by the unknown.
Barnes is famous for the bright and waxy health of his "ideas." But his fiction is addicted to fact, to the tidiness and undistress of the known. His novels and stories propose mysteries which then, in a quiet spirit of self-congratulation, they solve. Of course, the solutions are not announced as such. Often they are announced as further complications. But, in Barnes's world, mysteries are clearer for their enunciation as such. Perplexity need never cause real pain. Talk clears the air, and is preferred to silence. And so, when Barnes tells us that something is complicated, or paradoxical, it does not sound complicated or paradoxical any longer. "But then the quotidian is often preposterous, and so the preposterous may in return be plausible," as the narrator of one of the stories in Cross Channel helpfully offers. Barnes smoothes his world into summation. Nothing in this world escapes summation, not least those moments which, he tells us, are escaping summation.
Is this the gift of hard simplicity? Or is it not the trick of easy difficulty? Barnes is a master of the first half of the escape artist's act, when he elaborately imprisons himself. Certainly, Barnes likes to entangle himself. His usual method is to select a simplicity and to turn it into a riddle. What he seems to do, in such a circumstance, is to complicate something. But his complications do not cross his simplicities at any moment; they run parallel to them. His novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is a concertina of riddles, but it is dedicated, in all its smart expansions and contractions, to the production of a facile and solving music.
One of its contractions—its half-chapter—is called "Parenthesis," and it has become celebrated as a full-throated contemporary song of love, when such proclamations are rare. In "Parenthesis," the novel's narrator, speaking with the authority and the range of the real Julian Barnes, attempts to probe the mystery of love. The probing is entirely typical of Barnes's procedures. First, we must overpower something that we take for granted, and make it seem more difficult to itself. "Let's start at the beginning. Love makes you happy? No. Love makes the person you love happy? No. Love makes everything all right? Indeed no." So love is not the simplicity we thought it was, says Barnes. (Of course, this simplicity is his making, not ours. His repeated "No's" are stern corrections to unasked questions. How many of Barnes's readers think that "love makes everything all right"?)
Next Barnes fakes—the word is not too strong—the motions of argument. Having established his mystery, Barnes offers deeper mysteries. But the mysteries that he offers are as simple as the simple misapprehensions that he thinks he is defeating. We think that the heart is a simple organ, Barnes asserts. (Do we?) But "the heart isn't heart-shaped." Barnes provides some stubborn facts about the heart, such as that in a child, "the heart is proportionately much larger than in an adult," and that "after death the heart assumes the shape of a pyramid." Barnes's narrator visits the butcher and buys an ox's heart. He dissects it "with a radiologist friend." The result of these labors? The heart is not a simple organ. Internally, it is complex and bloody and messy.
One should note the motion here: we are being warned against simplicity in a manner that is itself simplifying. That the final message about love is, at the end of these mental labors, childishly solving, and cozily fenced, is not a surprise: "Love won't change the history of the world … but it will do something much more important: teach us to stand up to history, to ignore its chin-out strut…. How you cuddle in the dark governs how you see the history of the world." "How you cuddle" ! But that is precisely what Barnes offers his readers: a kind of intellectual cuddle, not in the dark, but in good, cleansing daylight.
This is not a prose of discovery, but a prose of the idea of discovery. That is why, although he loves metaphor, and uses it abundantly, his metaphors do not deepen or complicate his world. Comparing his wife's easy sleep with his own restlessness, the narrator in "Parenthesis" confesses: "I admire her because she's got this job of sleeping that we all have to do, every night, ceaselessly, better worked out than I have. She handles it like a sophisticated traveller unthreatened by a new airport. Whereas I lie there in the night with an expired passport, pushing a baggage trolley with a squeaking wheel across to the wrong carousel." But curiously, although Barnes wants us to compare the order of one approach to sleep with the disorder of the other, both are subsumed within the simplifying order of his metaphor. The wife's serenity sounds as easy as the husband's anarchy, because both have been trivialized.
