By Dominic Bradbury
To one side of the room there is a table, covered in a sequence of teetering piles – a collection of unread, unpublished novels, the manuscripts bound tightly with straining rubber bands. Julian Barnes picks up one of the submissions lying in his publisher's office and turns to the first line. "It was a cloudy, windy day in central London," he reads, in a soft Robert Robinson voice. They sound like the first words of Snoopy's tired dog-house novel which Charles Schulz had his canine cartoon endlessly working upon: "It was a dark and stormy night." With little incitement to read on Barnes gently puts the typescript neatly back on its pile and sits himself down behind the empty desk of Dan Franklin – his publisher at Jonathan Cape, absent on vacation.
As always Barnes somehow looks every inch the writer, a familiar intelligence shining like a suntan. He looks at home among this riot of papers and books, at home at literary festivals and bookshop readings. You assume the man must have been raised into the role of novelist. He is friends with the likes of Ian McEwan, famously ex-friends with Martin Amis. Regarded in Britain as one of our most experimental, accomplished and scholarly of writers, in France he is even more beloved and honoured – as his book flaps tell you – with a Prix Médicis for Flaubert's Parrot and the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
We are here, meeting in Franklin's den, to talk about Love, etc – the sequel to his 1991 book Talking It Over – and Barnes's ninth novel to date, not including the four thrillers penned under the nom de guerre of Dan Kavanagh. He appears self-assured but never arrogant, precise and careful, although there is also a reassuring humour which fuses with his eloquence. Yet for Barnes his identity as a man of letters never came as a matter of course. The career of a writer was never a natural, logical choice. His confidence in his own literary abilities took a long time to find and his first novel, Metroland, was nearly a decade in the making.
"The idea that anyone in my family might have become a writer would have seemed completely perverse," says Barnes. "There were books around the house, books were respected, but it was clear that other people did the writing business and if you liked it, you read it. It was partly getting over that psychological divide that delayed my first novel. I was never one of those children who was scribbling in a notebook with a torch under the bedclothes with some sort of fantasy world that I created, people with dragons and heroes."
His parents were both London schoolteachers, their subject French, and the family lived in Acton, London, and then Northwood. After a state primary school and a scholarship to City of London school in Blackfriars, Barnes studied languages at Oxford – including a year teaching in Brittany – followed by an early career as a lexicographer. But despite this wholesome grounding in words of all kinds, the leap to original literary creativity was prolonged. There was a book on literary Oxford, accepted and paid for but never published, the typescript of which Barnes keeps under lock and key and promises to incinerate one day soon. It was only when he started working as a journalist that he slowly began to recognise that being a writer was a real possibility, an opportunity.
"I started Metroland when I was 25, just at the time I was finishing working as a lexicographer, and I was an unconfident, unpublished novelist before I was even an unconfident, published journalist. From starting the novel to publication was nine years which I recognise as an absurd amount of time for such a book, but it was mainly this lack of confidence: why should anybody be interested in anything I had to write, what did I know of the world? In that regard journalism was a help – you wrote a piece, someone read it and they published it. If you don't believe you have any right to be a novelist at 25 then anything that helps, helps."
That first novel – contrasting an English, sleepy suburban adolescence with experiences in the Paris of '68 – was published twenty year ago and won the Somerset Maugham Prize. Four years later there was Flaubert's Parrot, which sealed Barnes' reputation as an innovator and a writer preoccupied with big questions, like the nature of truth and love, and with major themes like obsession and identity. Arguably, the second big book of Barnes's career was A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, another novel which refused to conform to convention and which also took a distorted, postmodern lens to the subject of truth – this time historical truth rather than biographical truth.
Yet the book that followed A History of the World was a very different kind of read – and the most accessible of Barnes's novels. Talking It Over was the story of a love triangle: the prosaic but dependable Stuart meets and marries the enigmatic Gillian; Stuart's best friend Oliver – a more pretentious, effete style of a man – becomes obsessed with Gillian and manages to seduce her, convincing her to leave Stuart. The book functions without an authorial voice, with each character directly addressing the reader in turn and arguing for his or her version of the truth, then leaving the reader to decide what the facts are of this three way relationship.
