Julian Barnes is the author of ten novels and two books of short stories and is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including two Booker Prize nominations. His most recent collection of short stories is The Lemon Table. James McCloskey recently spoke to him for The Brooklyn Rail.
James McCloskey: The Lemon Table is your first book of short stories in eight years, and the stories in your other collection, Cross Channel, were all centered on the very apparent theme of the English experience in France. Did you approach The Lemon Table with a theme in mind?
Julian Barnes: The Lemon Table is perhaps not as evidently a themed set of stories, but I did absolutely plan it as a book. All the stories [are] about the process of aging. And the first two are preliminary stories which aren’t about old people, but they’re about what happens to the human heart through time, and then the stories proceed into old age and attitudes to it, and the collection ends with one which is almost entirely concerned with death, or gets as close to death as any of the stories. It’s a book whose hidden subtitle is, “Against Serenity,” because I never believed that old age was a condition in which most people come to peace with themselves and the rest of the world. I think that most people’s experience is that the heart and the emotions continue long, often embarrassingly long, after they’re expected to, and, after other people, younger people, expect them to. It’s a sort of social convention to believe that the fires have damped down, order comes into life, the heart shuts down. All rubbish, I think. The Lemon Table is about the last strugglings and flailings of the emotional life as the end nears.
Rail: There’s definitely this perception of serenity in old age, that the fires have died down. I think it’s something a lot of people are hoping, that they’ll get older and figure things out, and, actually you don’t get any closer to getting yourself together, as you imagined you would.
Barnes: Exactly, yes. I had a friend when I was just finishing university whose father was a clergyman, and he was blind. And this man used to be taken by his wife into a large department store in this provincial city, once a fortnight or something like that. And he would be parked by the cash desk while she went and shopped. And as a result of being there, he fell catastrophically in love with a cashier, to such an extent that some months later his family found him in the middle of the road, this blind, 60 some-odd year old clergyman, trying to get run down because he couldn’t stand it anymore. And I thought, at the age of 23, “That’s what it’s going to be like. It’s not going to be like my grandparents sitting watching the television and vaguely moaning at one another that their false teeth don’t fit.”
Rail: So you sat down to write a book of stories all centered on this theme. But in the past, with Flaubert’s Parrot, you sat down to write it as a story but it subsequently turned into a novel—
Barnes: Well, I think I was slightly economical with the facts when I said that. One of the things you do when you talk about fiction you’ve written is you automatically make the process smoother and more logical than it is. It’s neater and it sounds more literary and it sounds more appropriate, but often the truth is you do something and then you stop and you think, “Oh no, well hang on.”
Rail: Did you feel yourself getting drawn into any of the stories in The Lemon Table that way?
Barnes: Not at all. I think in that sense Flaubert’s Parrot is unusual because in all other cases I’ve known whether what I had was an idea for a short story or for a novel. The only caveat to that is a novel called The Porcupine which is a short novel, and ended up that length that publishers try to avoid calling the novella. Because the words, “It’s a novella about the post-communist situation in Europe,” well, you can imagine how the publisher’s reps and the booksellers hearts lift at hearing that sort of description. [Laughs.]
Rail: So when you sit down to write, when you’re beginning something, you have a clear idea of the scope of what you intend to write?
Barnes: Yes, I do. I was asked if I’d ever started something and abandoned it and I said no, I never have. I don’t always plan everything out, but I have sort of a summary in my head, though not the sort of summary on the dust wrap. And that summary would contain characters, time, action, and sort of tone, and weight and feel to it, and what the specific gravity is, and so on. I know in broad outline what happens, though sometimes things change in the writing.
Rail: There are always surprises along the way.
Barnes: There are surprises along the way and things come to you as you write, obviously. I think of myself as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. At one end there’s the Nabokov, “My characters are galley slaves waiting to be whipped,” and then there are the romantic fiction writers at the other end who say, “These characters just ran away with me, they took over the book.” [Laughs.]
Rail: [Laughs.] They’ll say, “I just take a pen and follow them along.”
Barnes: Right, yes, right, and I always think, “Well that’s why your novel’s so bad.” [Laughs] So somewhere on that spectrum between authoritarian control and hopeless democracy, I exercise my own enlightened control, let’s say. [Laughs.]
Rail: You taught for a bit at John Hopkins, and I’m wondering how you enjoyed your time teaching there.
