Poured Over: Julian Barnes on Elizabeth Finch
“This is one of the great differences between journalism and literature, which I practice in. You write journalism in order for everything to be absolutely clear at the first reading … you write fiction in order to reflect the complexity of the world. And that complexity isn’t necessarily grasped at first meeting.” Elizabeth Finch is the latest (and deceptively slim) new novel from Julian Barnes, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending. He joins us on the show to talk about cutting to the chase, unreliable narrators, the intersection of time and memory and history, translating Flaubert, his friendships with fellow Booker Prize-winners Anita Brookner and Ian McEwan, electric typewriters and Blackwing pencils, and more with Poured Over’s host, Miwa Messer. And we finish this episode with TBR Topoff book recommendations from Marc and Becky.
Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (translated by Frances Steegmuller
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (translated by Lydia Davis)
Featured Books (TBR Topoff)
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Poured Over is produced and hosted by Miwa Messer and mixed by Harry Liang. New episodes land Tuesdays and Thursdays (with occasional Saturdays) here and on your favorite podcast app.
Full transcript for this episode:
B&N: I’m Miwa Messer, I’m the producer and host of Poured Over and I had been reading Julian Barnes for a very, very long time. Flaubert’s Parrot was the first book that I came to. And I’ve been following him since. Elizabeth Finch is his 25th book. And I want to open with something, Julian that you said. It’s the very first line of this novel. She stood before us without notes, books or nerves. And I’m wondering if you would introduce Elizabeth Finch to listeners, please.
Julian Barnes: Elizabeth Finch is a writer, minor writer in her 40s. Guess, who teaches an evening classes to outpost London University. She teaches a course called culture and civilization, which sounds rather sort of grand and formal, but she manages to make teaching an informal and provocative process. She She doesn’t give them a reading list. Or if she does, it’s, it’s optional. She doesn’t even ask them to make notes. And she likes to approach things not in a conventional way at all. For instance, she doesn’t say Gerta said, she says a famous person in the 19th century said that when he was on his deathbed said that he had only been happy for a quarter of an hour of his life. She just presents that as a statement. What do you make of it? What do you think of it? Let’s discuss happiness. Let’s discuss how we remember our lives, how we remember the extent of happiness? Because if she said, Gerta said this, they’ll they think, Oh, well, you know, he’s a great sage. So obviously, he must, he must know. And he must tell the truth. And oh, dear, have I been too happy, and things like that. So she likes to sort of wrong foot them, but at the same time in a way that makes it easier for them. And of course, as with all teachers, some including the books narrator, who’s called Neil, respond deeply, almost viscerally to her and admire her and and indeed, love her almost from the start. And he naturally assumes that everyone else has the same. You gradually discovers that they don’t, that all teachers evoke a variety of feelings in their pupils. And by the end, it becomes by the very end of the book, he goes back to one or two of his fellow pupils, many years down the line long after Elizabeth Finch is dead. And they have very different memories from his. But most of the time, were led by him and his perception of her.
B&N: She is teaching adults how to think, which I quite like, usually when you see a student, teacher relationship and literature, it’s someone in their formative years, who’s being influenced by a grown up and Neil isn’t.. I think Neil is in his 40s, isn’t he? I mean, he’s a failed actor. He didn’t quite okay. So he’s in his 30s. But he’s not that far off and age.
JB: We don’t know the exact figures. He’s had his life, you know, he’s had one failed marriage. He’s been an actor. He’s worked in the restaurant, trade, he’s grown mushrooms in the field is sort of one of those people who’s had several stabs at life. And then in their 30s, being a bit beached things, you know, I want I want to be serious. I want to study something and the many people like this, and some don’t take it up, and some do. And he’s the one of the ones who did, and he says that after a bit when he had been hurt. He’s been in the Finches class. He felt as if he’s being led towards the center of seriousness inside, which I think is what great teachers do, or can do. I’ve never had one.
B&N: She’s quicksilver for him. She’s quicksilver. She’s absolutely the thing that sets him up. I’ve had a couple of teachers that have set me on interesting paths, but I’m always sort of open to seeing what the world brings. And I seem to have that quite a lot from writers who I may or may not know, in real life.
