Obsessed with Obsession

Flaubert’s Parrot

by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 190 pp., $13.95

Julian Barnes is an English writer still in his thirties. His first novel, Metroland, appeared in 1981, his second, Before She Met Me, in 1982. With his third, Flaubert’s Parrot, he is beginning to attract the kind of attention reserved for serious novelists. Yet he is still, I should say, better known in Britain as a television critic. Television criticism is on the face of it a peculiar and unpromising genre, and that it should have been brought to such a high degree of polish in the English Sunday papers may suggest that something important though obscure is going on in British culture. Reviews of books and exhibitions and plays are about what you might conceivably read or visit; television reviews are about shows you either have already seen or never will. More often than not they never needed discussing anyway. The TV critic has to contemplate a wholly forgettable recent past as material for a piece that will have to be loved for itself alone. Wit, charm, fantasy are his instruments (TV criticism is apparently a male preserve). The genre was invented by Clive James, who actually collects his reviews in volume form, so that you can savor all over again two years later the giggly charm of a lost Sunday morning you spent reading about nothing.

The hour brings forth the man, or the men, and the London Sunday papers have nourished a generation of writers capable of wit on many subjects, among them Barnes and the slightly younger, very much more hectic, Martin Amis. Sooner or later—rather later in the case of Barnes—these sharpened wits will be applied to larger enterprises, and most obviously to fiction. As a novelist Barnes is less “épatant,” to use a word he associates with adolescent cultural enthusiasms, than Amis; but they share a world. To belong fully to that world you need to have been born in England after 1945. Your parents belong to the generation of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, writers regarded as funny, subtle, mildly chauvinistic, slightly disgusted with the state of England but suspicious of “Abroad.” You understand these attitudes but think them in need of refinement. You have a different past, which includes them and their obsolete sexual hang-ups, their fits of social conscience, and the imprint on them of that lost long-running TV spectacular, the War. Of course you sometimes feel the awfulness of things too, but it is mitigated by the undoubted coziness of literary London, and a witty sadness is the appropriate response.

In Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes’s narrator is a physician in his sixties, a veteran of the Normandy landings. A passion for Flaubert may seem a little out of character, but two strategically placed and only half submerged quotations from Philip Larkin in the first three pages reassure us. They come from “Church Going,” a poem that might be called the anthem of a literary generation that accepted Larkin as its laureate; to “place” a contemporary of …

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