Conversation: Julian Barnes, Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize

BY Jeffrey Brown  November 8, 2011 at 2:25 PM EST

Julian BarnesThe Man Booker Prize is given annually to a novel by an author in Britain, Ireland or one of the Commonwealth nations. It is highly prestigious, as well as often highly contentious and controversial. This year was no exception.

This year’s prize went to one of Britain’s leading writers, winning for his first time, Julian Barnes, for his novel, “The Sense of an Ending.” It was his fourth time being shortlisted for the award, which comes with an $80,000 prize and an untold amount of publicity.

Barnes’ novel is about memory and tells the story of Tony Webster, a middle-aged man exploring his past. I recently spoke to Barnes on the phone from London about his novel and winning the award:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The Man Booker Prize is given annually to a novel by an author in Britain, Ireland or one of the Commonwealth nations. It is highly prestigious, it is often highly contentious and controversial, but this year it’s gone to one of Britain’s leading writers, winning for his first time, Julian Barnes, for his novel, “The Sense of an Ending.” And Julian Barnes joins me now on the phone from London. Welcome and congratulations.

JULIAN BARNES: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess before we get to the substance of the book, I should ask you if you’re happy, relieved to win, especially after you made the shortlist three times in the past.

JULIAN BARNES: Yes. I think when my name was spoken, I think relief was the first emotion and then afterwards pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Relief first.

Julian Barnes' 'The Sense of an Ending'JULIAN BARNES: Well, I’ve been shortlisted three times before. I knew all the ins and outs of not winning the Booker Prize, and I just thought it would be good to know the ins and outs of winning it. And since then, it has been untrammeled pleasure, I must say.

JEFFREY BROWN: It gets a lot of attention. In what ways is it important to you as someone who’s written a number of other books, won many other prizes?

JULIAN BARNES: It has a worldwide penetration, this prize. And that will mean, I hope, that people who haven’t heard of me before will think, Oh, I’ll give him a go, and might enjoy my work and might discover that there are quite a number of books they can go back and look at. I’ve now written 20 books, so winning a prize at this stage in my life is not going to change either the way I write or my view of the world, but it might, and I hope it will, mean more readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this book — the narrator is Tony Webster, a man in 60s who’s lived by his own telling a fairly ordinary life, but then some things happen that make him want to look back. I was thinking as I was reading it, it’s a long view but in a rather short book. Were you wanting to somehow explore a life, or rather, how a life is perceived by the one living it? What were you aiming to do?

JULIAN BARNES: I wanted to write a book about time and memory, about what time does to memory, how it changes it, and what memory does to time. It’s also a book about discovering at a certain point in your life that some key things that you’ve always believed were wrong. This is something that I started thinking about a few years ago, and it’s probably one of the preoccupations that you have as you age. You have your own memories of life, you’ve got the story that you tell mainly to yourself about what your life has been. And every so often these certainties are not. Something happens, someone reports something from 20 or 30 years ago, and you realize that what you’d believed is not the case. So I wanted to write about that. In terms of how much thematic matter there is and how comparatively short the book is — it’s 150 pages — I think one of the things that happens as you mature as a writer is that you learn better how to handle time. If you look at those late Updike stories — that’s a writer that I revere — he’s incredibly canny at dealing with a whole life in a short space of time. Alice Munro, the great Canadian short-story writer, she’s another one. She can do in 30 pages enough to give you the sense of an entire life. My previous book was about 500 pages.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you like the notion of paring down.

JULIAN BARNES: I do, yes. I’m one of those writers who started off writing novels and came to writing short stories later, partly because I didn’t have the right ideas, partly because I think that short stories are more difficult. I think learning to write short stories also made me attracted toward a paring down of the novel form. But also, as I said, this is a novel about things that Tony Webster, without giving anything away, things that he doesn’t know and can’t find it. It’s to do with holes in his memory and life and in reality that he can’t pin down, and therefore it’s a short book for that reason as well. If it was a book about things he found out rather than things he couldn’t find out, it might have been 250 pages.

