Julian Barnes and the sense of history

In the 1980s and 1990s, the publisher Jorge Herralde incorporated the main exponents of one of the great literary groups of our time into his catalogue.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
17 March 2023 Friday 23:48
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Julian Barnes and the sense of history

In the 1980s and 1990s, the publisher Jorge Herralde incorporated the main exponents of one of the great literary groups of our time into his catalogue. He called them the dream team, a lucky nickname of sporting origin that has remained, and it included Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Hanif Kureishi, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Vikram Seth and Graham Swift.

Of the main signatures of this British generation, Bruce Chatwin, who died in 1989, and Salman Rushdie, whose novel-revelation Hijos de la medianoche appeared with Alfaguara and later on other Spanish labels, were left out of Anagrama. Chatwin's funeral in London, which brought together several of them, was attended by Rushdie the morning he received the news of Khomeini's fatwa.

There is a historical photo of the dream team authors and some other colleagues with Herralde in the British capital, on the 30th anniversary of Anagrama in 1999. All of them have published high-quality texts, in some cases masterpieces; They have given readers a very good time and are among the key elements that have given Anagrama its prestige.

I have been lucky enough to meet several of them. I presented Vikram Seth in Barcelona with his impressive river-novel A good match. With Martin Amis and his wife, the notable writer Isabel Fonseca, I shared a van to the airport from the Segovian hotel of a Hay festival; Amis didn't seem in a very good mood, perhaps because he got up early; she neither.

I interviewed Ishiguro, a very profound character under a layer of deceptive lightness, in 1990 and had dinner with him in 2005, after his participation in a series of conferences for the Year of the Book.

With Barnes, cordial and very polite, I shared a tablecloth courtesy of Herralde and Lali Gubern; published The Perfectionist in the Kitchen and it was a meeting very focused on gastronomic topics of conversation.

The writers of the dream team, born in the 40s and 50s, have been displaying a sophisticated narrative reflection on the passage of time. Outstanding cases are McEwan, with Atonement and Chesil Beach, and Barnes with The Sense of an End and The Only Story, four splendid novels with characters who look back at a certain age and try to reconstruct the story of their existence from crucial moments. of those who lack decisive information, which when revealed changes the point of view, and invites speculation about how they would have fared if they had acted differently.

Barnes has just published Elizabeth Finch, and when I received it I thought it was another contribution in this fertile line, almost a subgenre. The editorial synopsis mentions a narrator recounting the trajectory of a history teacher, whom he met in a course for adults. Through her inquiry into her “elusive and fascinating” figure, a reflection on the historical discipline would be proposed to us.

Barnes is a master, owner of a rich and elegant prose, an impeccable shaper of atmospheres. But reading Elizabeth Finch has aroused a certain perplexity in me. Although that narrator claims that Elizabeth was "one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met," he does not justify it. The mysteries of the teacher do not appear, or I have not been able to see them, and the final portrait of her is not very different from the one we have at the beginning. Barnes introduces a long central part on the Emperor Julian the Apostate to which I have not been able to find the functionality. An alleged media scandal is unlikely.

And above all, there are many possible debates about the meaning of history - the liberal, the Marxist, the new cultural history, more recently the woke - that have affected the university and cultural life of the last half century, and it would have been opportune bring to the fore, but the author dodges them.

In Great Britain the novel was received with disparate criteria. Among us, a critic as reliable as Rodrigo Fresán praised it with certain reservations on ABC: "It could have been a great book, but the author chose, with humble arrogance, to prefer not to do it." I am going to take it as a somewhat strange work and wait for the next installment of the always suggestive Barnes