JB: I mean, I never had an inspiring teacher. I mean, I had had good teachers and bad teachers. I had a range of them. But I didn’t fit my old friend Ian McEwan, for example. He’s had an example of someone, the classic example of someone who had an inspiring English teacher who showed him the way in, never looked back. And in fact, in his next book to come out, which is called Lessons, which is coming out, I guess quite soon as well. He brings in this teacher by name and pays homage and respect him. And he told his teachers who was 100, or maybe 101, that he was going to do this in the book. And did he wants the teacher to give him a different name. And the teacher said, No, I absolutely want my own name. So his own names in the book, and between Ian writing is in the book coming out, the teacher died, which is sort of sad. Um, how neat.
B&N: Yeah, in my research, I discovered you did have a professor at University though, who was like, you might try journalism, as if that was not a good thing. And you have written nonfiction for years and years and years. And there is a moment in Elizabeth Finch, the second section of the book, where Neil has finally delivered his essay for the end of the class, many, many years late.
JB: Yes. Now after her death.
B&N: Yeah, yeah, all of this. But it’s about Julian the Apostate. And I’m curious as to why Elizabeth has this connection to Julian the Apostate and I’ve read the book a couple of times. Now, I think I understand. But at the same time, I’d love to hear you explain how Elizabeth ended up with Julian?
JB: Well, I think the connection is being in a spirit of contrariness towards your own times. In this moment, when Neil says of Elizabeth Finch, she didn’t seem to she she didn’t seem to be present in the normal way, the living world and the current world. And yet, she didn’t seem old fashioned. It was more as if she was sort of above time or beyond time, like some ancient goddess, he says very specifically. And though, that’s an exaggeration, she’s a very human person. She is not of her time, she does not indulge in, she takes the long view she does not indulge in. She’s the last person to have a box set of videos and things like that, or, or be interested in sport and all sorts of trivial things that many of us are very interested in. And so I guess one of the connections is that Julian the Apostate, who was the last pagan emperor of Rome, was also someone who was against his time, though, in a more extreme way. And just as she later in the book, has a sort of public chastisement by the press. He has a public trust in her husband for 1300 years after his death by being demonized by the Christian church. He was the apostate back then, now it means someone who changes their religion, but back then it and indeed, during the apostles it did, but back then apostate was another word for devil for Satan. So he was just called Satan. And he was an exemplar for the Christian Pope and the Christian empire, have the worst sort of evil and paganism that could exist. And it’s, he has an astonishing afterlife. And this is partly what fascinated me. He was he was killed in the Persian desert in 363 AD, having been Roman Emperor Emperor for only 18 months. His dying words supposedly, we should always mistrust famous last words, his they were supposedly were thou hast conquered appeal, Galileo and Paragon lay in being Jesus Christ. And this is supposed to be the mission of both military and theological acknowledgement of failure. Of course, the Quit was made up several decades after his death story, but it was it was a line that I first came across in a Swinburne poem about 10 or 15 years ago, and I was just struck by it that has conquered a pale gather there. And Swinburne and many other writers from 16th century onward, thought of Julian the Apostate as a lost leader, as a great hero, as someone who was against the Christians very firmly, but didn’t persecute them, he persecuted the mildly which they, they wanted to be persecuted strongly because they wanted martyrdom.
B&N: Elizabeth Finch is such a Julian Barnes. But book to me, because here we are, we have this very slim introduction of who she is and who Neil is, and you do it in very quick sentences. We don’t get Elizabeth’s complete story. We don’t need it. We don’t need her complete backstory to know who she is as a teacher. And we’re pretty clear on who knew very quickly, and then all of a sudden, we’ve got this diversion.
JB: I think as you get older, you want to cut to the chase more. Time is shorter. The thought of writing sentences like as he crossed the brutalist concrete quadrangle of the University of what’s it face, Neil reflected on his forthcoming meeting with her. No no.
B&N: This is not a romanic play. I want to be clear about that. But Elizabeth does share some resemblance to the Booker Award-winning novelist, Anita Brookner. And you two were legendarily friends for quite a number of years. And but it was lunch, right?
