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Vanessa Guignery, Julian Barnes from the Margins: Exploring the Writer’s Archives

London: Bloomsbury, 2020, 254 p.
Peter Childs
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Vanessa Guignery, Julian Barnes from the Margins: Exploring the Writer’s Archives. London: Bloomsbury, 2020, 254 pages. ISBN 9781350125025.

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1It is uncommon to read a literary critical study that takes a new form and approach to an author. While inspecting a writer’s archives for drafts and insights is far from new, this examination of the archives of Julian Barnes presents a fresh angle on a living novelist and sets out a potential new method for using the extensive archival material available for some contemporary writers. The book offers analysis and discussion of the library holdings, plus an insightful up-to-date treatment of most of the novels and many of the other writings, following extensive research into the early and published versions and associated documents, including literary correspondence. A Note on the Text explains that Barnes’s archive was acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in 2002 (papers from 1971 to 2000), 2006 (additional papers from 1996 to 2006), and 2015 (papers not yet catalogued in 2018 but covering important later texts like The Sense of an Ending).

2With Julian Barnes annotating a near-final draft of this book in early 2018, Vanessa Guignery’s study offers the kind of treasure-trove that anyone studying Barnes’s work in any depth will want to discover. More generally, the book will appeal to the reader interested in the evolution of Barnes’s texts and in his development as a writer. The structure is broadly chronological with a few ‘aside’ chapters, echoing the experimental approach of well-known texts by Barnes like A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, but particularly Flaubert’s Parrot.

3For a new reader wanting to start to understand the work of Julian Barnes, you would probably not start here. There are several primers and introductions available, and so this is far more a book for those who want to know what’s in the archive and how the novels, especially, developed, under what influences and with what revisions. Inevitably it suffers from the problems that beset books whose focus is a contemporary writer: it is not comprehensive (The Man in the Red Coat was published in 2019 and so is referenced only in notes) and if more works appear it will of necessity become increasingly incomplete; plus, such a study cannot have as much hindsight as a similar analysis of a canonized author chewed over in the critical maw.

4Not all the texts are covered in detail: five of the novels are treated mostly in passing, as are the three short story collections, and much of the non-fiction. This is a study fuelled by the archive, to an extent, but with England, England the most noticeable absence in terms of devoted chapters, it otherwise gives most attention to the texts readers associate with Barnes. It also has a chapter centred on, but not confined to, each of Nothing to be Frightened of, Barnes’s important quasi-memoir, and ‘A Literary Guide to Oxford’, an unpublished early work. The archives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin were not yet fully catalogued, as mentioned, and there is the strong possibility more material will be added. But these are relatively minor caveats.

5The study starts with a discussion of the significance, since Heidegger, of the text under erasure, and this provides an apt opening to a consideration of the book overall, and its palimpsestic project. The approach seems particularly appropriate to Barnes, a reflective and deliberative writer, who, as Guignery discusses, went through this process of examining the roads not taken in his discussion of Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. And what do we learn: for example, that ‘Barnes adapted his ways of sketching, planning, writing and revising his books to the singularity of each one’ (p.9); that The Sense of an Ending was initially conceived as a sequel to Metroland, Barnes’s first book, published some thirty years earlier; and that Metroland was composed, reduced, and recomposed over nearly eight years, while The Sense of an Ending was written with a flourish and then left comparatively unchanged. We see Barnes’s perennial interests in death, memory, and love reflected in his first writings and how they evolve over the oeuvre. As one would expect, it becomes clear there was no formula or particular approach involved in the way Barnes wrote his novels but each was carefully considered before developing its own narrative style, plot, generic features, and structure (Love etc, a sequel, is of course the one exception).

