In his youth, Julian Barnes’ bibliophilia took on near-pathological proportions. Much like the shoe-obsessed, 2011’s Man Booker prize winner would spend the vast share of his disposable income on books, driving from town to town in search of secondhand treasures.
“I bought with a hunger which I recognize, looking back, was a kind of neediness: well, bibliomania is a known condition,” writes Barnes in the introduction to his upcoming volume, Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and A Short Story. In retrospect, this was a fortunate pursuit.
Reading Barnes is akin to engrossing oneself in a finely wrought tapestry of historical fact, wry wit, and astute criticism. The collection of pieces, which were first published between 1996-2011, deals largely—if, at times, tangentially—with the literary. From casting doubt on George Orwell’s literary honesty as an essayist (if you, like myself, struggle when coming up with pithy titles, I urge you to note the wickedly humorous name of this chapter), to praising Hemingway’s portrayal of the failed and the frail, Barnes offers the reader a heady mix of culture and history.
Barnes’ prolific reading habits form the backbone of the collection’s pieces. When discussing France’s love of Kipling, he draws not only on an obscure roman-à-clef called Dingley, l’illustre ecrivain—impressive, if only because no English translation exists—but recounts the contents of André Gide’s diaries on the topic of its authors, in addition to delivering several lively anecdotes. And, while he takes several potshots at Britain’s historic rivals—in describing the Fashoda Incident: “In July 1898, eight French and 120 Senegalese soldiers arrived at a ruined fort… having spent two years crossing the continent to get there.Frenchly, they set off equipped with 1,300 litres of claret, 50 bottles of Pernod, and a mechanical piano”—Barnes expresses a deep love for his neighbours. Almost half of his essays address the importance of French culture.
Yann Martel, who released 101 Letters to a Prime Minister earlier this month, cuts an odd figure next to Barnes. Unlike the London-dwelling Oxonian, Martel studied at Peterborough’s Trent University and traded metropolitan life for the bucolic calm of Saskatoon. Yet Martel also received the Man Booker for The Life of Pi, and remains its highest-selling author by an impressive margin.
In 2007, Martel began sending noteworthy books to Prime Minister Steven Harper every two weeks, in hopes of expanding his world view (and, of course, garnering a healthy dose of publicity). 101 Letters comprises of the correspondence (almost wholly one-sided) accompanying these literary suggestions.
Martel’s focus is less Western than that of Barnes: from Austen to Borges, through to Xun to Yevtushenko, he delivers an alphabet of world literature in short, chatty snippets. While Barnes borders on the esoteric, Martel flirts with the colloquial: it is as if he is explaining the importance of each book to a good—albeit semi-literate—friend.
Although a plainspoken account is helpful to burgeoning readers, Martel’s salt-of-the-earth tone verges on the fatuous. Judging from his recommendations, Martel has an exemplary literary pedigree. In spite of his breezy epistles, he has a thorough understanding of the world’s workings, and feigning simplicity does not become him. Cringeworthy lines, such as “Since we have more time, why don’t we go back in time” fill the letters like the lyrics of an ‘80s synth-ballad (an aversion to which may explain Harper’s lacklustre response). Equally frustrating are the letters which fail to address their accompanying books. In the dispatch coupled with García Márquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold, for example, Martel makes little mention of the book at all. Instead, he chooses to rehash Orwell’s famous Politics and the English Language, while omitting all mention of the essay itself.
Both Barnes and Martel have an undeniable love for the written word. If you’re seeking beautiful prose and depth of insight, opt for Barnes. Otherwise, for a lavatory experience garnished with a Man Booker winner, opt for 101 Letters.