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Barnes makes compelling case for fiction

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AS a bestselling literary author, British novelist Julian Barnes may have a vested interest in proclaiming that the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated.

However, in the prologue to his excellent collection of essays about authors, books and reading, the devoted, near-obsessed bibliophile does make a compelling case for choosing novels in their paper-and-binding form. "Books look as if they contain knowledge," he claims, "while e-readers look as if they contain information."

But no matter which mode you choose to absorb that knowledge, Barnes is adamant that reading fiction is imperative: "There may be a superficial escape — into different countries, mores, speech patterns — but what you’re essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic."

As quotable as Barnes himself is, the Booker Prize-winning novelist (2011’s The Sense of an Ending) also has an excellent eye for a choice epigram from his favourite writers, who include Ford Madox Ford, Lorrie Moore and Penelope Fitzgerald.

His admiration for Ernest Hemingway takes the form of the sincerest form of flattery, in a Papa-like short story set among the essays.

Anyone familiar with Barnes’ work is aware of his great love of Gustav Flaubert — his 1984 novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, made that clear — and his essay Translating Madame Bovary is a fascinating and deliciously nitpicky look, not at the author, but at the various failings and successes of translations of his best-known book.

"Madame Bovary is many things — a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure — but it is also the first great shopping–and-f---ing novel."

Not all the essays in Through the Window are breezy reads. While some are effusive appreciations, others are studied analyses of the writer, either in terms of his or her craft or in terms of the responses he evokes.

His examination of the work of British biographer and novelist Fitzgerald is full of professional admiration but also pure love, while his essay on George Orwell is a tetchier affair, claiming that the dogmatic Animal Farm author’s "national treasure" status stems in part from his ability to be interpreted in a malleable way.

Barnes’ many casually dropped references to historical figures and writers have the paradoxical effect of making the reader feel smart and stupid simultaneously.

He never sounds as if he’s lecturing or snooty — there’s no "surely you must know the works of so-and-so" tone — so you feel almost pleased that he’s talking to you on his level. But at the same time, the breadth of his knowledge is sure to leave all but the hyperliterate feeling like a bit of an uncultured boob.

That said, Barnes’ essays on some of the lesser-known or less appreciated writers here will certainly inspire any lover of literature to widen his scope — or to revisit canonical works whose interest has been dulled by years of inclusion on the high school curriculum.

Others are not as successful — nothing in Barnes’ essay on Michel Houllebeq’s work is likely to make the uninitiated want to run out and pick up something by the oft-reviled French author.

However, it can’t be said that Barnes’ imperative is evangelical. He’s not necessarily stumping for these books or writers; he’s illuminating the many varied ways in which writing can affect us, instruct us or even dismay us. He wants to convey the ways books are windows that open onto new vistas, or provide different views of vistas we thought we knew.

Jill Wilson is the Free Press’s acting entertainment editor.

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