Tolstoy’s Gerbil

From the continuation of our ongoing “What Would Julian Barnes Do” series, some quotes from his Paris Review interview:

You already were a very good essayist and journalist before you started to write fiction. Why did you choose fiction?

Well, to be honest I think I tell less truth when I write journalism than when I write fiction. I practice both those media, and I enjoy both, but to put it crudely, when you are writing journalism your task is to simplify the world and render it comprehensible in one reading; whereas when you are writing fiction your task is to reflect the fullest complications of the world, to say things that are not as straightforward as might be understood from reading my journalism and to produce something that you hope will reveal further layers of truth on a second reading.

That’s right, Julian Barnes! You tell ’em!

…don’t people always like to try something new?

It doesn’t work quite like that. I don’t feel constrained by what I have written in the past. I don’t feel, to put it crudely, that because I’ve written Flaubert’s Parrot I have to write “Tolstoy’s Gerbil.” I’m not shut in a box of my own devising. When I wrote The Porcupine I deliberately used a traditional narrative because I felt that any sort of tricksiness would distract from the story I was trying to tell. A novel only really begins for a writer when he finds the form to match the story. Of course you could play around and say, I wonder what new forms I can find for a novel, but that’s an empty question until that proper idea comes along, and those crossing wires of form and content spark. For instance, Talking It Over was distantly based on a story that I’d been told five or six years previously. But it was no more than an anecdote, a possibility, an idea for an idea, until I apprehended the intimate form necessary for this intimate story.

I like the idea of form and content like crossing wires.

Both quotes from “The Art of Fiction No. 165: Julian Barnes,” from the Paris Review.


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