This is one of Barnes's intellectual habits, and it is in evidence in his new book of stories. Two opposing ideas are selected; but as they collide, they each expose the absurdity and the vulnerability of their opposing extremity. This is neat enough to watch, but it seems easy, for what is really difficult is not the vulnerability of extremity, but the troublesome solidity of what is in the middle, of what is not extreme. As the Fool warns Lear, "Thou hast pared thy wit on both sides and left nothing i' th' middle." So has Barnes.
One of the new stories, "Junction," is about the building of the Rouen-Paris-Le Havre railway line in the 1840s. Like most of the stories in this book, it tidily deploys and tidily solves, while pretending not to. The rail-building interests Barnes because the line was largely built by English navvies, and is thus one of the "Cross Channel" entanglements of the French and the British that provides this volume with its title-theme. The story generates a collision between the opposition of scientific triumphalism (the railway) and religious obscurantism (a local curé's belief that the line is preparing not the path of French travelers, but the way of the Lord). Barnes nicely exposes the weakness and the comedy of both extremities. The story is charming, and zany with fact.
Cross Channel ends with a story called "Tunnel," which is about an "elderly English gentleman" who takes the Chunnel train from London to Paris, in the year 2015. He reflects on many of the themes and some of the situations in the book's preceding stories. We suspect that this reflective gentleman may well be Barnes himself. As indeed he is. The story ends: "And the elderly English gentleman, when he returned home, began to write the stories you have just read."
Earlier in the story, Barnes meditates on something that one of his narrators has already announced: the preposterousness of ordinary reality, and hence the ordinariness of the preposterous. The elderly author, thinking about the trick that reality plays on the creative imagination, remembers a woman seen frantically searching her handbag at an airport. What had she lost? Surely, the writer thinks, it could not be something humdrum, like lipstick or film. Perhaps it is a "contraceptive item whose absence would imperil the holiday"? The woman is in his party, and days later, after obsessing about it, he asks her what she had lost at the airport. Her boarding card, she replies.
The author is deliriously happy at the foolishness of the quotidian. He is uncertain which delights him more, "the excess of his misprisions or the primness of the truth." This is nicely phrased. But note that both positions, his misprisions and the truth, are excessive. The imagination, which invented all kinds of disasters for the frantic lady, is excessive; and the truth, which bested imagination, is excessive. Both are a bit ridiculous, and somewhat trivialized. Both have been caricatured, and what is being enjoyed here is not the comic surprise of ordinariness, but the pantomime of banality.
Barnes's fiction caricatures truth while playing games with it. Many of these games have to do with fact. Barnes is in love with facts: true facts, false facts, funny facts, ironic facts. Flaubert's Parrot, Barnes's first great success, is an attractive meditation on fact. Barnes takes the details of Flaubert's life and stretches them until they no longer have the dependable silence of facts, but the smart reply of riddle or paradox. He likes to enslave facts with a sense of their own constructedness. It is well-known, for example, that when Flaubert and his friend Du Camp climbed the largest pyramid in Giza to watch the dawn, Flaubert found, attached to the top of the pyramid, a calling card that said Humbert, Frotteur and an address in Rouen, Flaubert's own town. Barnes notes that this seems to us one of the great modern ironies. But Flaubert's friend Du Camp had planted the card there the night before; and Flaubert had himself brought the card from Rouen to Egypt. Was Flaubert planning his own traveler's ironies? Barnes, it seems, makes the familiar less stable than we had imagined it to be.
But despite Barnes's post-modern compound eye—the writer, locust-like, seeing around and behind all truths—he is old-fashionedly in love with the surety of fact. In this, he displays his Englishness. He is not a European Pyrrhonist, he is an English empiricist—more precisely, a rogue empiricist, for whom facts, real ones and faked ones, are all pieces of information. Le Figaro (of course) has praised Barnes for "the abundance of original thought, the wealth of information" in his work. (Who reads fiction for a "wealth of information"? Original thought puts "information" on a diet, rations it.) For many of Barnes's readers, however, it is hard to tell if he is feeding true or false information. And that is the point. Some of Barnes's somewhat preening details seem benignly verifiable, such as the information that Flaubert likened himself to a camel, and that "chameau, camel, was slang for an old courtesan. I do not think this association would have put Flaubert off." And noting that Flaubert also likened himself to a bear, Barnes's narrator gushes forth bear-information: "William Scoresby, the Arctic explorer, noted that the liver of the bear is poisonous—the only part of any quadruped known to be so. Among zookeepers there is no known test for pregnancy in the polar bear. Strange facts that Flaubert might not have found strange."