Barnes: I only signed up for one semester, as a visiting professor. I just thought it’d be good to live somewhere in the States, preferably not one of the great international cities, but somewhere really American. Baltimore is a real American, old American city, which has had many ups and many downs. I taught one undergraduate class and one graduate class, and I found it a very heartening and a very touching experience because however much you believe in prose fiction, something is always nagging away at you, thinking that this is going to go the way of early Italian opera or something. [Laughs] Given all the commercial pressures of other forms, storytelling where you have a book in your hand written by one person, people might not want to do this anymore. Even if there might still be readers there might not be writers anymore. So to be confronted every week by a class of eight or ten people, all of whom were grown-up, between 25 and 45, who clearly and evidently believed that prose fiction was the best way of describing the world, I found it lifted my spirits and my heart. And also what surprised me was that each of these graduate students, whether they were more or less talented, whether they were more or less committed, each had their own voice. You have to be aware, as a teacher, that you aren’t necessarily the ideal teacher for all these students. Some of the exchanges in class could be quite tough, which also surprised me. I remember one exchange, almost in the first week, with a guy who brought in a Jewish family story. Probably the cleverest woman writer in the group said, “Well I don’t know but I’m afraid the characters seem to me pretty generic,” and the guy who wrote it said “Generic!? These are my grandparents!” [Laughs.] To which she said, “Well I’m sorry but your grandparents are generic.” [Laughs] It was a lively group and there were times when I had to slightly rein them back.
Rail: Well, people get very personal.
Barnes: Yes, exactly, and the thing is that just as there may be no one in the group that’s the perfect critic for that other writer, so as a professor you have to bear all that in mind and not favoritize the writer who’s stuff you actually like best.
Rail: A lot of writers that I talk to who either haven’t taught before or live outside the U.S. or both really brush off creative writing courses, saying “You can’t teach talent,” or “There’s no way to show someone how to be an artist.”
Barnes: I think I would’ve taken that line before teaching. I wouldn’t have been as hardlined as that. I probably would have been able to name writers who had either taught at or been taught in creative writing schools, like John Irving and Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Jay McInerney, and so I wouldn’t have thought that it was a pointless and stultifying process. I was surprised because I expected [the students] all to be producing the same sort of work, whereas in fact one guy was writing this wild and crazy Texan gothic novel, and someone was writing Gen-X fiction, and someone was doing Jewish family fiction. It seems to me that the dangers of [MFA programs] are the raising of expectations to an unnaturally high level given the sheer volume of people who must graduate from writing schools to the number of writers that a society can sustain. People are going to find that the realities of life afterwards are different: not everyone who studies architecture is going to build a house. And even if, of those 10 writers that I taught, none of them had gone on to publish anything, I think there’s something morally and spiritually useful about spending a year or two years trying to write. If you end up having not published a book by the end of your life it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you didn’t publish a book. It doesn’t do anyone any harm to learn to express themselves, and to concentrate on expressing themselves, whether in a fictional form or autobiographical or whatever form.
Rail: You’ve also said that for you a lot of times the real work begins after the first draft is completed. And a lot of the writers that I talk to, successful and struggling alike, and particularly the younger writers, say that editing is the most difficult part of the process for them. Do you think that one can be taught to edit, or is that something that has to be learned on one’s own?
Barnes: I don’t really know the answer to this question because I only know what I do myself. Yes, it’s certainly the case that I believe the real work begins after you’ve gotten the first draft done. The first draft is often the freest and in some ways the most enjoyable part of it, when you suffer the illusion that the first draft is often very close to the final draft. And then of course you think, “Well this is pretty thin stuff,” or “Well I’ve already said that before,” or “Well that character isn’t working,” and then you get down to work. The first serious go at correcting is also satisfying, though it is harder work, and as long as you feel like you’re moving it along it has a satisfaction. And then comes a point where it becomes pure work. I had to teach myself how to do that, and how long to leave it. I think harder than learning how to correct yourself is how to respond to suggestions and corrections from others, and how to know when a suggestion’s right or wrong, and it’s often not clear and sometimes I find I’m accepting a suggestion because I’m mad at the book, and I’m going to punish the book by making this correction to it. But the greater danger is deciding that only you know best. That happens often to writers later in life, and oftentimes it’s because they do know best but equally it’s because they refuse to accept anyone else’s opinion.
Rail: In much of your work, the structure is incredibly original, and at the risk of sounding silly, I wonder if you think this sort of originality can be taught, or fostered, and how you found out you had this voice.
Barnes: I hadn’t read Nabakov’s Pale Fire by the time I’d written Flaubert’s Parrot, though I did read it a few years later. You can take things from books you haven’t read, though, you can take possibilities. I don’t think originality can be taught. I think it comes out of the happy collision of the form and the idea in a person’s brain at a certain point in their writing life. I don’t think I could’ve written Flaubert’s Parrot as my first book. I think I had to have known how to do a more conventional novel first, and as I said, I was freed by having no expectations of the book because I had no awareness of potential readers or what they might think. It’s about making it new while not throwing anything important out. I was as surprised as anyone when it worked and took off, and I was grateful. I think that’s just something that happens, I don’t think there are technical exercises you can do to teach that. You can’t be anyone else, you can’t be Hemingway, you can only be someone different who makes a different original discovery.
James McCloskey is an MFA student at Hunter College. His work has appeared in New Stone Circle and Scrawl, among others.
JAMES MCCLOSKEY is an author and co-founder of the Street to Home Initiative.