Julian Barnes; I have been meaning to write of him briefly for some time. Over Christmas, Daniel hosted two days of reunion in Brighton, where dispersed friends collected in low-ceilinged pubs and drank whilst talking regrettably of our regrettable lack of careers and our unenviable accruement of regret. But, as always, the night ended in tears of laughter, the more regret that was offloaded, the lighter we became. It was two days, especially having spent six months in a foreign city, that were much needed.
As I left Daniel's house, he gave me a book to read on the long train ride away. There's a long tradition of shared reading between he and I - we studied together and very often read the same novels at the same time. He passed me a worn paperback of Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters – I had read neither that book nor anything by the author, knowing only his reputation as a regarded British novelist.
The novel itself, well what to say? Disappointing I suppose, but then was my self-satisfied superiority in matters of taste always going to render it this way? It never used to, not with Daniel. And I had that ease of holiday time too, an air of relaxation and anticipation, the willingness to take on something new and no pre-amble on which to build expectation....
This therefore is not about Daniel or Barnes or the book, but about reception and recommendation. Yet, I start with the book. Fatally, chapter one is about alternative histories, a retelling of the ark saga, a treatise on perspective and dimensionality within myth and human thought, and the book undermines itself there. Beyond that sets of forgettable characters, obstacles of entrenched stylistic conceits and vague elucidatory narratives wash around entirely predictable approaches towards morality, the structure of thought, notions of faith, all delivered in a slightly comedic, slightly whimsical, entirely uncommitted technique which I have seen before in novelists much older.
Perhaps this is not about the author, nor his work, but about what I find engaging in a book. There are innumerable subjects I would rather see discussed and innumerable ways of opening that discussion. I long for more focus, I am tired of narratives about lecturers having affairs on cruise ships, post-apocalyptic passages of surrealism or the twist of having a worm narrating a chapter. I've not read anything before that contains these things and yet already, before reading that paperback, I was tired of them.
So actually, this is not even about what I want from a narrative – this is about asking what does it mean to recommend a book to someone? More importantly, what is it to receive? Shared knowledge has been occupying me for several months now as a subject for critical discourse. In what modes and vessels can knowledge be transported and transferred? Is an exchange of knowledge essentially always a literary one regardless of the medium? Is it tangibly a process of expectation, extraction and application? The site where the exchange between Daniel and I broke down was a failure of both artistic empathy and cultural reception.
The stylistic and thematic reasons for my dislike listed above do not suffice. However, more pertinent here are conspiracies of requirement, schema surrounding needs for certain types of information, for certain interrelated stimulations. The human body craves different forms of nourishment. Below the radar of consciousness, behaviour is silently altered in order to fulfil those needs - can the same can be found with literary exchange? Can it be said that the requirement to possess certain strata of knowledge overrides all other factors surrounding shared knowledge? What role is there for the novel as a relevant site of cultural erudition in 2009? How does this transfer across languages, across geopolitical borders, across decades? How do I stop asking questions I have no idea how to answer?