Julian Barnes, recomposed pasts


by Julian Barnes

Translated from English by Jean Guiloineau and Jean-Pierre Aoustin

Edition presented by Vanessa Guignery

Gallimard / Quarto, 1,242 p., € 28

In 1984, Flaubert’s Parrot upset the fashions and codes then governing romantic creation. The narrator of Julian Barnes, an old widowed doctor, embarked on a passionate search for Flaubert, his life, his works. This plunge into the correspondence of the French writer, his travel diaries, unfinished works, draft texts, represented a reflection on the possibilities of access to the truth, this quest mingling with another, that of his missing wife. In this first great book rehabilitating biography, experience, subjectivity in fiction, Julian Barnes posed the question which will be the fabric of his narrations: How do we understand the past? Can we do it? “

The same question is found in England, England (1998). In a more or less distant future, Martha Cochrane does not remember her childhood. For her, a memory can only be distorted, “To be the memory of a memory”, be a lie. She ends up lying too and pretends to adhere to the project of Jack Pitman: a businessman promoter, he buys the Isle of Wight to build a gigantic amusement park there while razing almost all the vestiges of a glorious past that it replaces with copies, “Simulacra” of the old English civilization, wanting a leisure society in accordance with the laws of the market, where the crowds are freed from the collective memory.

On this memory which makes the identity of a country, Barnes wonders in Arthur and george through two characters from History, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a young attorney of Indian origin, wrongly accused of having killed horses. Barnes reconstructs their parallel lives until their meeting, when Doyle, deciding to defend Edalji, sets out in his footsteps and analyzes the racism of Edwardian society.

And then, in more recent fictions, the personal history of the protagonists is much more important. In A girl, who dances (2011), Tony Webster is taken back to his youth and his troubled relationship with Veronica Ford: “How often do we tell our own story? And the older we get, the rarer are those who can dispute our version, remind us that this life is not our life, but only the story that we have told, about our life. Told to others, but also – above all – to ourselves. “

In The only story (2018), set in the late 1970s in a small town south of London, Paul, the narrator, falls in love at age 18 with Susan, 48. “A first love cauterizes the heart and all we can find afterwards is a large scar”, he writes, feeling that his story is clouded by failures of memory, the mysteries of love that he cannot analyze, wondering about the nature of time, elusive, on the sadness of existence. And in this novel as in the others, we find the tone of Julian Barnes, inimitable, made of humor, melancholy, discretion,understatement.


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