England, England – Julian Barnes

I only read two books by Barnes: The Sense of an Ending, which I liked, but not loved and Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art,  which I loved at the beginning, but it became a bit repetitive by the end (it;s a collection of essays, so probably better suited to read over a longer period of time than in one go, as I did). I think I have Levels of Life on my Kindle and England, England I bought last year in a second hand bookstore. Why did I buy it if I was not amazed by hi other books? Because I like how Barnes uses the language, his rich prose is almost tasty, even if I am not moved by the plot or characters. Also the premise of this book is fascinating. Because it is Saturday and I am a bit lazy and it’s quite decent, here’s the blurb from the cover:

As every schoolboy knows, you can fit the whole of England on the Isle of Wight. In Julian Barnes’s new novel, the grotesque, visionary tycoon Sit Jack Pitman takes the saying literally and does exactly that. Starting from the premise that most tourists are interested only in the top attractions and are as satisfied with a replica as with the real thing, he constructs on the island ‘The Project’, a vast heritage centre containing everything ‘English’, from Buck House to Stonehenge, from Manchester United to the White Cliffs of Dover.
The project is monstrous, risky, and vastly successful. Indeed it gradually begins to rival ‘Old’ England and threatens to supersede it.

The book starts very slowly, actually I started it once before and gave up after few pages. This time I continued because I really wanted to read about ‘The Project’. It starts with Martha, later to become the Appointed Cynic on ‘The Project’, pondering the meaning of memories and how we remember things, to what extent can one trust memory. When ‘The Project’ starts it is as ridiculous as it sounds, we have egocentric Jack Pitman, very Trump-like, in the center, surrounded by the Appointed Cynic, Official Historian, Ideas Catcher etc. all working on distilling the essence of ‘englishness’ and recreating it on the Isle of Wight. The Official Historian tasked with finding out how much people know about the history of England, quickly realizes it’s not a lot. The Project progresses and is extremely successful, unhindered by its own absurdity.

It is not a plot-driven book, nor a character-based one, both plot and the characters are devices that Barnes uses to muse on memory, on the value of original versus copy, and if copy actually is inherently worse. He touches on the subject of innocence, on how constantly playing parts in our lives starts affecting who we really are and, of course, on what does it mean to be English, what is England. His absurd, sarcastic critique of it is unsparing. Towards the end of the book, as he describes the fall of ‘Old’ England his observations feel almost prophetic, they so well match the current situation (the book was published in 1998).

I liked this book, it does not speak to emotions, the characters are all awful people, but it aims directly at your intellect, successfully engaging it in the argument it is  making on our world and humanity. An interesting read, I’ll probably give Mr Barnes another chance to finally wow me.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @ vkphotospace

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6 thoughts on “England, England – Julian Barnes

  1. Something about the quotations in your previous post and this review make me think of Kurt Vonnegut – the way he skewers the absurdity of humanity, the over-the-top plot points, etc. Does Barnes seem to offer any conclusions or prescriptions for the future? Have you read Vonnegut and does the comparison hold?

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  2. Pingback: May round-up – bookskeptic.com

  3. I read Vonnegut years ago and when I tried to re-read his books few years ago I found out that I just cannot focus enough on them. I think the comparison holds to a certain point, definitely there is similarity in how both of them use absurd and exaggeration to highlight human flaws, but I think Barnes is more approachable in his writing style. Also the other two books of his that I read were absurd-free, so I think it was a device he used in this one, as opposed to Vonnegut where it is the main focus of his writing – how absurd the human condition is. Barnes does not offer a conclusion or prescription, I think he more expects us to continue as we do, irrespective of what anyone says or writes, but he also gives a glimmer of hope at times in showing people are not always selfish and driven by power. Thanks for the comparison, it did make me look at England, England in a different light!

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  4. I read this absolutely years ago and recall really enjoying it, although not enough for a re-read, it seems. I’ve read a couple of his linked novels about a couple but found them a bit cold and too clever.

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    1. That’s true, he doesn’t seem to be an emotional writer. I will probably give him another chance, because I enjoy his language, but so far I was not blown away. What other novels by him have you read? Do you think I should try any of them?

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      1. Talking it over and Love etc.: I should have reviews on my blog as they came out after I started writing it, but apparently I didn’t review them. OK, but not worth a re-read. I don’t mind a cold writer sometimes, but he just seems too distanced and analytical.

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