JB: We were friends, we were good friends. And it was entirely on her terms. I mean, I met her first. And it’s a strange start for a friendship. When we were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Before I was shortlisted for Flaubert’s Parrot and she was shortlisted for Hotel du Lac. And I remember getting on holiday with my wife to provincial France and sitting under a tree and reading Hotel du Lac and saying, well, it’s quite good, but I certainly won’t lose to that book, which I got, I got the proper punishment for hubris. And I lost to that book. But then I realized how wonderful its author was, and and we met a few times, and then it sort of settled down into a sort of six monthly lunch. She’d always be at the table before I got there. She would always be smoking a cigarette, she would always have a very light, main course and a cup of black coffee. And she’s making another cigarette, lasted about 75 minutes. And I always, always wanted to be on my best behavior for her. She made she thought of me, and this is a parallel with the book, but she sort of brought out the best in you, you wanted to tell the things that would interest her. And at the same time, you knew those a mark, you couldn’t do a step. I remember once ringing her up and saying, I’ve seen this program, the National Film theater, and it’s all the very first cinematic footage of Paris. And I was about to describe it. And she said no, I don’t think so. Which which actually quite brutal, brutal, but she she had laid down the grounds. There is, in Elizabeth Finch, something of a Anita Brookner. And I think what it is, is this is a sort of moral rigor, a truth telling a refusal to compromise. I mean, there’s been a lot of fuss in the British press about, you know, Barnes remembers his old friend, Anita Brookner. No Barnes doesn’t. And Barnes can’t think of anything more boring than aroma. ICLEI. I sent the book to my Australian friends who’s a writer, Marie Bale, who knew Anita very well, he probably knew her more than I did better than I did. And he wrote back and said, yes, a very faint whiff of an eater. And I think that that’s as far as it goes that it’s like, you know, her scent lingers in the room after she’s gone. But she was certainly at the starting point. Yes.
B&N: I think Neil also has moments where he’s under estimating, Elizabeth, actually, I’m just going to quote you again, because that’s the easiest way to do this. Also by a kind of protectiveness, because in a way we sense that she was unfit for the world, and that her high mindedness might make her vulnerable. And this was not meant to be patronizing. So I mean, Neil, all best intentions, and yeah, he’s patronizing but vulnerable is not a word that I would ever use to describe Elizabeth Finch.
JB: No, no, but he is picking up on her unworldliness. A certain I mean, in some way she’s incredibly worldly, but she doesn’t interact with the everyday world. And, while that looks and sounds patronizing from Neil, by the end of the book. And it is the finches has suffered a sort of public shaming, the Hansen press. And so that’s the sort of thing that he in a in a gauche way, thinks he must try and protect her from. It’s ambiguous that attitude. It’s not just patronizing. It’s also tender. In this what we do in relationships, we often see a person’s strengths, but also half suspect their vulnerabilities and their weaknesses, which may be our invention. But that they’re part of, and of what this is, which is the kind of love relationship.
B&N: It’s very clear early on that Neil is in love with Elizabeth and a platonic way. I mean, he just loves her as a human. But the stories he tells himself about everything, push him more towards the unreliable narrator, than the person Neil thinks he is. I think
JB: I’d find the way most unreliable narrators think they’re reliable. And I think I think he’s, he’s one of them. I mean, I didn’t, I didn’t pitch him to myself as an unreliable narrator. He obviously is his prejudiced. And he’s prejudiced greatly in favor of Elizabeth Finch and his half in love with that, and and later on other other students, fellow students say, you know, she wasn’t a really good teacher, no, no, she was a old fashioned, you know, just didn’t have any understanding of theory for a start and stuff like that, which both contradict him, and in a way confirm him in his views,
B&N: The way Neil approaches history. He has no real sense of history until he sits in Elizabeth’s class and starts to put together pieces. And it’s, as you said earlier in the conversation that he is looking to engage with a new way of learning, and he wants to just do things differently. And he wants to have almost a project. And he does talk about being the king of unfinished projects.
JB: That’s what his daughters call him, yes.
B&N: And there’s so much conversation, though, about history and the way we see it, and the way it shapes us. And the fact that history is something that happens in the moment, that it’s not just this dry thing that follows us around. To Neil is revelatory. He’s never thought about the world that way. He’s just sort of like, well, this is the thing I was taught.
