Julian Barnes on life, death and the power of writing : Renowned author gives his thoughts on modern literature

Home > Culture > Books

print dictionary print

Julian Barnes on life, death and the power of writing : Renowned author gives his thoughts on modern literature


Man Booker prize-winning author Julian Barnes says that novels can understand the human heart and soul in a way that science cannot.[GRAHAM JEPSON]

Man Booker prize-winning author Julian Barnes is not a believer in so-called therapeutic literature.

Nonetheless, his book about death, “Nothing to be Frightened of,” recently published in Korea, can provide some sort of consolation to contemporary Koreans living in a rapidly aging society.

The book, according to his website, is “Deadly serious, masterfully playful, and surprisingly hilarious.”

The 70-year-old British writer and journalist says that people must ponder on their inevitable extinction as they live. “I think most people live with very little sense that they are going to die, and imagine they will start to think about the matter when they get nearer to it,” he explained in a recent e-mail interview with JoongAng Ilbo.

“That’s a big mistake in my view. How can you understand life without understanding death?”

Born in Leicester, England in 1946, Barnes graduated in modern languages from Magdalen College, Oxford. He won the Man Booker Prize for his book “The Sense of an Ending” (2011), and three of his earlier novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize: They are “Flaubert’s Parrot” (1984), “England, England” (1998), and “Arthur & George” (2005).

He deals mostly with the themes of history, reality, truth and love, but he has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. His wife’s name was Pat Kavanagh. She passed away in 2008.

JoongAng Ilbo talked to him about his thoughts on what a novel should be about; the role of literature in contemporary society; as well as tips on writing.

Below is an edited excerpt of his interview.


Q. You seem to dedicate every book you’ve written to your late wife [Pat Kavanagh]. Is that right?

A. Yes, we were together for 30 years, and she was my literary agent as well as my wife. In my book “Levels of Life,” I write ‘Because someone is dead, this may mean that they are not alive, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.’ She exists for me, and so it seems natural to continue dedicating my books to her.

“Nothing to be Frightened of“ is not just about death, but also delves into memory. How did you come to choose the themes?

Those themes have always been there - my first novel “Metroland” had a fair bit about death in it - but they probably intensify as you get older - both nearer to death, but also realizing that memory is not what you thought it was when you were younger. It is stranger, more nuanced, less reliable than you had imagined. As for death … I think most people live with very little sense that they are going to die, and imagine they will start to think about the matter when they get nearer to it. That’s a big mistake in my view. How can you understand life without understanding death?

After writing the book have you become less serious or less obsessed with death?

No more, no less. Nor did I expect to be. You don’t - or at least, you shouldn’t - write books in order to feel better about your life (or death) afterwards. I don’t believe in ‘therapeutic literature.’

In your book “Flaubert’s Parrot,” you also touch on the value of objectivity of text. Can you elaborate on that?

Both Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and I agree that a novel shouldn’t be merely an outpouring of the writer’s own feelings. We are both anti-Romantics in that respect. Flaubert [thought] personality should be kept out of the work. He thought - and I agree - that writing a novel in order to get rid of certain feelings you have about the world is a very low level of activity.


You are obviously allowed to use your own experience, but in an objective way. The real novel is not a matter of unloading your private feelings and opinions on the reader. The novel is a more serious thing that the relieving of personal feelings. It must be something objective, a crafted object out there in the world.

Having said that, I am a ‘failed Flaubertian’ in that I have on occasion spoken directly to the reader in my own voice: a chapter on love in “A History of the World [in 10½ Chapters”], and the third section of “Levels of Life,” which is about grief. I think most of my books are about the emotional life, and are saturated with emotion. Intellect and emotion held in balance - that’s what I hope for.

How can you be objective about your private experience?

The rule should be that you treat your own life - when you are pillaging it for fiction - as no more important than anyone else’s. So you have to be absolutely objective about your own subjective experiences - which isn’t always easy.

How do you develop an idea into a book?

Usually, an idea for a book has a very long history - sometimes going back 20 or 30 years to when I saw, heard, understood something. And then, at some more recent point, it turns from a memory or understanding into an idea for a novel. And then the real moment is when the idea meets the form in which it is going to be narrated. That’s as far as I understand the process - and I deliberately don’t want to understand it too well.

Koreans are reading less. What role do you think literature plays in contemporary society?

Well, literature is and will remain what it has always been: the art form which speaks more directly and most fully from the mind and heart and soul of one person to the mind and heart and soul of another. And that extraordinary intimacy and truthfulness will never go away. Nor can it be matched by TV and cinema. They do some things wonderfully well, but I have complete confidence that what the novel does, only it can do. Film and TV are almost by definition good at exterior action, and more limited in revealing what is going on inside a person. That is the novel’s supreme territory.

You said in an interview with the Paris Review that a novel is a grand, elegant and orderly lie which tells us more about truth than simple collection of facts. Why are novels necessary?

I don’t think sociologists can go as profoundly into the human heart and soul as a novelist does. I have a great friend who is a clinical psychologist, who has read all the modern medical and psychological books, and who told me once that Shakespeare understood madness better than anyone else. Paradoxically, the fact that literature is ‘making things up’ means it can often be truer and deeper than disciplines which are not making things up.

You have also written thrillers. Do you think they are under-rated as a literary genre?

Yes, I think there is a sort of class system in books [in UK], as in most countries. I don’t think a thriller writer (or a science fiction writer) has ever been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But I’d always rather read a first-class thriller than a second-class ‘serious’ novel. And thriller writers often understand society better than some ‘head-in-the-air’ novelists.

From repeated reading, what do you think the readers can grasp?

Well, I work as a journalist as well as a novelist. When your write journalism, you try to make everything as lucid as possible, so that a reader can understand everything in a single reading, even if they’re on a busy commuter train; and you should expect them to throw away the newspaper and (quite possibly) never think about your article again.

With a novel, you want to create something that stays in the reader’s mind, that continues to have an effect on his or her memory and emotions. So that, at a certain point in the future, they might want to go back to your book and find, perhaps, that there was more in it than they remembered; or that their life has changed in the intervening years, and the books now strikes them differently.

One of the joys of a lifetime of reading is the rereading you do when quite a bit older: you have changed, and therefore the book has changed.

Recently Korean writer Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize with her novel The Vegetarian. Have you read it?

No, alas I haven’t yet read it, and my knowledge of Korean literature is minimal. But one of the wonderful things that has happened in my lifetime is how many more books from many more cultures there are available to us compared to our parents’ generation. So I hope to catch up on my Korean reading at some point.

Lastly, I understand you are interested in sports, including football. What position do you assume when you play football and do you see any connection between sports and writing?

I was a goalkeeper. I think there’s something which temperamentally connects writing with goalkeeping: you observe for long periods of time, you try to guess what’s happening, and then you act: either by writing a book, or saving a goal. Or, more likely, letting one in.

BY SHIN JUNE-BONG, KIM HYUNG-EUN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now