Adventures in Rereading: Julian Barnes and Jennifer Egan

My last two rereads ended up being as good as or better than they had been the first time around; these two, however, failed to live up to my memory of them, one of them dramatically so. My increased literary experience and/or the advance of years meant these works felt less fresh than they did the first time around.

 

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (1984)

Barnes is in my trio of favorite authors, along with A. S. Byatt and David Lodge. He’s an unapologetic intellectual and a notable Francophile who often toggles between England and France, especially in his essays and short stories. This was his third novel and riffs on the life and works of Gustave Flaubert, best known for Madame Bovary.

Odd-numbered chapters build a straightforward narrative as Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widower, retired doctor and self-described “senile amateur scholar,” travels to Rouen for five days to see the sites associated with Flaubert and becomes obsessed with determining which of two museum-held stuffed parrots Flaubert used as his inspiration while writing the story “A Simple Heart.” Even-numbered chapters, however, throw in a variety of different formats: a Flaubert chronology, a bestiary, an investigation of the contradictory references to Emma Bovary’s eye color, a dictionary of accepted ideas, an examination paper, and an imagined prosecutor’s case against the writer.

There are themes and elements here that recur in much of Barnes’s later work:

  • History – what remains of a life? (“He died little more than a hundred years ago, and all that remains of him is paper.”)
  • Love versus criticism of one’s country (“The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.”)
  • Time and its effects on relationships and memory
  • How life is transmuted into art
  • Languages and wordplay
  • Bereavement

Indeed, I was most struck by Chapter 13, “Pure Story,” in which Dr. Braithwaite finally comes clean about his wife’s death and the complications of their relationship. Barnes writes about grief so knowingly and with such nuance, yet his own wife, Pat Kavanagh, didn’t die until 2008. Much of what he’s published since then has dwelt on loss, but more than two decades earlier he was already able to inhabit that experience in his imagination.

As a 22-year-old graduate student, I gobbled this up even though I knew very little about French literature and history and hadn’t yet read any Flaubert. I wasn’t quite as dazzled by the literary and biographical experimentation this time. While I still admired the audacity of the novel, I wouldn’t call it a personal favorite any longer. I think others of Barnes’s works will resonate for me more on a reread.


My original rating (c. 2006):

My rating now:

 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

This makes up a pleasing pair as it shares Barnes’s experimentation with form and meditation on time. Before my reread I only remembered that it was about washed-up musicians and that there was one second-person chapter and another told as a PowerPoint presentation. Looking back at my original review, I see I was impressed by how Egan interrogated “society’s obsession with youth and celebrity, the moments of decision that can lead to success or to downfall … and the way time (the ‘goon’ of the title) and failure can wear away at one’s identity.” Back then I called the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “achingly fresh, contemporary and postmodern. It is, in fact, so up-to-the-minute that one wonders how long that minute can last.” I was right to question its enduring appeal: this time I found the book detached, show-offy and even silly in places, and the characterization consistently left me cold.

This was probably the first linked short story collection I ever read (now a favorite subgenre), and the first time I’d encountered second-person narration in fiction, so it’s no wonder I was intrigued. “Each chapter involves a very clever shift in time period and point of view,” I noted in 2011. This time, though, I found the 1970s–2020s timeline unnecessarily diffuse, and I was so disinterested in most of the characters – kleptomaniac PA Sasha, post-punk music producer Bennie, musician turned janitor turned children’s performer Scotty, a disgraced journalist, a starlet, and so on – that I didn’t care to revisit them.

The chapter in which Scotty catches a fish and takes it into Bennie’s office was a favorite, along with the PowerPoint presentation Sasha’s daughter puts together on the great pauses of rock music (while also revealing a lot about her family dynamic), but I found the segment on PR attempts to burnish an African general’s reputation far-fetched and ended up mostly skimming five of the last six chapters.

This was a buddy read with Laura T. (see her review); we came to similar conclusions: this may have felt fresh and even prescient about technology in 2010–11, but it didn’t stand up to a reread; still, we’ll keep our copies if just for the 75-page PowerPoint presentation.