JB: Yes, yes, yes. And that is what you what you tend to think if you don’t take history very seriously. And if you’re just taught the history of your tramping country. He’s very struck. One point by a quote, that Elizabeth Finch gives the class I don’t don’t know if she even identifies it as being that of downers Ronaldo, the 19th century French philosopher, and historian. And it’s a wonderful and profound remark, which is getting its history wrong, is part of being a nation. And it’s very interesting what he doesn’t say He doesn’t say, which would be more, which be interesting but more banal, getting its history wrong as part of becoming a nation. Because we all know that there’s a creation myth every country has. We defeated the invaders, we fought for them on the beaches, etc, etc. But, but his point is more profound, getting its history wrong as part of being a nation in order to continue to be a nation, you have to continue to get your history wrong. And to retell it in a particular way. We need more of looking at the past, especially in Britain, you know, where colonial history and history involvement, deep involvement in the slave trade has been sort of, you know, pretty much whitewashed for hundreds of years. And it’s slowly coming to the surface. I mean, other nations do it differently. I mean, the Germans are famous for re examining their past in a much more serious and fundamental way. We are on the conservative side, in my country, thinks that as soon as you say, oh, that person actually he was a slave trader, as well as, as a financier. You’re sort of somehow trying to tear down and destroy what is our history, but our history is their history rather than our history. And so there are lots of histories and this is one of the things that Elizabeth Finch leads Neil to, the notion that could have been otherwise who You know, Alexander Pope in SAR man has the line, whatever it is, is right. And he’s going to justify it God’s ways to man. But whatever is isn’t necessary, right? It’s what we’ve been presented at a with, at a certain point when we were born into this world. And so, she gets Neil to reflect on what would have happened during the apostate, having brought the Roman Empire out of Christianity and reintroduced paganism. What if he had not just lived for 18 months and then being killed and then Christianity took over for the rest of the time, what would have been avoided was the immense destruction and violence by the early Christians. They were famously violent, and made it mainly violent Indonesians strife, that Christians killed 300 times more of their own than were killed by the Romans, you know, we think, Oh, Romans, they just drag Christians into the Colosseum and have eaten by lions? Well, no, actually, they didn’t kill many Christians compared to the number of Christians killed by their fellow Christians. And then there’s the immense destruction of Greek and Latin texts, immense paintings, sculptures. 98%, is the figure generally agreed off of the amount of Greek and Roman texts that were destroyed and disappeared. They just wanted to destroy and wipe out Hellenistic civilization.
B&N: The thing that I appreciated about having this piece and it’s a not insignificant piece of the book about Julian one, I didn’t know anything about Julian until I picked up Elizabeth Finch. My educational background was less about the Greeks and the Romans and a little bit more about East Asia. So I sort of skedaddled in a different direction. But the idea that we can turn to fiction and we can turn to a novel and we can have Neil’s input this is I mean, this is Neil, telling the story of Julian, through his experience of Elizabeth like if there hadn’t been Elizabeth, we wouldn’t have Neal writing on Julian, and you can’t separate the three and yet, I’m not sure I would have the same response. If someone handed me a biography of Julian the Apostate and said, Here, you know, you really should this, this is a foundational work, you should look at this. I’m not sure I would accept that with glee.
JB: I don’t think I would have done. I’ve actually been vaguely intrigued by a space being called Julian I studied a bit of Latin at school. I didn’t know anything about Greek and Latin history, when I was I, I studied modern languages, I was interested in modern things, not old things. But then, these things come at you and you think no, this matter is still alive. And also he was he seems to be a very admirable figure. He was very clever. He wrote a great deal. But some of which has survived about a third, which is survived used to well, he wrote a great deal. He dictated a great deal. He dictated at such speed that he needed to scribes at the same time, because he because he was dictating too fast. And he wrote all sorts of stuff. He read, he read, read, famous attack on Christianity, some of which has survived. And he writes, and he wrote Ponce’s and things like that. And he was, you know, he was a proper intellectual as well as being a good soldier. On the other hand, you know, he did that thing of going into Persia, which is always a mistake, Alexander the Great misstep made it.