6In part reflecting the material in the archive, the short stories are not well covered. In one sense they are important because Barnes is a fine short-story writer; from another perspective less so, as they are less studied than the novels. Also, many people think Barnes is a first-rate non-fiction writer but this is not the focus of Guignery’s study; though it does discuss the almost unique position of Barnes as someone who among British writers has repeatedly been ‘accused’ of not being a novelist, but primarily either a story writer (cf. Ian McEwan or David Mitchell) or a prose-stylist, belletrist, and essayist (cf. Martin Amis or Zadie Smith). The chronology and dictionary ‘chapters’ (biography-oriented sections) in Guignery’s study are fascinating see but will also add to the ‘quirkiness’ of the text, which is following Barnes’s lead in Flaubert’s Parrot, suggesting the kind of audience to whom this book will appeal. Julian Barnes From the Margins tries to be true to its subject and is consequently playful at times. Guignery’s Chronology is much more interesting than such lists usually are, peppered as it is with anecdotes, illuminating quotations, and small revelations. But some will find it unclear in its choice of details. The chapter on Barnes’s unpublished writings is well worth reading on its own as an insightful commentary on how both the final texts and the unwritten ones percolated as ideas. And the chapter entitled ‘A dictionary of Julian Barnes’, though short, would be precisely the kind of inclusion Barnes, or his creation Geoffrey Braithwaite, would want. These touches will make the volume difficult to replicate exactly in its present form and structure for other writers, I suspect, but the general approach surely will be repeated. As for the current volume, it is easy to imagine some readers wishing the whole book was either as whimsical as these ‘half chapters’ or free from such ‘unscholarly’ insertions. But this is surely the point: to play with the formula. If you did not like the ‘Love’ chapter of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters you will not like this study, but if that is the case then you probably won’t be reading it at all.

7The book is nicely crafted: for example, the dictionary chapter ends with an entry on Zola and the following discussion of Arthur & George, Barnes’s finest novel if you like your fiction straight, notes one of the book’s origins in an account of the Dreyfus affair. The subsequent detective-like analysis of the novel’s multiple beginnings and endings, as well as the challenges of writing a credible historical novel strongly featuring such a heavily biographized figure as Conan Doyle, is again both fascinating and in keeping with the subject of the novel. Each of the discussions of major novels ranges over the other works and so the study manages to remain comprehensive in its scope while capturing depth in its analyses of key texts. Thus, the chapter on Barnes’s memoir-cum-mediation-cum-conversation Nothing to Be Frightened Of reflects on the nature of genre, as one must in a study of Barnes, as much in relation to the short stories and Barnes’s bleakest book, The Only Story, as the title text and its reflections on memory, family, death, art and meaning. The final fictional analysis is of Barnes’s Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending and this is a valuable study of the antecedents of the characters and the development of the themes through pieces Barnes wrote about literature and his own life in previous non-fiction publications. The discussion of the evolution of the text and the ideas behind it gives an intriguing insight into Barnes as stylist, as narrative voice and user of language, and as reflective organizer of his own work, elucidating decisions that the reader of the published novel could never know took place but which are impossible to forget when reading the books subsequently. This itself poses a very Barnesian question about whether the work should speak for itself or whether knowledge of the author, or indeed the author’s archives, means addition instead of dilution. The question, like Julian Barnes From the Margins, can only prompt a desire to re-read Flaubert’s Parrot.

8In conclusion, it must be stressed that while there is great deal of detail and precise elucidation here this is not a dry archival study of changed commas and single-word replacements, but a digestible, chunked and considered, overview of central issues, from fabulation to love, in a writer’s career, using the archives as a springboard for rigorous analysis and playful treatment of a serious writer whose books are high on jouissance. Guignery’s study is a comprehensive, well-researched and original overview of Barnes’s oeuvre that will provide a model for further analyses of the copious archives of several contemporary writers. A discussion of the adaptation of the texts into other forms/media, especially film and theatre, would also be welcome. The illustrations that are reproduced are very welcome, and it would also have been worthwhile to see more. Barnes is not a one-book author and some texts are more studied than others, so it is good to see a broad set of discussions here. The coverage is far from comprehensive however and there would be room one day for a long discussion of the full archive in the future. Studies into the development of the novel and the ur-texts or peritexts that provide new angles on the understanding of the finished works are an unusual venture to undertake on a living writer but it would be easy to foresee more such volumes appearing given the interest in contemporary writing and the growing archive acquired by libraries. As Guignery states early on, ‘Barnes’s papers offer a unique perspective on the writer’s craft and art, and the aim of this book is to accompany him in his creative voyages and bring back to the surface of the palimpsest layers that had been erased or hidden but which can still be recovered’ (p.9). As such, the arrival on our shores of this raft from Barnes’s long voyage as an author is a welcome addition to the growing critical archive on a writer whose significance has long been hailed but whose status and significance in posterity has still to be settled.

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Peter Childs, « Vanessa Guignery, Julian Barnes from the Margins: Exploring the Writer’s Archives »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter Childs

Newman University Birmingham

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