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Seventeen Essays and a Short Story

by Julian Barnes

Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-345-80550-8
Publisher: Vintage

The focus on books and literature makes this more cohesive than the usual collection of journalistic miscellany.

Barnes deserves a breather after hitting his novelistic peak with the Man Booker Prize–winning The Sense of an Ending (2011), preceded by a best-selling meditation on mortality (Nothing to Be Frightened Of, 2008). The preface to these critical pieces on individual authors or works (plus one short story, “Homage to Hemingway”) should strike a responsive chord in anyone who loves books. As Barnes writes, “I have lived in books, for books, by and with books; in recent years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to live from books.” He then makes a series of deep, loving plunges into the world of literature, into posthumous celebrations of Penelope Fitzgerald (who had been, in his estimation, “the best living English novelist”) and John Updike (whose Rabbit Quartet, he writes, constitutes “the greatest post-war American novel”). Many of the essays concern those who Barnes thinks should be better known, or at least more often read, including three pieces on Ford Madox Ford that explore “his past and continuing neglect” and one on the “marginal” poet Arthur Hugh Clough. Barnes’ celebration of the “virtually unknown” 17th-century French author Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort ranks with the most interesting here, as does his assessment of the notorious Michel Houellebecq: “There are certain books—sardonic and acutely pessimistic—which systematically affront all our current habits of living, and treat our presumptions of mind as the delusions of the cretinous.”

Not every piece will connect with every reader, but Barnes is a fine literary companion.