Julian Barnes treats history with a whip of irony. An indignant yet playful voice streams through his novels, a voice that asks just how dependent we are on our past and why. Is history a crutch that actually handicaps us? Is... [more]
Julian Barnes treats history with a whip of irony. An indignant yet playful voice streams through his novels, a voice that asks just how dependent we are on our past and why. Is history a crutch that actually handicaps us? Is our belief that the past offers the ultimate purchase on truth a massive delusion?
According to Barnes, it is fiction's role "to tell the truth." Or to put it another way, "to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths." For Barnes, fictional versions of history are often more successful than "real" ones. His "England, England" (1999) satirizes the idea of an authentic past by exploring history as an artificial construct. His brisk, witty pages tell the story of a theme park that promises tourists the experience of an ideal, friendly, efficient England in miniature. This simulated society, set up as a money-making scheme by a Murdoch-like mogul, has homey pubs, civilized royalty, and pristine natural landscapes; replicas of Princess Di's grave and the National Gallery can be visited in a mere hour's time. Barnes taunts our assumptions about the meaning of history and nationality while tempering his critique with mischievous humor.
But Barnes' humor isn't restricted to his treatment of the past: he plays with authorial identity in the same lighthearted manner. While Barnes devoted himself to rather intellectual pursuits early on in his career (he worked as a lexicographer for the "Oxford English Dictionary," a literary editor for the "New Statesman," and a television critic for the "Observer"), his pseudonym, the pavement-friendly Dan Kavanagh, was busy authoring a series of gumshoe crime novels. Unlike the "real" Barnes, Kavanagh was "schooled in the university of life": his jobs ranged from deckhand on a Liberian tanker to successful steer wrestler to bouncer in a San Francisco gay bar. In spite of his mysterious disappearance, Kavanagh remains fresh in the collective memory of Barnes' readers.
Tinkering with identity and history has proven something of an obsession for Barnes. From "Flaubert's Parrot" (1984), a literary detective story where the potency of fiction overwhelms the protagonist's attempts to uncover the truth, to "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapter" (1989), Barnes repeatedly demonstrates that "History isn't what happened." Rather, he tells us:
"History is just what historians tell us...And we, the readers of history, the sufferers from history, we scan the pattern for hopeful conclusions, for the way ahead. And we cling to history as a series of salon pictures, conversation pieces whose participants we can easily re-imagine back into life, when all the time it's more like a multimedia collage, with paint applied by decorator's roller rather than camel-hair brush." [show less]