But some of Barnes's facts are more obscure. The elderly English gentleman in "Tunnel" remarks, as the train passes through Lille, that he could get off and visit "the last surviving French slag-heap." But the story is set in 2015. Is this Barnes's prediction of where France's last slag-heap will be situated? Much of the rest of this new book deals in historical information—about Victorian railways, or an English cricket team that was preparing to travel to France in 1789, while revolution was breaking. Most readers will be sure about the Rouen-Paris railway, but unsure about the eighteenth-century cricket team. In Barnes's style of narrative, however, there is no such thing as ruined facts, for all that he goes around happily destroying them. For the facts that Barnes explodes or complicates have the same status as the true facts (like the building of the French railways) that he leaves alone. All his facts startle so as to soothe.
How? First, they offer the riddle of their strangeness—cricket was last played at the Olympics, in 1900, in Los Angeles, according to one of the stories here—and then the impregnability of their existence, which is itself a kind of solution to their strangeness. Even when we suspect the accuracy of certain facts, they are still soothing, because they connect us to the known world. Even inaccurate facts have a kind of empirical electricity for Barnes, since they connect him to a larger informational zealousness. Wrong facts contain within themselves the ghost of their own accuracy, in the same way that a good parody says something true about its object.
Barnes has made knowingness into an aesthetic. For him, the world is, despite his games, old-fashionedly knowable. When we learn, in Flaubert's Parrot, about the complicating ironies of that calling card at the top of the Egyptian pyramid, we complicate our knowledge; but not very much, and it is always better, in Barnes's world, to know more than to know less. In the end, Barnes always wants to help, to inform, to solve, to charm, to boast. However he muddies the waters, he always ferries us across. He points out helpfully that the waters are now very muddy, because he has stirred them up, but he is still ferrying us.
Of course, all fictional description contains fact, and description is explanation. The writer must then make a revolution with this description-explanation. In Barnes's fiction, however, facts are separated from description and handed out like coins to the reader. Barnes's writing does little with them, descriptively. All this information comes from the known world, and merely passes through Barnes's writing on its way to the reader, who is also in the known world. It is as if Barnes's prose is merely a host to this passage.
As a result, his fiction is one of tidy statement. He likes to order his themes even as he proclaims that he is scattering ideas all over the floor. In the story "Experiment," in this new book, Barnes has fun with the jauntiness of his empirical load: a young man tells us about the strange tale of his Uncle Freddy, who as a young man in Paris in 1928 once took part in André Breton's Surrealist Group's researches into sexuality. The hearty Englishman, sitting next to Breton and Queneau, and forced to intellectualize about the commonsensical business of sex, is a fine donnée, and amusing. But it is precisely the jauntiness of Barnes's fact—did an Englishman really participate in these famous sessions?—which imprisons the story, and makes it a revolving conceit rather than a grasped truth. "Experiment" is itself an experiment, a controlled experiment, sealed and finite.
This tidiness is a peculiar problem of English fiction in this century. A writer such as D. H. Lawrence, who bullies his reader but who also bullies himself, whose prose is a violent bloom of awkwardness—such a writer is the exception in modern English fiction. Formal neatness, a fondness for over-explicitness or direct statement, and a fat hand with symbolism, are more characteristic. One sees this in early Forster, in William Golding, in Angus Wilson, in Doris Lessing; and in our own age, in Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes.
Kipling, whose stories have a vigorous reticence (even as his poems are ideological ballads), is a different exception to the English zeal for plain-speaking. Barnes's best story in this new book, "Evermore," about a woman's lifelong mourning for her brother, who was killed in the First World War, is strongly reminiscent of two Kipling stories on a similar theme, "The Gardener" and "Mary Postgate." In "Evermore," we learn of Miss Moss, an aging proofreader, who makes obsessive visits in her antique Morris Minor car to the French war cemetery where her brother lies. She cannot forget him, and has dedicated her life to remembrance.
