Updated: Nov 18 2012, 06:57am hrs
Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story)

Julian Barnes


Paperback, Pg 256


In these seventeen essays (and one short story), the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner examines British, French and American writers who have meant most to him, as well as the cross-currents and overlappings of their different cultures. From the deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald to the directness of Hemingway, from Kiplings view of France to the French view of Kipling, from the many translations of Madame Bovary to the fabulations of Ford Madox Ford, from the National Treasure Status of George Orwell to the despair of Michel Houellebecq, Julian Barnes considers what fiction is, and what it can do. As he writes in his preface, Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, and how we lose it.

When his Letters from London came out in 1995, the Financial Times called him our best essayist. This wise and deft collection confirms that judgement. As the following extracts show.


In 1878, Lockwood Kipling, principal of the Mayo College of Art in Lahore, took his twelve-year-old son to the Paris exhibition. Lockwood was involved with the Indian section of arts and manufactures; he gave the young Rudyard two francs a day for food, a free pass to the exhibition, and left him to his own devices. The boy, who all his life was to love seeing how things were put together, was enthralled by all the wonders of the world emerging from their packing cases.

One of his favourite sights was the head of Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, soon to be shipped to New York as a belated centennial gift to the American republic. For five centimesor a free passyou could climb an internal staircase and look out at the world through the vacant eyeballs. Rudyard frequently made the ascent, and on one occasion an elderly French wiseacre advised him, Now, young Englisher, you can say that you have looked through the eyes of Liberty herself. Fifty-five years later, the elderly Kipling remembered this conveniently placed oracle, and chose to correct him: He spoke less than the truth. It was through the eyes of France that I began to see.

Kipling and France Kipling and India obviously. Kipling and England. Kipling and the Empire, Kipling and South Africa, Kipling and the United States, Kipling and the hated Germany (the true home, in Orwell's analysis, to those often mislocated lesser breeds without the law). But Kipling and France It's not an obvious runner. France and the French feature little in his published work. Nor might you expect this demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British Empire to care much for the lofty and theoretical inhabitants of Britains' closest imperial rival. Yet that first visit of 1878 began something which continued until Kipling's death in 1936. As his daughter Elsie noted simply after her father's death, He was always happy in France. (Pages 77-78)


Novels consist of words, evenly and democratically spaced; though some may acquire higher social rank by italicisation and capitalisation. In most novels, this democracy spreads wider: every word is as important as every other word. In better novels, certain words have higher specific gravity than other words. This is something the better novelist does not draw attention to, but lets the better reader discover. (Page 164)


When a writer you admire dies, reading seems a normal courtesy and tribute. Occasionally, it may be prudent to resist going back: when Lawrence Durrell died, I preferred to remain with forty-year-old memories of The Alexandria Quartet rather than risk such lushness again. And sometimes the nature of the writer's oeuvre creates a problem of choice. This was the case with John Updike. Should you choose one of his previously unopened books (in my case two dozen or so) Or go for one you suspect you misread, or undervalued, at the time (Page 209)