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Newly Unearthed Treasures,
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This review is from: Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story) (Paperback)
Julian Barnes has always seemed a rather sophisticated and witty man, and his new collection of essays (and a short story) does little to dispel this view. The style is lucid and conversational, its erudition lightly simmering below the surface. Furthermore, the haughty dogma that hinders literary criticism nowadays is absent, and it is this that makes him such an endearing critic, urbane and forgiving, measured yet passionate.
The underlying drive in Barnes's criticism is to acknowledge the forgotten and revivify the dead. 'The "Unpoetical" Clough' documents the life and work of Arthur Hugh Clough, a friend of Matthew Arnold, and a poet whose existence has been smudged out of literary history. 'The Wisdom of Chamfort' and 'The Profile of Felix Feneon' are two stunning essays that redress the negligence those writers have suffered in the harsh afterlife of posterity. The best, however, is 'The Man Who Saved Old France', an entertaining account of Prosper Merimee, and his quest, as Inspector General of Historic Monuments in post-revolutionary France, to save the country's architectural and artistic heritage from being needlessly destroyed and plundered.
The few essays dealing with modern writers are just as compelling. The eulogistic reappraisal of John Updike's Rabbit Quartet is majestic, while George Orwell's status as National Treasure is calmly re-evaluated. The article on Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier expertly unpicks that novel's many intricacies and innovations, as does Barnes's appreciation of Parade's End, a piece that will surely direct new readers into the path of Ford's First World War tetralogy. If the primary goal of the critic is to usher people, although not too forcefully, towards books they wouldn't normally touch, then Barnes thrillingly succeeds.
There is, however, a dilemma. In 'The Wisdom of Chamfort' Barnes asks a very pertinent question that could easily be applied to himself: 'How to answer the charge of narrowness?' The book's main flaw is its staunchly tripartite makeup, its unwavering focus on France, England and America (in that order of importance). Of course, what Barnes chooses to write about is up to him, it just seems very confining for someone of his abilities. But, ultimately, we should be thankful: he may not cast his net very far but what he dredges up are newly unearthed treasures.