His, His or Her, Their – Julian Barnes II


‘What should I read first of his other books?’ asked lots of lovely people today about Julian Barnes. I had a wonderful day today. I felt high and happy about the Booker, And lots of people were very nice about my Booker blog post.

The answer, as with all book recommendation, lies in the reader. What is it that you want? Want sexual jealousy? Then go for Before She Met Me. Coming of age? Metroland. France, French stuff? French kissing, French letters, French toast? Well, most of it but Flaubert’s Parrot is the one that most floats my bateau. Short stories? Tricky. I’ve a fondness for Cross Channel (see? It’s that French thing again) but The Lemon Table is good if you’re interested in ageing and fear of death and the last story in Pulse is a very fine thing indeed. (Go buy it. Read the bit about the herbs. If you don’t think it’s a staggeringly good piece of writing then I’ll eat my chapeau.)

So, as I’ve probably just shown, I hope not too annoyingly, I could bang on about Julian Barnes all day and I put a ‘joke’ into my blog post that only a similarly obsessed enthusiast would spot.

In Talking It Over (want heartbreak? Then, oh Lord, yes) the first chapter is called ‘His, His or Her, Their.’ One of the narrators, Stuart, opens the book by talking about a grammatical disagreement between him, his best friend and ‘great pedant’ Oliver, and his wife Gillian.

Stuart says to us: ‘I don’t know what you think about everyone followed by their. Probably not very much, no reason why you should. And I can’t remember how it first came up but we had this argument.’ And he tells us about this argument. And it is brilliant and horrible because, somehow, in these seven pages where Stuart talks about grammar and his wedding day we get such a foreshadowing, such a bitter knowledge that what is to come cannot be good…but it is just a man talking about grammar.

So back to my ‘joke’. I wrote the below sentence, not on purpose, but then decided to keep the ‘their’ as a bit of a tribute joke that I din’t think anyone would notice.

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.

It should be his or her, obviously. Or should it? Can I refer you to pages 1-7 of Talking It Over for an informed debate on the matter.

My friend William sent me this message about my post on our Open University forum. I’d posted saying that I’d written an ‘extremely soppy’ piece and would be glad to know what people thought.

It is very soppy but justifiably so.  It is a good article.

There is a ubiquitous grammatical error at the end of the first paragraph: for “their” read “his or her”.

The reference to Covent Garden made me cry, because the last time I was there was in a box at the Royal Opera House with my mother, and now she’s dead.

 I hate Julian Barnes, but I still liked your article.  I have read two of his books, and they made me want to pluck out my eyeballs and roll them in broken glass.  For some stupid reason he plays the unnecessary part of Simenon in the otherwise flawless BBC adaption of four Maigret stories, and his voice makes me want to cringe.  But I understand completely the way you feel about him.

I liked this. I like William. I like the way he expresses himself. I like that he corrected my grammar. I like the way he talks about his dead mother. And, and again I could bang on all day about this, I love the very fact that reading is an individual thing. He doesn’t rate my author but he understands the way I feel about him. How brilliant is that?

I was talking to my very lovely boss, Jon, today after he read my post. He was telling me that he too remembers first reading Metroland, that it was part of the Graham Swift/Ian McEwan mash up that formed his introduction to contemporary literature as it did mine. We were sitting across from each other realising that 20 years ago the same books were changing our worlds. ‘Waterland’ we shouted at each other, ‘Butterflies.’

‘Are all Julian Barnes’ books good?’ Someone asked me today.

Good question. Actually, not. England, England and Porcupine don’t do anything for me. Nor did Arthur and George, though lots of other people liked it.

So, it’s all a matter of taste. Another friend at work, also called Jon, is reading the new Joseph Heller biography.

Catch 22 is one of my total fails,’ I said, ‘Tried several times. Awful, unreadable nonsense for me.’

‘It’s my favourite book of all time,’ he said, slightly sadly.

So, if you want to see why I’m obsessed with Julian Barnes rather than Joseph Heller then read the first seven pages of Talking It Over. If you don’t like those pages, if you don’t want to read on then I’ll eat another chapeau or give you your money back.* Or maybe I’ll just accept that you could be one of the many people out there who might be more suited to something else. You could try Catch 22.

What I know for sure is that those seven pages capture what it is that I love about Julian Barnes as a writer, much of which I talked about in yesterday ‘s post. It’s a busy old world and I don’t want to waste your time. You could have a sconce at those pages standing in a bookshop. Do it. Give him seven pages worth of your time. If you don’t get it, that’s fine.

Tell me what it is that you like. Send me into a bookshop on the seven pages test. I’ll do it….

*Terms and conditions apply (Joke – pinched from the Catch 22 enthusiastic)

3 responses to “His, His or Her, Their – Julian Barnes II”

  1. I have to say that Catch 22 is my favourite book ever. I think you should give it another 7 pages!

  2. There is a theory that ‘Catch-22’ is a bloke’s book, which Claire has just disproved. I think it is a masterpiece. I enjoy reading ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ more as entertainment, but I think ‘Catch-22’ is more enduring. I think in his own way Colonel Korn is one of the nastiest villains I have ever seen in literature.

  3. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters was the first book of yours I ever read and I thought it was ace. Very tatty from being read in the bath, like many a Cathy book!

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