"I found the novel's technique very alluring," says Barnes, "with this notion of reducing the authorial presence to the smallest it could possibly be and having no intervention between characters and reader. Being forbidden as a writer to have an opinion or even express objective fact: "It was a cloudy, windy day in central London". Well who says so? I'm never allowed to say that and that's liberating."
It was this formal narrative appeal together with wildly different reader reactions to the novel that persuaded Barnes to bend his view that no book should have a sequel. With Talking It Over left open ended and the characters all alive and well, readers began to argue over whether Gillian and Oliver would stay together. In France – where a film of the book was also made – Barnes' fans were especially vociferous, telling him there was no way that the loathsome Oliver could ever continue to possess Gillian's heart.
"The tendency to write sequels and prequels to famous books is one to be deplored. And so it seems to me that Catch 22 doesn't need a sequel and it was possibily an artistic mistake to write one, although that's Heller's prerogative. With some exceptions the idea of what happens before or what happens afterwards is bound to be a lessening. But it was partly being told that I didn't understand the end of my own book that kept alive the possibility of a sequel to Talking It Over, which I wasn't even thinking of until I began Love, etc. No one asked me to write a continuation, no one said please write what happens next, and if they had I probably would have reacted against it."
In Love, etc the triumvirate are ten years older and all back in London after modest exiles in France (Oliver & Gillian) and America (Stuart). They are older but not necessarily wiser, and the roles of the first book are partly reversed as Stuart plots how to satisfy his own continuing obsession with Gillian and sets about trying to reclaim her. Again the form of the book invites readers to judge for themselves what is truth and what is falsehood, which characters they feel sympathy for and which they condemn. And Barnes stands behind them like an invisible puppeteer.
"A glove puppeteer perhaps. I think that's closer to the relationship than a string puppeteer. You have your hands right inside the characters, you feel their flesh around your fingers. But Talking It Over did have this differentiation to responses to my other books in that people sided with one or other of the three characters. Quite unpredictably they would say "I really like Oliver", but then a lot people loathed him. The idea of there being no approved reader conclusion about the characters kept them alive."
Barnes himself makes no distinction between formulating a book like Love, etc, with its more apparent populist appeal, and a book like Flaubert's Parrot: 'you are writing the novel that you want to write and you have to write in the only way that it seems to you it can be written,' he says. And while the story itself folds and turns – taking us into new avenues and moral puzzles – Barnsian themes of truth, identity and obsession are present and correct.
"The epigraph to Talking It Over is an old Russian saying, "he lies like an eyewitness", and it's a formidable epigraph, one which should be incised in stone outside every police station and court. But you don't begin a book saying I want to investigate further the relativism and fragility of truth. You think "I wonder what happens to Oliver?" You think "I've got a good scene in mind when Stuart comes back"."
There is a sense in which you are never quite sure of who exactly these characters are, especially Gillian, the most difficult personality of the three to pin down. The reader's quest to find out their true nature echoes Geoffrey Braithwaite's search for the 'real' Flaubert in Flaubert's Parrot. And the myth that the many, complex sides and contradictions of a single personality can somehow be turned into easily digestible sound bites also seems to lie at the heart of some of Barnes's mild frustrations about the British approach to its writers. In France, he says, the press ask writers about their work and their view of the world: politics, philosophy. Here, and especially in America, he tends to be asked about the work and his private life.
"At times I resent it – the public side of being a writer is so different from the private side. I do think almost everything you know about a writer's private life is irrelevant to their work and very often detrimental to your understanding of it. It often produces a reductivism, a reducing of the artistic object to an aspect of autobiography. The emphasis should always be on what is invented, what is imagined – that's the most interesting part. If most writers only wrote autobiography literature would be dead because most writers don't live interesting enough lives."
Barnes details future plans: a themed collection of short stories, a plan to collect his pieces on French culture and literature into one book, plus speculative ideas for four potential novels turning over in his mind. Dan Kavanagh, however, is declared dead, or at least very sick indeed, and there are certainly no plans for an autobiography. We leave the manuscripts swaying. Barnes heads off to another corner of the building to sign a waiting raft full of books – a signature for eager readers after a little piece of Julian Barnes. And back outside the ivory tower, on the streets, in the real world, it is a cloudy, windy day in central London.
Love, etc by Julian Barnes, £15.99, ISBN 0 224 06109 7.