Julian Barnes: ‘Some of my best friends are biographers’

Author Julian Barnes boasts an impressive resume, and Hermione Lee’s introduction gave what she called a sampling of Barnes’ ‘biographical ingredients’: the author of 22 novels, Booker Prize winner, Francophile, Flaubertophile, and — not least — Leicester City supporter. Barnes began his talk by asking the audience a hypothetical: think about the room you’re to sleep in tonight. How many windows does it have?

He let this question linger in our imaginations as he delved into the broader topic of his talk: the biographizing instinct in all of us, and his own deep ambivalence and suspicion of it. Biography, he said, comes at him from many directions. While he takes pleasure in reading biography, he is also suspicious of that pleasure—as he reads, the thought pops into his head, ‘Are you sure you should be reading this? Shouldn’t you be reading the author’s work instead?’ Barnes pointed to the fact that we are often suspicious after reading a biography as well, in a way that we are not after reading a novel. The novel after reading is still true in what presents, but is the biography? The reader is wracked by doubt: what’s this biography’s angle? What is it leaving out?

Barnes of course has used biography in his own work, including Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). Barnes said that as a child he used to think that a biography could give you all the facts, much like a dictionary could give you all the facts about language. Growing older, however, and having become a lexicographer, he began to see that the things were not so straightforward, and in Flaubert’s Parrot he took a different approach. A simply chronology of Flaubert’s life would not do, for this kind of biography neglected the counterlives Flaubert might have lived. These counterlives—or what might have happened—say more about the hopes, dreams, successes, and fears Flaubert had than anything else; for instance, his wish that he could have burned every copy of Madame Bovary. Yet for Barnes, even these counterlives were unsatisfying, because of their strict binary between what had happened and what had not. He tried again: what about writing Flaubert’s life in metaphors and similes? Barnes offered up a string of delightful phrases: ‘me and my book in my apartment, like a gherkin in its vinegar’; ‘life: like a soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface’.

Flaubert, Barnes told us, had three great favourites: the sea, Shakespeare, and Don Giovanni. Flaubert loved the fact that so little is known about Shakespeare, and Barnes shifted to a discussion of letter-burning: is it justified, and how does it shape how we think about authors? He pointed to the burning of Byron’s memoirs in 1824. Pushkin wrote that the burning was just as well, and why bemoan it? For Pushkin, we know everything we need to know about Byron in his verse, and the desire for his biography is nothing more than a desire to ‘see him on his chamber pot’, to relish the insalubrious details of his life. John Updike has similar thoughts in this vein: there is a strand of biography that ‘reduces celebrities to a set of ailments and antics to which we can feel superior’. Barnes himself leans more towards the side of letter-burning. As he said, ‘the dead have rights too, and those rights are more important than the curiosity of the living’.

Barnes then launched into a list of what he termed ‘Nefarious Biographical Tendencies’, or for short, ‘NBT’. To illustrate his first NBT, he pointed to Radio 3, and what he described as their tendency make music a dramatic episode in a composer’s life. To ascribe such biographical qualities to music diminishes its artistry. Secondly, Barnes impugned the skewing of subordinate lives, what he also described as the ‘two-adjective dismissal’—i.e. in biography, a tangential character being described as ‘witty and compassionate’ and then never mentioned again. He then pointed to the sin of using the past conditional, the ‘Surely they must’ve felt’, rather than ‘we cannot know’, in doing so unfairly projecting onto the mind of the biographical subject. He also spoke of the tendency to locate artistic talent in a single place. For instance, El Greco’s elongated figures have been ascribed to an astigmatism—a point that Barnes showed was not only factually incorrect, but also entirely beside the point. Finally he spoke of the biographer’s tendency to locate creativity in madness, as if the artist takes on the scapegoat of madness so that we don’t have to. Barnes says rather that it is in spite of madness that people can make art, not because of it, citing the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

To avoid these Nefarious Biographical Tendencies, Barnes offered advice for biographers. Most notable of this was the way photographs can stand in for written biography. He talked of his penchant for collecting photographs of famous artists, and among these was Clara Schumann. In the photograph her hands are swollen, evidencing the arthritis that ravaged her hands and her ability to play the piano. Johannes Brahms wrote music that would accommodate her arthritic hands, and this photo of her hands told the story of their love far better than any biography could.

And with this story Barnes returned to the question with which he began his talk. How many windows are in the room where you sleep? Barnes took a poll of the audience. One or two said four, almost none three, and the majority two or one. And this brought Barnes to a story about Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). Walking around McEwan’s house, he realized that many of the personal details from McEwan’s life coincided with the novel’s main character, a neurosurgeon—right down to the peculiar three windowed bedroom. Barnes realized that McEwan had set the novel in his own house.

All of this is not to say that Saturday is autobiographical—rather, Barnes asserts that McEwan uses bits of his life in an objective manner, as fodder for his fiction. And yet, this is the issue for Barnes: now that he knew all of these biographical details that had been mined for McEwan’s fiction, he was distracted in his reading of it, looking for continuities between life and art instead of appreciating the novel in itself. This led Barnes onto describing his fears about his own possible biography. He worries that his life will be reduced to a list of ailments and antics; that the privacy of his close friends will be invaded, and the story of their lives made contingent upon his own. He worries that his biographer will write about him as if the biography is all there is to know. He ended his talk with a final wish for his future biographer: that she or he include in small type, ‘This is not how I was—this is how I look when being biographized.’

One thought on “Julian Barnes: ‘Some of my best friends are biographers’

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  1. I have noticed that often the speakers at the centre use the word “biography” to refer to what is in fact “literary biography.” This post is another example. The points being made all relate to literary biography, not biographies about nonliterary figures. I wonder whether it might be useful to maintain this distinction for clarity’s sake?

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