Friday, October 28, 2005

Barnes's parrot

A Spanish gentleman walks into a shop of exotic birds. He notices a parrot with an exorbitant pricetag, 50,000 escudos. He asks the shopkeeper about the bird, "He must be very special. What can he say?"
The shopkeeper replies, "This parrot can recite the whole of the Bible in Spanish."
"Astonishing! What about this one, for 100,000 escudos."
"Ah, he can recite the Bible in three different languages."
There's yet another beautiful parrot on the counter — 200,000 escudos.
"What can he say?"
"Nothing, but the other two call him 'Maestro'."

I arrive 40 minutes early, in time to snag one of the last available seats, for this the inaugural event of Blue Metropolis Literary Series 2005-2006, in collaboration with Writers Read at Concordia. A good 100 people are there already, and as many more file in to line the walls before Julian Barnes takes to the podium.

Julian Barnes is introduced by a former student of his, now professor at Concordia University. They called him Maestro, she can't remember why (Barnes later recounts how he often used the parrot joke as an example of narrative, as well as to loosen up the class). One day she heard whispered in her ear, "I will be called Maestro only if it is used ironically." She still calls him Maestro, now maybe "with more affection than deference, but there has never been any irony about it."

In person, he's charming and funny. (Years ago he impressed me with his bearing in conversation with Bernard Pivot and others, on TV). He has an interesting face — deeply lined. He's tired, no doubt, from recent travel and appearances, but those are laugh lines. He lives well.

I've read a few of Barnes's books. I like them well enough. There was a time it was hip to say you were reading him, and I did. I grabbed one of his books off my shelf before going, Something to Declare — I must have something at the ready for him to sign.

Of his novels that I've read, I'd borrowed (and returned) one, one is in a box, another I'd passed on to a friend. I've seen Metroland. I have not read Flaubert's Parrot (recently the subject of the Guardian's book club).

I stop by the bookshop on my way to the event. To be honest, none of titles, none of the openings, grab me. His latest book, Arthur & George, opens well: "A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wanted to see." I'll read it someday.

Arthur & George is a fictionalized account of Arthur Conan Doyle, with especial focus on his involvement in the trial of George Edalji for a sensational string of animal mutilations, as well as Conan Doyle's developing passion for spiritualism.

The novel is a split narrative, as the title implies, one regarding Arthur, the other George. Barnes reads 3 or 4 selections from the first third or so of his book that tell Arthur's story.

He tells us Arthur's character is established by about page 60 or 70; at this point the reader knows he is none other than the famous Sir. (Will any reader of this book on turning to the first page not already know who he is? I wonder if the reviews, even the bookjacket, have in some way spoiled this revelation.)

Clearly Barnes has thoroughly researched the historical Conan Doyle, but he has also imagined Arthur well. He speaks of him as if he is his own creation, which I suppose he is. Barnes in the same sentence adjusts his tone and phrasing when discussing one or the other, historical or quasi-fictional, Arthur. Later with a wry smile he refers to Arthur as "a character in one of my books."

The floor is opened up for questions. No takers at first. Barnes obligingly supplies a few answers to questions someone might've asked. A long-abiding fascination with Conan Doyle? No, actually. He read the Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid.

It was an account Barnes had read of the parallels between Edalji's trial and the Dreyfus affair that sparked his imagination. Both scandals were high-profile and of the same time period, both involving a question of racism, and both having famous writers (in the French case, Zola) come to the defense of the accused. It's a curiosity that the English case is largely forgotten, even though likely most Brits are more scandalized by animal mutilation than by the idea of treason.

Barnes dislikes using the term "historical novel" to describe Arthur & George — it's a contemporary novel that happens to be set 100 years ago. The themes — our basic attitudes, racism; also the power of officials to bury news, the power of the media in shaping public opinion — are relevant today.

I buy a copy of Arthur & George on the spot (book promotion tours work!), which Julian Barnes inscribes for me. He is genuinely delighted to know that José Saramago this past summer was rereading Flaubert's Parrot.

What Julian Barnes is reading:
The "wonderfully moving" account by Joan Didion of the period following the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking.

The official website of Julian Barnes.
Read an excerpt of Arthur & George.

Report on his recent appearance at the Toronto International Festival of Authors:
He also maintains he doesn't mind if people still identify him primarily as the author of Flaubert's Parrot. He mentions a story of someone asking the late Kingsley Amis if Lucky Jim, Amis's most famous novel, was an "albatross" around his neck. It's better than having no albatross, Amis replied. "I thought that was a very good reply," Barnes says. "So I have a parrot around my neck."


Gaelicgrl said...

Have you read The Year of Magical Thinking? I now want to after reading Alex Clark's review in The Telegraph yesterday.

MaryB said...

I rather enjoyed Barnes England, England about an miniaturized, Disney-fied version of all the big English tourist traps reproduced on one of the Channel Islands. The faux-England becomes more successful than the real one . . . I could see this absurd thing happening, well, to any historic place. I do need to read the parrot-one, though.

Suzanne said...

I will continue to live vicariously through you as you nuture your intellectual life.

And I'll be adding Julian Barnes to my list of should-read authors. That list is growing taller by the day!

Isabella said...

Gaelicgrl: I haven't read Didion's book, but I will consider it.

Mary: I liked England, England, too. Clever idea.

Suzanne: I recommend Talking It Over. Also, living vicariously through someone better focused than I am.