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Julian Barnes - Biography

Julian Barnes is a critically acclaimed English writer. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories and critical essays. He was born in Leicester, England on January 19, 1946. Julian Barnes is the younger brother of the ancient philosophy philosopher Jonathan Barnes. Julian Barnes is also known under the pen names of Dan Kavanagh for his crime fiction writing but also as Edward Pygge and Basil Seal. Barnes is now based in London and has taught literature at the European Graduate School (EGS) where he conducted an intensive seminar.

Julian Barnes studied at London City University and graduated with honors in Modern Languages from Oxford University in 1968. Upon graduation Barnes worked as a lexicographer for The Oxford English Dictionary supplement for several years. He then worked as reviewer and editor for The New Statesman and The New Review as well as television critic for The New Statesman and The Observer. Barnes remains a regular contributor to publications including: The London Review of Books, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker for which he was the London Correspondent from 1990 to 1995.

A prolific and challenging writer, Julian Barnes has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors including three nominations for the Man Booker Prize in Fiction (in 2005 for Arthur & George, in 1988 for England, England, and in 1984 for Flaubert’s Parrot. In 2004 Julian Barnes received the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and was made Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture, having first been made Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988 and Officier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1995. Other honors include: the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung FVS Shakespeare Prize in 1993; the Prix Médicis in 1986 for Flaubert's Parrot and the Prix Femina in 1992 for Talking It Over. In fact, he is the only non-French writer to have been awarded both prizes. Also in 1986, he was awarded the E. M. Forster Award in 1986. The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1985, also for Flaubert's Parrot; and the Somerset Maugham Award in 1981 for Metroland.

In an author’s statement on the British Council website, Julian Barnes writes in such a way that gives us a telling window as to what being a writer means to him:

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.

Julian Barnes began his career as a novelist in 1980 when he published Metroland, a novel about a youthful London suburbanite, through his travels in Paris, les événements (evetns) of May 1968 and his life upon returning to suburban London. In 1982 this work was followed by After She Met Me, a novel chronicling love, obsession, and jealousy. Two years later, in 1984 Flaubert’s Parrot was met with much critical acclaim, including nomination to the short list for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Flaubert’s Parrot details the travels of a retired British doctor in France against the backdrop of his fascination with Gustav Flaubert. As is emblematic of Barnes’ work, Flaubert’s Parrot transcends the boundaries of traditional literary conventions and genres, combining fiction, literary criticism, and biography.

Two years later, Barnes published Staring at the Sun, (1986) investigating the ‘ordinary’ life of a woman over the course of 100 years, beginning in the 1920’s. Throughout his early career Julian Barnes led a literary double life publishing four crime novels under the alias Dan Kavanagh. Titles include: Duffy (1980); Fiddle City (1981); Putting the Boot In (1985); Going to the Dogs (1987). The tetralogy features Duffy, a bisexual ex-detective crime sleuthing through the dark side of Soho, London’s Heathrow Airport, the English countryside, and minor league soccer.

A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters was published amidst the historical and momentous turmoil of 1989, to much critical acclaim again. Described by Salman Rushdie as "Frequently brilliant, funny, thoughtful, iconoclastic and a delight to read," the work once again transcends genres of history, literary theory, and fiction thus establishing Barnes as an interdisciplinary intellectual, postmodern in his questioning of the grand narratives of modernism, and his transgression and admixture of theoretical boundaries, literary conventions, and narrative structures. As appropriate to the explosive historical moment, the collapse of the Berlin wall and the restructuring of European political and conceptual life, Julian Barnes’ methodology in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters has been described as ‘pyrotechnical’, combining the intensity and fire of passion as art.

Indicative of Julian Barnes’ mining of subject matter across a vast and varied terrain, his next novel, Talking it Over (1991), focuses on the lives of three people involved in a love triangle, exploring and challenging literary conventions through writing only in the first person. This work was awarded the Prix Feminina Étranger in France.

Leaping across borders and boundaries once again, Julian Barnes published The Porcupine (1992), a novel set amidst the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. The novel explores and questions themes of nationalism and history. Barnes then released his first work of non-fiction, Letters from London (1995), a compilation of essays written during his tenure as literary correspondent to The New Yorker (1990-1995). Next, Barnes released Cross Channel (1996), a collection of short stories exploring the confluences and divergences between England and France.

In England, England (1998), Julian Barnes focuses his dark and satirical lens on what he critiques as ‘theme park culture’, exploring topics such as simulacra, reality, culture, art, myth, and national identity all with his typically wry sense of humor. With this volume, once again Barnes found himself on the short list for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

The year 2000 saw the publication of Love, etc., a sequel to Talking it Over, (1991). In 2002 Julian Barnes translated the largely forgotten Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, introducing this important work to an English readership for the first time. That same year, Barnes, a confirmed Francophile, released another collection of essays on French culture entitled Something to Declare: French Essays, focusing on such diverse topics as the Tour de France, French gastronomy, and Gustav Flaubert.

The Pendant in the Kitchen is a compendium of articles previously published in The Guardian in 2003. This was followed in 2004 with the publication of The Lemon Table, a collection of stories relating to the themes of death and old age. In 2005, Julian Barnes was for the third time short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, this time for Arthur & George, a fictionalized account of the true story of a solicitor accused of brutally slaughtering cattle in the English countryside, saved from false accusations by the intervention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 2008 Julian Barnes published a memoir meditating on life and its unavoidable end, titled Nothing to be Frightened Of. This book would make it to the New York Times Book Review list as one of the “10 Best Books of 2008”. In 2011, Pusle, a collection of short stories in which Barnes explores themes of the body, of love and sex, of illness and death, as well as of connections and conversations came out with great anticipation.

Julian Barnes has lectured as a professor of Literature at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he taught an Intensive Summer Workshop.