Julian Barnes

  • Leicester, England


Novelist Julian Barnes was born in Leicester on 19 January 1946, and was educated at the City of London School and Magdalen College, Oxford.

After working as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary, he began a career as a journalist, reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement and became a contributing editor for the New Review in 1977. He was assistant literary editor and television critic for the New Statesman magazine (1977-81) and deputy literary editor for the Sunday Times (1980-82), before becoming television critic of The Observer, where he worked until 1986. He was London correspondent for the New Yorker magazine (1990-95). A collection of these articles was published as Letters from London 1990-95 (1995). Barnes's first novel, Metroland (1980), follows the adventures of a young man escaping English suburbia in Paris in 1968. It was followed by Before She Met Me (1982), a story of jealousy and obsession. His next book, the acclaimed Flaubert's Parrot (1984), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Narrated by a retired doctor, Geoffrey Braithwaite, the novel combines literary criticism, biographical digression and a tragic personal narrative as Braithwaite travels through Rouen and Croisset on the trail of the celebrated author of Madame Bovary.

Staring at the Sun (1986) narrates the life story of Jean Sergeant, from the Second World War through to the first decades of the new millennium. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989) explores the relationship between art, religion and death, through a number of stories linked by images of shipwreck and survival, while Talking It Over (1991), winner of the French Prix Fémina, is the story of a triangular love affair. The Porcupine, a political novel set in Eastern Europe, was published in 1992. Cross Channel, a collection of short stories about English men and women living in France, was published in 1996 and was followed by a dark satire of contemporary English 'theme-park' culture, England, England (1998), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Arthur and George (2005) is based on the true story of a solicitor in the early twentieth century, accused of maiming cattle, and saved by the intervention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Love, etc (2000), continues the stories of the characters he created in Talking It Over. He also used to write a series of detective thrillers under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, featuring the bisexual private-eye, Duffy. Julian Barnes's work has been successful both commercially and critically on both sides of the Channel, and Flaubert's Parrot was awarded the Prix Médicis (France). In 1995 he was made Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France). He was awarded the E.M. Forster Award in 1986 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the German Shakespeare Prize from the Alfred Toepfer Foundation in Hamburg in 1993. In 2011 he was awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize.

His book Something to Declare: French Essays (2002), is a series of essays about French life and culture. He has also edited and translated the first English translation of the French 19th-century novelist Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain (2002). The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003), was originally a series of articles for The Guardian.

Julian Barnes lives in London. His latest books are Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008) - a memoir; Pulse (2011) - a collection of short stories; and the novels, The Sense of an Ending (2011), shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Novel Award and winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction,  The Noise of Time (2016) and The Only Story  (2018).

Critical perspective

Julian Barnes started out as a journalist before publishing his first novel, Metroland, in 1980. Since then he has carved out a reputation as one of contemporary Britain's most brilliant and sophisticated novelists, often grouped with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

Barnes's prose is elegant, witty and playful, and he often employs techniques associated with postmodern writing - unreliable narrators, a self-conscious linguistic style, an intertextual blending of different narrative forms - which serve to foreground the process of literary creation, the gap between experience and language, and the subjectivity of 'truth' and 'reality'. However, despite this playful experimentation with language, style and form, Barnes's fiction is also grounded in psychological realism and his themes are serious, poignant and heart-felt: he frequently addresses the nature of love, particularly its dark side, exploring humankind's capacity for jealousy, obsession and infidelity, alongside the perennial quest for authentic love.

Metroland (1980) is a coming-of-age novel which explores 20th-century society in both England and France through the story of Christopher, a young English man who tries to escape his dull, middle-class suburban life by moving to Paris and emerging himself in French culture. It was followed by Before She Met Me (1982), an intense portrait of the dark side of the human heart which features a man's jealous obsession with his wife's former lovers.

After these two fairly traditional linear novels, Barnes' first major success came with Flaubert's Parrot (1984), his first book to be written in an experimental, non-linear style. A highly inventive and brilliant work, Flaubert's Parrot intertwines the realistic personal story of its protagonist, Geoffrey Braithwaite, with a wealth of literary and artistic references, and a complex web of different genres and textual forms, combining fiction with biography, literary criticism, letters and other documentary texts. Braithwaite, a retired doctor, spends his time pursuing his passionate interest in the French writer, Gustave Flaubert, and Barnes's novel incorporates the fruits of Braithwaite's research, offering readers "a brilliant, well-informed, creative exploration of the French writer's life and work, which ultimately questions the philosophical nature of all history and knowledge" (Richard Brown, Contemporary Novelists, 1991, ed. Henderson). Yet underlying this intertextual collage of literary research and biographical information about Flaubert is Braithwaite's emotionally traumatic story regarding his wife's adultery and death which, strangely, seems to echo the experiences of some of Flaubert's characters - thus creating another layer of overlapping of the many different threads of Flaubert's Parrot. 

Patrick Meanor comments on the critical reaction to the experimental form of Flaubert's Parrot, in which some critics dispute whether it can actually be defined as a novel: "Some commentators claimed that its formal structure moved beyond novelistic boundaries; it appeared to be a set of variations on different forms of discourse covering many aspects of Gustave Flaubert's life and works" (Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature, 2003, eds Serafin and Grosvenor Myer). A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) has sparked similar debates, for its structure is also experimental and complex. Beginning with Noah's Ark and ending with a scene in heaven, it echoes Flaubert's Parrot in incorporating many different textual forms - including letters, legal documents, critical writings - to examine our construction of historical knowledge and the slippery nature of 'truth'. This richly layered work also combines its postmodern experimentation with poignant contemplations on the meaning of life and the necessity of love.

