Julian Barnes

Three works that speak with immediacy, across miles and decades.

A writer whose work frequently blurs the boundaries between fictional invention and an essayist’s engagement with history, art, and philosophy, Julian Barnes has married the cerebral with matters of the heart in unclassifiable works such as Flaubert’s Parrot and The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. His new book of short stories, Pulse, revisits themes that have pervaded his novels — loss and love, friendship and fidelity. This week he points us to two collections of short fiction that demonstrate the form’s limitless range, as well as an eminent novelist’s unique life of her more famous colleague.

Books by Julian Barnes

Long, Last, Happy: New and Collected Stories

By Barry Hannah

“This is both an anthology and a tribute to a great voice of the American South. Hannah died last year, much praised by fellow writers but not as widely read as he deserved to be. He had a perfect ear, an eye for scary detail, and a kind of literary bravado about him: if in doubt, go for it, was his rule. The ride often makes your stomach somersault and your ears pop.”

In the Driver’s Seat

By Helen Simpson

“As English and female as Hannah is American and male, Simpson is the best British short-story writer under 50. The two of them, taken together, show the extraordinary range of tone and content the form can include. A (male) English critic recently wrote, ‘You wouldn’t want to be a man in a Helen Simpson short story,’ not even if you were Barry Hannah. Merciless, funny, and wise. Look out for her next collection, In-Flight Entertainment, coming out in 2012.”

The Life of Charlotte Brontë

By Elizabeth Gaskell

“The first biography of a woman novelist by another woman novelist, Gaskell’s book remains amazingly fresh after a century and a half, and as fascinating in its flaws as in its many strengths. Though deeply sympathetic in general, Gaskell was alarmed by (and sought to mitigate) what Gaskell and her fellow-Victorians thought of as the ‘coarseness’ of Brontë. Her ‘branding’ started off the Brontë industry, whose founding myths are still being unpicked to this day (see, for instance, The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller).”