Note: Egan has said that her next project is a companion piece to Goon Squad that uses a similar structure and follows some of its peripheral characters into new territory. Based on this rereading experience, I don’t think I’ll seek out the sequel.


My original rating (June 2011):

My rating now:

 

To reread next: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and On Beauty by Zadie Smith

 

Done any rereading lately?

20 responses

  1. James Ashley Shea | Reply

    You were a 22-year-old grad student? How old were you when you first went to university?

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    1. I know I read Flaubert’s Parrot during my MA year, but thinking again, it was probably after I’d turned 23. I’ll correct that above. I have a birthday later in the year, so was 17 when I started university.

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      1. Nope, I was right the first time! I would have turned 22 during the MA course; I went straight into it after undergrad.

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  2. I’m a Barnes fan too, who somehow hasn’t read this one. I’ll put that right (but when? When? That tottering pile…). I don’t know Egan’s work and don; feel inclined to add her to the pile. But the book I think I could read annually is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living. It’s so beautifully realised (and translated too) that I get something fresh from it every time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one’s a must for Barnes fans (unlike some of his earlier stuff; I think Metroland is pretty awful). Apart from this I’ve only read Egan’s historical novel, Manhattan Beach, which I wouldn’t recommend. I do mean to try some of her other stuff. I have her story collection, for instance.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d like to re-read the Barnes as it was the first of his I read, and I loved it back in the day. I do wonder how I would find it now, though – re-reading is always a risk! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still enjoyed it, but wasn’t as bowled over as the first time. I can’t remember if it was my first book by him. I have a feeling I’d already read a few including Talking It Over.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve long planned to re-read the Barnes having read it so long ago. The Egan is still in my TBR, so I will have the joy of a first read for that – eventually!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if you’ll find her techie predictions and comments on celebrity culture dated.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating stuff! It’s interesting that Goon Squad dated so badly. I’ve re-read Generation X although not recently, and Microserfs, and they both read as historical record more than outdated reportage to my eyes then.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting. I can see why Coupland would not age well. Anything so (post)modern is going to feel of its time.

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  6. These are both books I’d like to read, but maybe I’ll cross the Goon Squad off my list. Flaubert’s Parrot still appeals. I haven’t done any re-reading lately, but I like reading your thoughts on your own!

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    1. It’s a shame that Goon Squad hasn’t aged well. Maybe you’d rather try something else by Egan.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s okay… I have lots of other books to read! 🙂

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  7. These are both books that I loved (the first) and admired (the second) so I wouldn’t be averse to reading either of them again. I remember feeling that there were a lot of detailed echoes between segments in TGS and that I felt I should have taken more notes…but at the time I was doing nearly all of my reading on a long public transit commute and that didn’t always seem possible. There were two rereads in my February, but I haven’t selected any for March yet. I’d better make a selection, otherwise, as you know, the space for that good intention will get filled up by other books in no time at all! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The characters in Goon Squad are all connected in various ways, but I found myself not caring about what happened to most of them — thus my inclination not to go for the sequel.

      I still haven’t picked up the next two rereads — I’m getting distracted by Reading Ireland Month selections, the Women’s Prize longlist, Not the Wellcome Book Prize potentials, library books, recent releases, pre-releases … you know how it goes!

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  8. It’s too bad these didn’t live up to how you remembered them! I haven’t read either, but your reviews have made me want to, even though they weren’t as good for you on a re-read. I’m always interested in books with a unique structure and linked short stories are one of my favorite subgenres too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw that you’ve been on a Zadie Smith kick — On Beauty is my favorite of her novels and I’m hoping to reread it soon. I just keep getting distracted by other stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think On Beauty was my favorite too, although Swing Time is a close second.

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  9. […] a bit much. I’d also forgotten about the dense magic realism of the historical sections. As with A Visit from the Goon Squad, what felt dazzlingly clever on a first read (in January 2011) failed to capture me a second time. […]

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