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
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?
Four Recent Review Books: Ernaux, Nunez, Rubin & Scharer
Two nonfiction books: a frank account of an abortion; clutter-busting techniques.
Two novels: amusing intellectual fare featuring a big dog or the Parisian Surrealists.
Happening by Annie Ernaux (2000; English translation, 2019)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Ernaux writes. In 1963, when she was 23 and living in a student residence in Rouen, she realized she was pregnant. An appointment with a gynecologist set out the facts starkly: “Pregnancy certificate of: Mademoiselle Annie Duchesne. Date of delivery: 8 July, 1964. I saw summer, sunshine. I tore up the certificate.” Abortion was illegal in France at that time. Ernaux tried to take things into her own hands – “plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career” – but couldn’t go through with it. Instead she went to the home of a middle-aged nurse she’d heard about…
This very short book (just 60-some pages) is told in a matter-of-fact style – apart from the climactic moment when her pregnancy ends: “It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It’s such a garish image, almost cartoonish, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Mostly, Ernaux reflects on memory and the reconstruction of events. I haven’t read many nonfiction accounts of abortion/miscarriage and for that reason found this interesting, but it was perhaps too brief and detached for me to be fully engaged.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
“Does something bad happen to the dog?” We animal lovers are wary when approaching a book about a pet. Nunez playfully anticipates that question as she has her unnamed female narrator reflect on her duty of care to her dead friend’s dog. The narrator is a writer and academic – like her late friend, a Bellovian womanizer who recently committed suicide, leaving behind two ex-wives, a widow, and Apollo the aging Great Dane. She addresses the friend directly as “you” for almost the whole book, which unfolds – in a similar style to Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – via quotations, aphorisms, and stories from literary history as well as mini-incidents from a life.
This won the 2018 National Book Award in the USA and is an unashamedly high-brow work whose intertextuality comes through in direct allusions to many classic works of autofiction (Coetzee, Knausgaard and Lessing) and/or doggy lit (Ackerley; Coetzee again – Disgrace). As Apollo starts to take up more physical, mental and emotional space in the narrator’s life, she waits for a miracle that will allow her to keep him despite an eviction notice and muses on lots of questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Why does animal suffering pain us so much (especially compared to human suffering)? I was impressed: it feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heart-warming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin (2019)
What with all the debate over Marie Kondo’s clutter-reducing tactics, the timing is perfect for this practical guide to culling and organizing all the stuff that piles up around us at home and at work. Unlike the rest of Rubin’s self-help books, this is not a narrative but a set of tips – 150 of them! It’s not so much a book to read straight through as one to keep at your bedside and read a few pages to summon up motivation for the next tidying challenge.
Famously, Kondo advises one to ask whether an item sparks joy. Rubin’s central questions are more down-to-earth: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? With no index, the book is a bit difficult to navigate; you just have to flip through until you find what you want. The advice seems in something of a random order and can be slightly repetitive. But since this is really meant as a book of inspiration, I think it will be a useful jumping-off point for anyone trying to get on top of clutter. I plan to work through the closet checklist before I pass the book to my sister – who’s dealing with a basement full of stuff after she and her second husband merged their households. If I could add one page, it would be a flowchart of what to do with unwanted stuff that corresponds to the latest green recommendations.
With thanks to Two Roads for the free copy for review.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (2019)
This novel about Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray is in the same vein as The Paris Wife, Z, Loving Frank and Frieda: all of these have sought to rescue a historical woman from the shadow of a celebrated, charismatic male and tell her own fascinating life story. Scharer captures the bohemian atmosphere of 1929–30 Paris in elegant but accessible prose. Along with the central pair we meet others from the Dada group plus Jean Cocteau, and get a glimpse of Josephine Baker. The novel is nearly 100 pages too long, I think, such that my interest in the politics of the central relationship – Man becomes too possessive and Lee starts to act out, longing for freedom again – started to wane.
Miller was a photographer as well as a model and journalist, and this is an appropriately visual novel that’s interested in appearances, lighting and what gets preserved for posterity. It’s also fairly sexually explicit for literary fiction, sometimes unnecessarily so, so keep that in mind if it’s likely to bother you. I especially enjoyed the brief flashes of Lee at other points in her life: in London during the Blitz, photographing the aftermath of the war in Germany (there’s a famous image of her in Hitler’s bathtub), and hoping she’s more than just a washed-up alcoholic in the 1960s. It would be a boon to have a prior interest in or some knowledge of the Surrealists.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?