B&N: I felt like when I was reading Elizabeth Finch, too, that history was sort of this undercurrent, the way biography was in flow bears parent and the structure obviously, of the two novels is very different. I mean, Flaubert’s Parrot you could argue is a little more experimental. People are not fully aware of the history they carry around with them. They are not fully aware of the history that they’re creating. It’s just it’s this history becomes so very real. For Neil, once Elizabeth dies, she leaves him his paper, her papers and her library, which I wasn’t quite expecting that I mean, it makes sense and then up but the first time I read the line, I was like, Oh, wait, she’s, she’s left him the important things the really One thing’s for notebooks, yes,
JB: That her notes are missing. There are seven, five or six volumes of notes missing, which were which we are notebooks missing, which we are meant to think might have been her attempt to write the story of Julian the Apostate, which is now handed on to him. But going back to your point about history, I mean, that is I quoted earlier the room online of I guess getting its history wrong as part of the nation. And it comes it repeats, it’s a motif of the next its next recurrences getting its history wrong as part of being a religion, which of course is is very clear religious history is full of full of falsehoods. Always wonderful martyrs, and most of whom didn’t exist, made up by the early Christians to to make a vivid and convincing history. And then a bit later, he has getting its history wrong as part of being a family. And I think that that’s for another book maybe that the myths we live in, we live by in a family are quite creative, often, and then getting getting one’s history wrong as part of being a person that comes down to do that as well. And of course we do. We all self mythologize while being confident that we’re not unreliable narrators.
B&N:You’ve talked in the past too, that when you sit down to start a novel, there’s always a situation, it’s more of the idea that gets you started.
B&N: Can we talk about what that moment was for Elizabeth Finch? I mean, obviously, you know, Anita is there in the background, but again, not a Ramona clay. But did it start with Neil, did it start with Julian did it start with just an idea that you had on a Thursday?
JB: Julian the Apostate was there earlier. Because as I said, I read this line of Swinburne SAS competence, and that, that just lodged in my brain, though it didn’t sort of start to grow until soon before I wrote the novel. And, it’s hard to describe the early process, because making the book sort of somehow destroys the memory of the difficulties. And the way you got there, it’s funny, because no, I’m trying to answer as honestly as possible. You go through lots of drafts, you go through lots of mistakes, but you kind of forget them. Because when you get to the final version, it’s not useful to remember where you went wrong, or eggs precisely where you started. And often, I think I would have started with the idea of a woman slightly out of this world, leading people towards truths that are different from the ones they’d expected, if I didn’t formulate it like that. There’s no note that but at the point where you’re fumbling and actually in a kind of state of reverie something like that was beginning to form in my mind. And I think I can just about remember thinking, Yes, but how do the two things come together? Out of the two things come together, and they come together in the parallel characters of Elizabeth Finch and Julian the apostate and also in the fact that she is the one who leads Neil to Julian the Apostate and and Explains History in the way that makes him a fascinating figure from Neil, and I hope for us.
B&N: I learned that Hermione Lee is one of your very early readers for sounds like all of your books. And if somehow you don’t know who she is, she’s the biographer of Tom Stoppard, in Virginia Woolf and Penelope Fitzgerald among other books, but those are the primary that you should absolutely no. Can I ask what she said to you when you pass this book off to her and draft?
JB: Which was quite correct that the middle section is too long and a bit rambling. And I also tend to to my brother, who is who’s a classicist philosopher, and he, quite by chance, happen to be working on the early Christian church and book about the Christian church, in our old age, we have a very friendly and non combative relationship. And, but it was almost as if it was time for him to put me in my place. And he pointed out all sorts of things which are wrong and also I introduce things in the wrong way. And it’s, it’s true that they both picked up on the second part being not fully formed. And not as not as smooth enough narrative for readers who don’t didn’t know about you and the apostate. And also, I was putting things in the wrong order. So they’re both in their different ways very helpful about that. I mean, I think you, you can’t ever outgrow the point where you don’t need a sympathetic critical input. You know, there are examples of writers, novelists, who, at a certain point become so sure that they know what they’re doing that they don’t take any lessons. I mean, Iris Murdoch’s prose is, shall we say, at times a bit over complicated. And she once got a new publisher, my great friend, founder of Virago press, Carmen Khalil, and Colin said two things she I got this I got this tap script from, from Paris, and you know, it’s the filthiest type suit plant ever seen. It’s bacon rinds used as markers and things like that of it. So I made various, many suggestions to her. And she wrote back and she said, thank you very much for your kind suggestions. Now put it back as it was. And, I think that’s perhaps where, as the later books, charismatic and perhaps harder to read than the earlier ones. You know, Kingsley Amos was another, he wouldn’t take any he wouldn’t take a comma, J, he wouldn’t have a comma changed. I think you have to stay open to, you know, Ian McEwan. He sends his books in TypeScript to three or four friends, some old friends and our readers and some particularly targeted for what what the book is dealing with. So he sent the latest documentary and professional secrets. I’m sure he will talk about it. But you know, Tim Garton Ash, the the political historical writer, has a great deal about Germany. He read the TypeScript of book Secrets, and was apparently quite helpful on Germany. The action takes place.