This is a touching story. Here Barnes comes closest to defeating his own intellectual tidiness, and to producing something that discovers grief, rather than something that tells us about grief. But even here Barnes will not let his material flow its own way. He cannot resist bustling around. Where Kipling's two stories about a woman's grief subtract, Barnes's story over-supplies. Kipling seems to tell us everything about Mary Postgate, except about her obsessive hatred of the Germans. Barnes cannot help informing us that Miss Moss's life was "devoted … entirely to her own commemorations." Miss Moss is given to ask herself the kinds of rhetorical questions, perfectly expressed, that only characters in stories asks themselves, such as: "Was it a vice to have become such a connoisseur of grief?" We are told about her "voluptuous selfishness of grief," a phrase whose own luxuriousness condescends, somewhat, to Miss Moss. And this sentimentality of explicitness: "She claimed no understanding of military matters. All she claimed was an understanding of grief."
The story is themed. Its own devotion to commemoration does not make clearer its protagonist's devotion, but drowns it. By the end, Barnes is interrupting, like Forster, and talking directly to the reader—making his own appeal, literalizing the theme of remembrance: "if this [forgetting the First World War] happened to the individual, could it not also happen on a national scale?"
Narrative must discover. The facts that it "discovers" already exist, of course; but great fiction is not daunted by the prior existence of the world. Great fiction appears to discover facts by giving us the impression that our reading of the text completes the bottom half of a discovery whose plaintive top stalk the writer has merely uncovered. Fiction should seem to offer itself to the reader's completion, not to the writer's. This whisper of conspiracy is one of fiction's necessary beauties. Perhaps this illusion of discovery, the uncovering of a world which is related to, but not continuous with, the known world, is fiction's greatest beauty: fiction's false bottom.
It cannot be said enough: this is not, as in the fiction of Julian Barnes, the false bottom of fact, by which we learn one certainty only to have it replaced by another, brighter or more complicated certainty. It is the false bottom of truth, whereby we learn many things, all of them bottomless. Fiction must not stroke the known. It must distress the undiscovered. A literature of fact, of knowingness, a fiction like Barnes's, knows too much and speaks too much. But a literature that discovers, that dares to know less, is always on the verge of what is not sayable, rather than at the end of what has just been said.
In such quietness, we may attend to Cather's large hush, as we wait for the message-carrying air to blow through our open window.
Source: James Wood, "The Fact-checker," in New Republic, September 25, 1977, pp. 40-43.
Barnes, Julian, "Melon," in Cross Channel, Vintage Books, 1996, pp. 65-87.
Hoffert, Barbara, Review of Cross Channel, in Library Journal, March 15, 1996, p. 98.
Review of Cross Channel, in New Yorker, December 16, 1996, p. 109.
Review of Cross Channel, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn 1996, p. 132.
Review of The Lemon Table, in San Francisco Chronicle, July 25, 2004, Sunday Final Edition, p. M2.
Binton, Craig, The Anatomy of Revolution, Vintage, 1965.
Binton's book, considered a classic in its field, explores the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, explaining their similar structural patterns.
Guignery, Vanessa, The Fiction of Julian Barnes, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Guignery has written extensively about Barnes and here gives a comprehensive overview of criticism on Barnes's works.
Kempton, Adrian, "A Barnes Eye View of France," in Franco-British Studies, Vol. 2, Autumn 1996, pp. 92-101.
Basically reviewing Cross Channel, Kempton focuses on the importance of French themes throughout the book.
Moseley, Merritt, Understanding Julian Barnes, University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Though this book touches on only a few of the stories from Cross Channel, it offers extensive explication of Barnes's fiction dating from the time that this story was published.
Pateman, Matthew, Julian Barnes, Northcote House, 2002.
Pateman's focus is on Barnes's novels, but his analysis gives a good understanding of the writer.
Sesto, Bruce, "Julian Barnes and Postmodernist Fiction," in Language, History, and Metanarrative in the Fiction of Julian Barnes, Peter Lang, 2001.
This book focuses primarily on Barnes's novels, but Sesto's introduction offers a good way for readers to place Barnes in a literary context.
"Melon." Short Stories for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/melon
"Melon." Short Stories for Students. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/melon