There was a beautiful moment last night. I was standing in a crowd of bookish types in a passageway in Covent Garden sipping wine and chatting to a colleague about the recent antics of our children when a hush descended. We looked up. Julian Barnes was walking down the passageway. The new winner of the Booker prize was fulfilling the tradition that the winning author always comes back from the ceremony at the Guildhall and puts in an appearance at the party hosted by their publisher.
Julian Barnes is my favourite living writer. I could probably leave the ‘living’ out of that sentence. Jane Austen is my favourite non-living writer (seems somehow rude to Miss Austen to say ‘dead’.) If I was on that desert island and had to choose between his or her complete works, if the God of shipwrecks was kind enough to offer me a care package, I would choose his. Because you don’t just get the novels. His non-fiction is wonderful, his journalism is wonderful, even his collection of cookery journalism is wonderful.
I remember first reading Metroland when I was at sixth form in Scunthorpe. It influenced my decision to study French so that I too could go to live in France for a year, a thing which seems commonplace to me now but at the time was quite a big deal. The other reason why I wanted to learn French was that I wanted to be able to read Madame Bovary in the language in which it was written. And the reason I was so keen on Madame Bovary was because of Flaubert’s Parrot and so it goes on. I remember using the woodworm narrator in The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters as an example of defamiliarisation in my first essay at university. It was about Russian Formalism. I can picture it now, hand written in purple ink.
So, I’ll credit Julian Barnes for my early Francophilia. Another obsession I share with him is death. I don’t credit (or blame?) him for that. People tend to be obsessed with death if they feel they have seen more than their fair share, if they feel unfairly exposed. That’s a mealy-mouthed sentence. I am obsessed with death because I feel unfairly treated by it. But I feel consoled by Barnes’ writing on death. It is the best of his writing I think, curious, probing, gently interrogative. There is a well mannered embracing quality to his work. This is a man who understands people, I always think. This is a writer who understands me. He performs the magic trick, the alchemy that the best writers do: Everything between us drifts away when I read him. It is just him talking to me.
So, back to the passage way. He walked down. We cheered. He smiled, a lovely rather shy smile.
‘Have you ever met him?’ Asked Tom from his publishers, ‘Would you like to?’
I shook my head in a weird way. I’ve had a few opportunities to meet him over the years and have always edged out of them. I tried to explain to Tom. I’m too keen on him. I’m too much of a fan. And I think if I actually met him then as well as being a dribbling monosyllabic sycophant, I would feel too connected to my younger Scunthorpe self, to the unhappy death-obsessed girl who stayed up all night writing essays in purple ink. The danger that I might want him to understand me outside of the alchemy of the writer/reader relationship is too great.
And I was happy where I was. I went back to talking to Ian about the cute things our children do.
One of the things I told him is that my little boy has taken to asking me if I’m happy.
He did it this morning. I was halfway through writing this when he called out. I went into his bedroom.
‘Waking up, Mummy.’ He said. ‘Wee wee coming.’
After we’d dealt with that, he looked up at me, ‘Happy, Mummy?’
I always give it thought when he asks me. I thought about it.
‘Yes, I am.’ I said, ‘Mainly because of you.’ But also, I thought, because I stood in a passage way last night and saw Julian Barnes’ Booker winning smile.
My Scunthorpe self would simply not believe it.
Please, if you haven’t, read his books.