B&N: Your papers are now at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.
JB: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
B&N: So they and they go to a certain I think they go up to 2015. So does this mean they’ll get the rest at some point, I presume. How does that work?
JB: Well, I sold them. There’s a certain point I was always I was always obsessive about my papers. I kept every draft of everything. I’ve written drafts of journalism. I was sort of fetishistic about it. They would follow me around from lodging to lodging. And in the house, where I currently live, and I’ve lived for nearly 40 years. It was previously owned by a photographer. And there’s a little sort of slight little larder, but it has a fireproof door. And he kept all his photographic negatives in it. So if the house burned down, he’s very recognized, we saved up this is just the place for my for my papers. So I had a big metal trunk, and I put them in there and at a certain point, and I can’t explain why they stopped being they stopped having any fetishistic value for me, were just, they were just large amounts of paper, which should, which were the route to what I finally published. And so I thought, Oh, well, you know, why not? Get rid of them. And I just investigated it. And, I’ve been to the Harry Ransom Center, many years before, and was charmed and delighted bytes and the seriousness of it. And I investigated sending them to the British Library or something like that, but there were many complications. And I just thought, actually, it’s quite nice that someone in foreign country wants my papers to be prepared to pay more than the librarian. And then I also thought, well, you know, there’ll be all those notebooks and there will be eventually there’ll be diaries and stuff like that. And I live in a very, you know, sort of gossipy culture. I thought well be quite nice that the chap from the local London newspaper doesn’t just have to go down to To near Euston Station and look at all my diaries. He did have to go to Texas, though, that’s gotten there. Though, of course, you know, by the time by the time I’m dead, everything will be digitalized anyway. And so it doesn’t matter where the actual physical objects are, in terms of of select scholarly access to it.
B&N: I think there’s something to be said for paper though. I mean, when I prep for interviews, I need to work off of paper. I can read digitally, obviously, and it’s convenient. But when I’m really sitting down to think about a conversation, I just I need paper and I really liked pencil. So when I’m marking up my galleys. Destroy galleys with pencil, and then I’ve got these crazy, you know, documents that I use maybe a 10th of when I sit down to speak with someone.
JB: Do you know, Palomino, Blackwing. Pencil?
B&N: I do, and I quite like them.
JB: Yep, they are the best they are. They have an eraser at one end. And they have a special sharpener which you buy, especially for this, all of us who deal with any form of writing have have have fetishes, you know, it’s it’s notebooks, they have to be the books, they have to be that with those sorts of that squared French paper in them, you know. I’ve got so many notebooks just, which I will never feel. But you can’t have too many notebooks. You don’t have too many felt tip pens on. Now I’m very much a non digital person, even though I hate obviously, I’m talking to you that way. And I write my journalism on on my computer. Books, the serious stuff. It often starts it often starts with a pencil in my hand and a notebook. And then, and then lots of notes, and then I start in with a very old IBM electric typewriter.
B&N: Oh, you still have an electric typewriter?
JB: Electric typewriter? Yes.
B&N: There it is.
JB: Yeah. So IBM go for it’s 196 C. And I’ve got two of them in case one breaks down, right. spares are very hard to get. And I I hope I never have to write on a computer because the only time I tried it didn’t work. Didn’t work for me. Anyway, talk to Ian about it. He thinks it works absolutely for him. And he thinks that his that that computer thinks very much like a human brain thinks. Well, I see on this brand is
B&N: I was about to say, sounds like Ian, not you.
JB: My brain works like an electric typewriter. I will say the other thing is that a computer is it’s inert. It’s it’s silent. It doesn’t have an opinion. Whereas my electric typewriter mixes hum. And it’s very companionable. And this is saying, just I’m here. Yep. Whenever you need me, I’m not rushing you. I’m just humming, letting you know. Yeah. Good. Okay, good actually correctly, clack. It’s these things are just so so much of writing is about intellect, and feeling and form, and style and so on, that are bound to be areas where you just need something visceral, you need something being cheered up by a humming electric typewriter.