JEFFREY BROWN: The interesting part for the reader and the sort of mystery that you weave here, is the reader is wondering is the narrator telling us the trust, right? Does he remember things accurately or is he revising history as you go?

JULIAN BARNES: That’s the question we ought to ask ourselves in life, I think. We rarely do, and I’m sure I’m as sinful as the rest of us in that respect. But, you know, we get to tell our stories and then as we get older the witnesses to our lives diminish, and so there are fewer people who actually can check or quarrel with our version of events. So if something comes along which puts your nose up against the wall of untruthfulness, that’s part of what generates the energy and the action of the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that true for all of your work, with what motivates you as a writer? Is it always some kind of, well, almost philosophical questions as much as the plot, the story that you want to tell?

JULIAN BARNES: It’s equally important. You can’t have a novel without real, believable people, and once you get into either too theoretical a novel or too philosophical a novel, you get into the dangers that the French novel has discovered in the past 50 or 60 years. And you get into a sort of aridity. No, you have to have real, identifiable people to whom the reader reacts in a way as if they were real people. But beyond that, obviously, I’m interested in such things as the difference between how we perceive the world and what the world turns out to be. The difference is between the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves. There is a wonderful Russian saying, which I use as the epigraph of one of my novels, which goes, He lies like an eyewitness. Which is very sly, clever and true.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is good for journalism as well, right?

JULIAN BARNES: It goes for journalism, it goes for witnesses in a law court, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m curious now, because you were talking about short stories, and one thing I didn’t know about you — I know your novels, but I didn’t, until I was just reading about this prize, you wrote crime fiction under a pseudonym?

JULIAN BARNES: I did, yes. I’ve been a jack of all trades.

JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t know that. And you wrote a collection on cooking.

JULIAN BARNES: I did, I did, yes. Actually that sort of ties into what we were just talking about. It was called “The Pedant in the Kitchen.” I came to cooking rather late. I wasn’t taught as a boy, so it was in my early 20s I started cooking out of necessity. And it’s the gap between what we’re told is the case — a recipe, a glossy photograph of what the dish looks like — and what actually comes out of our own kitchen that I’m interested in in that book, you know. It’s like instructions for sex and what sex is really like. There’s a gap there and the fiction writer –

JEFFREY BROWN: You are not writing on that next are you?

JULIAN BARNES: I’ve done that on and off throughout my fiction, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it again.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know in the fiction, but a not a manual.

JULIAN BARNES: I certainly wouldn’t write a sex manual, no. I think I’d have to be down on my luck.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, let me ask you — I want to come back to the Booker. There was the sort of great fuss and uproar, I guess, over especially in London, when the shortlist was announced and the questions about whether the prize was somehow being dumbed down in some sense, a focus on readability, I was reading, whatever that means, of course all put to rest by your victory. But tell us a little bit about the uproar there and what you make of the question of the awards.

JULIAN BARNES: Well, every year the jury changes. Every year there is a different group of people trying to read 140 novels in a very short space of time and trying to keep their wits intact and trying to keep their judgment intact. And at the same time this group of, say, literary editors and literary experts, who without having read the 140 novels, decide that they know which one are best. And so annually there’s a sort of debate and an exchange of insults. And this time one of the jurors said — it may have been the chairwoman — what we’re looking for is readability. And everyone went off chasing that, as if it was a word which meant dumbing down. Great books are readable anyway. Dickens is readable. Jane Austen is readable. John Updike’s readable. Hawthorne’s readable. It’s a meaningless term. You have to go the very extremes of literature, like Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” before you get a literary work that literally unreadable. So it was used as a stick to beat the jury, and you know, I deliberately didn’t read the other entries, but they all sounded honorable to me. There were one or two books that were published which I was frankly rather glad weren’t on the shortlist. Because your self-interest kicks in at a certain point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course.

JULIAN BARNES: But I think it’s become traditional for there to be a good row at Booker time, and this one didn’t really — well, it didn’t do me any harm, so I welcomed it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, the very readable and Man Booker Prize-winning novel is “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes. Thanks so much for talking to us, and again, congratulations.

JULIAN BARNES: My pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.