Talking it Over (1991), which was followed by a sequel, Love etc. (2000), returns to the themes of the first two novels, exploring the intensities and frustrations of male-female relationships, this time through a complicated love triangle. However,Talking it Over is more than a traditional story of the quest for love, for its structure - monologues written in turn by each of the three characters - presents three different versions of events, with each character asserting the truthfulness and validity of their own point of view. As such, Talking it Over, as with Barnes's more experimental novels, questions and subverts the objectivity of truth, suggesting that there is no single 'correct' version, merely differing subjective viewpoints and interpretations.The acclaimed England, England (1998) satirises the virtual reality and capitalism of contemporary English culture by depicting a dystopian vision in which the modern-day tendency to experience everything in virtual terms is taken to extremes. The Isle of Wight has been turned into a bizarre theme park, England, England, in which there are replicas of most of the country's major tourist attractions, historical sites and cultural artefacts, all of which embody stereotypical notions of Englishness: Big Ben, red double-decker buses, Harrods, Princess Diana's grave, and even re-enactments of the Battle of Britain and the escapades of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. Barnes's brilliant and inventive satire is witty and hilarious, but there is a dark and serious undertone as this virtual, fantasy England begins to go horribly wrong. Parallel to this, and framing the central narrative, is the poignant personal story of the life of Martha, an employee at England, England, who eventually becomes exhausted and bitter as we follow her experiences from childhood to old age.

A very different but equally successful work, Arthur and George (2005) is based on a true story of two very different men whose paths crossed unexpectedly: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, celebrated author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and George Edalji, a half-Indian rural solicitor who was wrongly convicted of mutilating livestock in Staffordshire. The false accusation was thought to stem from racial prejudice and Conan Doyle stepped in to help, becoming a real-life amateur detective in order to get justice for Edalji. Arthur and George, like most of Barnes's work, is rich and multi-layered: Barnes combines his depiction of this fascinating true detective story with a vivid and well-researched chronicle of Edwardian society, as well as delving into the complicated personal life of Conan Doyle, and once again exploring the nature of love.

After three previous Booker Prize for Fiction nominations (Flaubert's Parrot; England, England; Arthur and George), Barnes finally won the prestigious prize in 2011 with The Sense of an Ending, though he had mixed feelings about the award (which he has famously called "posh bingo"), having been pipped at the post so many times. The Sense of an Ending is a short, concise novel in which the narrator, Tony, is forced to re-evaluate his life and his sense of self-identity. In middle age, Tony reflects on his 1960s schooldays with a small group of close friends, followed by university, marriage, fatherhood and a civilised divorce - all of which, it seems, amounts to a respectable life and a sense of oneself as a fairly decent person. However, a shock from the past shatters Tony's sense of middling respectability and moral uprightness, confronting him with the consequences of his thoughtless youthful behaviour and de-stabilising his perception of himself, his past and his (previously comfortable) place in the world. Like other Barnes novels, The Sense of an Ending offers a profound contemplation on the slippery and ambiguous nature of memory, history and even one's sense of self, this time through a brilliantly evocative portrait of one man's painful emotional excavation.

Elizabeth O'Reilly, 2012.




The Man in the Red Coat
The Only Story
The Noise of Time
Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
Levels of Life
The Sense of an Ending
Nothing To Be Frightened Of
Arthur and George
The Lemon Table
The Pedant in the Kitchen
Mortification: Writers' Stories of their Public Shame
In the Land of Pain / Alphonse Daudet
Something to Declare: French Essays
Love, etc
England, England
Cross Channel
Letters from London 1990-95
The Porcupine
Talking It Over
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
Going to the Dogs
Staring at the Sun
Putting the Boot In
Flaubert's Parrot
Before She Met Me
Fiddle City


Jerusalem Prize
Siegfried Lenz Prize
Zinklar Award
Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence
Costa Novel Award
David Cohen British Literature Prize
Galaxy National Book Awards Waterstone's UK Author of the Year
Man Booker Prize for Fiction
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
British Book Awards Best Read of the Year
Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book)
Austrian State Prize for European Literature
Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
Shakespeare Prize (Germany)
Prix Fémina Etranger (France)
Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy)
Gutenberg Prize (France)
E. M. Forster Award
Prix Médicis (France)
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
Somerset Maugham Award

Author statement

"Writers should have the highest ambition: not just for themselves, but for the form they work in. Flaubert once rebuked Louise Colet for having the love of art yet lacking 'the religion of art': she fancied its rituals, the vestments and the incense, but did not finally believe in its revealed truths. I am a writer for an accumulation of lesser reasons (love of words, fear of death, hope of fame, delight in creation, distaste for office hours) and for one presiding major reason: because I believe that the best art tells the most truth about life. Listen to the competing lies: to the tatty rhetoric of politics, the false promises of religion, the contaminated voices of television and journalism. Whereas the novel tells the beautiful, shapely lies which enclose hard, exact truth. This is its paradox, its grandeur, its seductive dangerousness. Two famous deaths have been intermittently proclaimed for some time now: the death of God and the death of the novel. Both are exaggerated. And since God was one of the fictional impulse's earliest and finest creations, I'll bet on the novel - in however mutated a version - to outlast even God."