B&N: If that’s what gets you to the right word. I’m okay with that. Because you are so precise in your language. And this is something you’ve always shared with Flaubert’s Parrot who’s been a massive influence for you over time. I mean, you’ve said that you started reading in French as a teenager. And Flaubert’s Parrot still trumps me. I picked it up before we were going to sit down and talk and it’s been it’s been a while since I’ve read it. And you know, there’s Gerald being Gerald. writers can only do one thing. Flaubert knew this. writers can only do one thing and I’m like, Oh, right. I remember this voice. I remember this voice. And I feel like you still carry flow bearer around with you. I mean, certainly you pull from different places. And you’ve been doing this long enough where you know what works for you. But can we just talk about flow bear for a second because he is kind of one of my favorites and Bovary I had to come back to and I suspect we don’t actually completely agree on Lydia Davis’s translation of Bovary but she’s the one who brought me back, and I was like, oh, I just needed someone to put a different lens on this.
JB: For me, yes, yes, yes. But my beef with her translation was that, and it’s it’s a fashion and translation is syntactical tracking, which means that you make the you make the foreign make the English sentence, as far as possible follow the progression of the foreign sentence. But this is often very counter to what English grammar is like. And so it’s often strikes my ear, often preferred translations which had done as soon as possible after the original work. I mean, I know that the great Russians have been re translated recently. And, they will probably be more accurate as to the original text. But sometimes, I mean, I slightly prefer my translations loose rather than very, very fiercely tethered. And I like in a constant scan. It was a wonderful translator progressive. And I’d often often rather read them not. And also because the prose is the pros of that time. So it’s been translated like, you know, 20 or 30 years later, but it’s it’s a prose, which is 100 years away from that. So, you have that it was a way of getting into the period by itself.
B&N: Sam Taylor has a particularly great translation of a French novel called HHhH by Laurent Binet.
JB: Yes, yes.
B&N: It flys. And it’s about a plot to kill him where.
JB: Yes, I’ve read it. Yes. It’s wonderful.
B&N: It’s really terrific. And I just, I had never experienced a modern translation like that. And also, it turns out that Sam, I think writes YA on the side as well, which I did not expect. HHhH just moves on. I was like, I can’t believe I’m completely caught up in this. You tend to write shorter novels. I very much appreciate it. Is that connected to the journalism at all? Or is that just the way you approach story and the way you just this is what I have to say in the moment?
JB: Yes, you know, my longest novel was Arthur and George, I think is about 450 pages or something 150 to possibly 500, if they set it loosely. And history will tend to have chapters about 320 or so. I don’t like overstaying my welcome. I appreciate concision in novelist. I think that, in my writing lifetime novels have got longer, not least because they’re written on computers. I like the idea of labor. I like the idea of physical labor, in creating a book. If you have written books, you browse in them a lot more. If you look something up online, on which page or whatever, on the digital version of the Oxford Dictionary, you look up the word and there it is that you don’t sort of get the wrong page and look at a different word first, and so on, like the sort of both sort of slight element of labor, but also the hazard of looking things up in, in books.
B&N:Serendipity matters. We don’t have enough serendipity anymore. It’s very easy. It’s hard to get lost. Now when you have a computer in your pocket and take a wrong turn. And then you can immediately fix the situation. But then maybe you miss out on a very pretty block or coffee shop that you’ve never seen before. And I know serendipity.
JB: Yes, yes. Well, I miss maps, you know, people don’t use maps anymore. I have driving maps, and I take them out, and I realized that everyone else has some something like Waze or Google Maps or whatever. And so, people don’t need to know how to get to places. And so for instance, I’ve lived in London since I was nine. Nope, it’s no since I was nine weeks. I’ve been schooled here and I and I have a very strong sense of where everything is in the city. Yet when I go out with a younger person, and on a trip and they use their digital system of guidance, I realized that they have, this doesn’t give them a map in the head of what of what the city is. They’d say they don’t need it. And but one of these days, you know, all the stuff is going to break down. And we’re going back to paper maps.
B&N: And you could also argue that a map in the head is memory. I mean, memory is a huge part of it. It’s a huge part of many of your books, but certainly Elizabeth Finch, I mean, the memories that Neil uses to construct his version. Yes, Elizabeth? Yes. Yes. I mean, those of his brother doesn’t even quite know who she is, which, you know, he wouldn’t be the first sibling in the history of the world to not know his younger siblings.
