Through the Window, by Julian Barnes

Review published on March 29, 2013.Reviewed by Brendan Wright

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

[product sku=”9780099578581″]This collection of 17 essays (and one short story), taken from a series of pieces written as early as 1996, finds Julian Barnes donning his literary critic cap. These essays primarily highlight the author’s favourite writers – French, English and American – and, most notably, his love of France itself; he takes in famous authors such as Updike, Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell, yet many of the essays deal with forgotten writers and historical figures, as well as other authors and their own relationship with the country.

In fact, France becomes the fulcrum of the collection, bookended by the more Anglo-centric essays and Barnes’s short story. This theme ties Through the Window together, giving it a feeling of coherency. However, the question of scope could be levelled at the author; although incredibly interesting, it feels like a somewhat narrow spectrum of focus as the reader comes towards the end of the book. This is not a collection of essays that can be devoured in one sitting, but rather something to read sporadically, to take time over and enjoy. There is simply too much information to take in all at once, but when opened occasionally, the wit and intelligence of the author is self-evident and charming. The final essay in the book, for example, is a wonderfully realised and incredibly poignant discussion about coming to terms with grief, referring to Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, but taking in a much broader view of the death of a loved one.

Barnes is an excellent critic, investing enough of himself into the work to create his own distinctive voice, but doing so in a subtle and controlled way that doesn’t overwhelm the reader, or necessarily force them to agree with him. His opinions, where given, are backed up with facts, but on the whole the essays flow without much direct authorial interruption. It is perhaps the choice of topic that reflects his personality best; he wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to favourite authors, especially with the four essays on Ford Madox Ford. While each of these essays approaches Ford from a different angle, and are all interesting in their own way, the reader has to be open and willing to work through them. There is a sense with the Ford essays, perhaps more than any of the others in the collection, that knowledge of his body of work would lead to a greater appreciation of Barnes’s own writing. There is a paradox here: In part it seems the intention is to expose Parade’s End and The Good Soldier to a new audience, but it is hard to take something from the essays without knowing the characters beforehand. There is a feeling that two, or perhaps three essays on Ford would have been acceptable, but four is self-indulgence. This is not the case with the other essays so much, which feel more self-enclosed and deal with broader topics rather than one specific text. The fault may lie more in the order of the essays – with pieces about each author grouped together – but a reader with no interest in Ford may find themselves losing patience and skipping ahead.

The short story is interesting too, sitting alongside an essay about Hemingway. It is an homage to the American author, paying tribute in imitation: The original tells the tale of three men waiting in three different train station cafés in Switzerland to take a train back to Paris. Barnes forms his own story in three parts, with a first person narrator, a writer who is teaching creative writing classes in three different countries. There is a feeling of the slow passage of time, as the narrator becomes more world-weary, intent on showing his love for Hemingway, but slowing losing the will – and the words – to do so successfully.

Despite this heavy focus on Ford, there is much to enjoy, not only in Barnes’s writing, but in the subject matter too. Many of these essays are incredibly interesting and highlight lesser-known historical figures who played a large part in the establishment of modern day France (‘The Man Who Saved Old France’ is particularly interesting, written about Prosper Mérimée, who was partially responsible for the preservation of monuments and antiquities in the country), or the formative elements of a certain author. The essays feel well-researched too; the author is not only knowledgable on his subjects, but enthusiastic too, and this draws readers in. Through the Window is a wonderful and very interesting collection of essays that rewards close, and also measured, reading. Though the focus on France may at times be slightly overwhelming, there is much to enjoy in both writing and theme. It is highly recommended for fans of Barnes, but also those with a passing curiosity about France, literature, and a love of good essay writing.


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