Julian Barnes’s collection of art criticism Keeping an Eye Open is published November 2015. His new novel, The Noise of Time, will come out in 2016.

Even Worse Than We Thought

The synagogue in Jedwabne, Poland, before World War II
Anna Bikont’s book The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne is meticulous in its procedures, absolute in its commitment to truth, and—perhaps therefore—powerfully dispiriting.

‘For Sorrow There Is No Remedy’

Joyce Carol Oates, Paris, 2008
A friend of mine, widowed in his sixties, told me, “This is a crappy age for it to happen.” Meaning, I think, that if the catastrophe had happened in his seventies, he could have settled in and waited for death; whereas if it had happened in his fifties, he might have been able to restart his life. But every age is a crappy age for it to happen, and there is no correct answer in that game of would-you-rather. How do you compare the grief of a young parent left with small children to that of an aged person amputated from his or her partner of fifty or sixty years? There is no hierarchy to grief, except in the matter of feeling.

Flights

John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1984; photograph by Dominique Nabokov
Hearing of John Updike’s death in January of this year, I had two immediate, ordinary reactions. The first was a protest—“But I thought we had him for another ten years”; the second, a feeling of disappointment that Stockholm had never given him the nod. The latter was a wish for …

Such, Such Was Eric Blair

George Orwell, Walberswick Beach, Suffolk, 1934
You have to feel a little sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan Wilkes, or “Sambo” and “Flip” as they were known to their charges. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they ran St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. It was no …

The Odd Couple

In January, a government document was discovered in the British national archives which, according to the Guardian newspaper, “shocked historians.” This was the note, dated September 28, 1956, of a meeting in London between the British prime minister, the conservative and Francophile Anthony Eden, and his French equivalent, the socialist …

Flaubert, C’est Moi

One of these animal freaks—a five-legged sheep—illustrates both Flaubert’s egregious tastes and his dogged, retentive nature. He first came across it on his walking tour of Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in the spring of 1847. At the Guérande fair they encountered “the young phenomenon,” as it was advertised—the phrase …

Holy Hysteria

In Hjalmar Söderberg’s spare and brilliant novel Doctor Glas (1905), the doctor-diarist of the title dines with his friend Markel, a radical journalist. It is a warm summer’s day in Stockholm in the late 1890s, and they have telephoned ahead to Hasselbacken, an elegant restaurant in the Djurgard, to reserve …

The Afterlife of Arthur Koestler

When Arthur Koestler killed himself in March 1983, he left a suicide note in which he expressed “some timid hopes for a depersonalised after-life.” Whether or not he has attained this (and whether, if depersonalized, you are aware that what you are experiencing is an afterlife, or any other sort …

Always True to France

Last year I was on a walking holiday in the Vercors, south of Grenoble. On a perfect May morning, two of us were traversing a high upland plateau just below the snowline. Turf impeccable enough to re-lay fairways at the Augusta Masters was crossed by thin, pure streams; here, in …

The Wise Woman

Lorrie Moore is good at bad jokes. She’s good at good jokes, too, and makes many of them. But good jokes are the sign of a certain control over the world, or at least of a settled vision, the sort of vision a writer has. Good jokes are finally just …

‘O Unforgetting Elephant’

The back cover of the old Fifties Vintage paperback of Ford’s The Good Soldier has always made poignant reading. “Fifteen distinguished critics,” it begins, “have subscribed to a single statement concerning this remarkable novel.” Next comes the statement: “Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the fifteen or twenty greatest …

Romancing Flaubert

Who burned Louise Colet’s letters to Flaubert? For a century it was taken for granted that the destroyer was Flaubert’s niece Caroline, the inheritor of his literary estate. Caroline, the stiff, correct, high-bourgeois protector, “la dame si bien,” who in publishing her uncle’s correspondence cut out any passages she deemed …

Unlikely Friendship

This great correspondence is built upon equality and difference. Flaubert’s exchanges with Turgenev are full of equality—not to say crusty backpatting—but largely empty of difference: “We are a pair of old moles,” writes Turgenev, “burrowing in the same direction.” Flaubert’s exchanges with Louise Colet, vivid with difference, lack any useful …

The Mystery of a Masterpiece

How long do we spend with a good painting? Ten seconds, thirty? Two whole minutes? Then how long with each good painting in the sort of three-hundred-item show that is the current way of displaying a major artist? Two minutes with each exhibit adds up to ten hours. Hands up …

Night for Day

Near the start of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste there is a deft moment of authorial cheek. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) returns from the piano bar to his rented room and climbs wearily into bed, cuddling an ashtray the size of a salad bowl. Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), the jolly tart who …

Prince of Poets

In 1896, on the death of Verlaine, Mallarmé was elected Prince of Poets by the review La Plume. He accepted the honor but declined the dinner. It was, at this moment of public triumph, an entirely typical gesture. In part it reflected his finely calibrated sense of propriety—the death of …

How Unpleasant to Meet Mr. Baudelaire!

Which famous nineteenth-century French writer am I describing? Born 1821, into a professional family. Expelled from school. In young manhood went on a voyage to exotic places which shaped his sensibility. A keen frequenter of prostitutes, he contracted syphilis and for much of his life was in a precarious state …