JB: Indeed, no, no, I think also as you enter your later years, but time and memory are big, become bigger and bigger subjects. And what, what time does to memory? And what memory does to time it’s there. And also, how under that, increasingly, you realize how unreliable memory is. I had a long discussion with my brother, when I was writing a book, called Nothing to be Frightened Of, which is mainly about death, but it’s also sort of family memoir. And we had email exchanges about it. And I’d say, do you remember this? Do you remember how grandpa used to kill the chickens and things like that? And, he had very different memories from me about childhood. And he, being a philosopher, he said, I find all memory is not to be relied on unless there’s corroboration. But, you know, there wasn’t corroboration coming from me and our exchanges, because we had completely different memories. And that actually, I was thinking about this quite recently, because I think if we only had one set of grandparents, my mother’s parents, and they were, she taught, she was an interesting woman, who started off, brought up as a Methodist, lost her faith became a socialist lost her faith and socialism became a communist moment of the sino Soviet schism, she decided to side with the Chinese. This is a woman who had never been out to England and who lived in the suburbs of London. And I thought how wonderful. But she’s become a Chinese communist because as a stamp collector, and she uses these magazines from China with amazing stamps on so and I thought she was sort of nice, lovely and warm, and so on. I was most afraid of my grandfather. He was a sort of stern he’d been in the festival war, and he was headmaster’s and retired. And so as well wary of him. My brother, on the other hand, was very close to my grandfather, because he was the firstborn and my grandfather favorited him, left us in two chests, two carpentry tools, things like that. And my brother thought that my grandmother was sort of boring because a woman who did just made bad apple pies and things like that. And I realized that we are the only two people who remember them. Now, everyone else is dead. You know, we don’t have we don’t have a large family. There is no abiding truth about these two people. Only divergent opinions held by my brother and me and I’m sure I’m right. And he’s sure he’s right. But we could both be right. My grandfather may have been authoritarian but also soft hearted and so on. My grandmother may have been very kind and always looked after me because I was a soppy one, and, and yet, so and so. Life is a novel. Life has competing versions. That’s why we love the novel. It will never die.
B&N: Yeah, it does. It allows us to capture time, and change and peaceful in ways that other arts down. Can I ask what’s next? I mean, Elizabeth Finch is out in the world and you always seem to have multiple projects.
JB: I used to, as I was actually, Ian McEwan came to supper two nights ago, and we were just there was just the two of us. And he said, what’s new? What’s on the way? I said, haven’t got single idea? And he said, nor have I. But so we console ourselves with the fact that at the moment, we have nothing. I mean, there’s always some sort of terrible soup out there. You just, you stir around it, and you think, and then you think the plan, and so on, as you pointed out, I’ve written 25 books, which is quite not only half that of great John Updike. So I think this wouldn’t be a headline to go after. But I expect this as a passing phase. I mean, I keep myself busy. You know, I do I do bits of journalists and my views, things like that. I mean, I’ve always done journalism as well. And if I couldn’t have a different sort of fodder? I would be very grumpy. So I have to keep writing.
B&N: I also need to go back to your Flaubert’s Parrot piece? Oh, yes. I think I need to spend some more time with that piece. So I’m delighted to know that the journalism and the criticism and the essays are still coming. We can wait for another book.
JB: You don’t need another book soon?
B&N: No. The one thing I want to encourage people to do with Elizabeth Finch, too, is sit with it. It’s It’s deceptively slim, which I love. I mean, like Julie Otsuka’s last novels, Swimmers, which is also very deceptively, it’s 159 pages. But the amount of territory and, and emotion and memory that you cover, in this very petite page count is not to be dismissed. It’s very difficult to write expansively and tightly at the same time. And I think people sometimes think, Oh, well, it’s a very short book. So it’s very easy. I can just tear through it. And this is not a book that’s designed to be torn.
JB: Well, I know you don’t mind really how people view me as long as they leave. And, of course, the best notes and letters you get out there as such, they got to the end of his name. I think I’ll read it again. Because and this is one of the great differences between journalism and literature, which I played with which I practice in, you write journalism, in order for everything to be absolutely clear, at the full reading at the first reading and no ambiguity, and everything’s clear as clear. And you write you write fiction, not in order to confuse but you write fiction in order to reflect the complexity of the world. And that complexity isn’t necessarily grasped at first meeting.
B&N: That’s very, very, very true. Julian Barnes, thank you so much for joining us on Poured Over, the new novel is Elizabeth Finch and it’s out now.
JB: My pleasure. Nice talking to you.