Fairs | March 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Guest Blog: Report from the Oxford Literary Festival

Guest Blog by Catherine Batac Walder

On Friday, March 22, Julian Barnes received the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence at the University of Oxford Sheldonian Theatre from the newspaper's literary editor, Andrew Holgate. Barnes sat with acclaimed biographer and literary scholar Hermione Lee for an hour-long discussion of his life and work.

Lee noted that the word "novel" has become a hugely elastic and unrestricted category partly because of Barnes, who is one of those authors who stretched, squeezed, and manipulated the form. Barnes said that it wasn't what he set out to do when he first started writing. His only thought was that he was going to write a novel, experimenting on points of view whenever he started a new work. He believes that the novel is informal and is fascinated with the daring form, as when the hero and his sidekick hear themselves being discussed by minor characters through thin walls (e.g., that scene from Don Quixote). There are similarities in the structures of his works, as Lee pointed out; he doesn't proceed chronologically and sometimes holds three stages or versions of a story alongside one another. She asked if this is a structure that appeals to him. He agreed, deep in thought, as though realizing it only at that moment, "I guess it must, as you've noticed it." He added that one of the things you learn as a novelist over the years is how to move through time, citing Alice Munro as one who deals with whole lives in 20 or 30 pages.

In reply to Lee's comment that he creates a pattern of images that recur and moments that come back within the book, such as the river running upstream in The Sense of an Ending, Barnes said that it comes with writing and rewriting. 

Lee also observed that "rewriting history" or "lying to ourselves" is a subject that he returns to in different ways in his books. Asking why this is interesting to him, Barnes replied that it might have come out while researching his book Nothing to Be Frightened of, which is partly about death and partly a family memoir. The process of writing and researching involved an exchange of e-mails with his philosopher brother. They discovered that they have a case of incompatibility in memory on things from their childhood, such as the method their grandfather used to kill chickens (this topic reminds me of Speak, Memory by Oliver Sacks). On the whole, he said, "we like improving stories."

Lee asked about one common theme in two of Barnes' books--being a boy at school--and wondered if there was something in his memory of what it felt like at school that has stayed with him. He attributed this recurrence to the fact that it was around this age when he started to read serious books. Another recurring theme, as Lee observed, is a narrator or central figure who is somehow inhibited, self-protective, hasn't lived life to the full--a very English character, such as Chris in Metroland, and Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending, among others. Personally I find that most authors have more fun creating these characters, as Barnes himself said something like he could explore a character more when they have these qualities.  

Barnes didn't stay to sign books at the end but signed copies of his latest book, Levels of Life, to be released in April 2013, were available for purchase. Its themes of life, love, death, and grief made me weep. Barnes' wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, died in 2008. This book is like his love letter to her in the most informal form he could muster. There were thoughts of suicide (not unlike how one of his fictional characters had gone) after her death. There were words and actions he loathed from acquaintances and friends alike, his feelings all written here, in words I suspect he wouldn't tell them face to face.

Barnes is the author of 20 books including novels, essays, and stories that have been translated into more than 30 languages. His most recent novel, The Sense of an Ending, won the Booker Prize in 2011.