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The inscrutable Mr Barnes

Julian Barnes's bestselling novel 'Arthur and George' is his 20th book - but what do we know about the man who wrote it? He talks to Jasper Rees

Of the golden generation of British novelists now within hailing distance of old age, Julian Barnes is much the hardest to pin down. Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan – you know where you are with them, and have done for years.

But the unifying theme of Barnes's work? The through line? If there is such a thing, it's an elegant unknowability, a distaste for the business of sifting through the contents of his own navel.

The one time I met Auberon Waugh, the founder of Literary Review, he was arguing that no one would be reading Barnes in 20 years' time. This would have been about 20 years ago. Waugh had recently set up his literary magazine as a sort of critical sea-wall, its task to hold back the tide of postmodernism, experimentalism, clever-clever obfuscation and general dicking around with form. Perhaps Waugh was just trying to wish Barnes into obscurity. He was best known at that point for Metroland, a debut that loitered in suburbia and didn't frighten the horses, followed by Flaubert's Parrot, which did.

Published in 1984, that novel now seems a very Barnesian admonition to literary enthusiasts that the hunt for biographical trivia is a wild goose chase. It is certainly the closest he has come to a mission statement and, if its author hasn't exactly been languishing in the shadows, for the next 20 years it looked more and more likely to be the book for which he would be principally remembered.

Then last year came Arthur & George, which has reached more readers in hardback than any of its 19 predecessors (11 fiction, four whodunits under the nom de plume of Dan Kavanagh, three non-fiction, one translation of Daudet).

The story behind the creation of the Court of Appeal might not sound too gripping a pitch to a Hollywood producer, but, as well as being his longest book, Arthur & George is his first to have its readers actually sweating about the outcome. They are far more used to rolling his books pleasurably around on the palate, like an enigmatic Burgundy, and certainly putting them down now and again.

"It's the novel I wrote most intensely in terms of hours per day," Barnes allows. "And it drove me along in a way that I then wanted to drive the reader along. It sounds a bit glib to say I wrote it in order to have something to read on the subject, but there's something a bit like that going on."

The subject is a miscarriage of justice. George Edalji, a blameless solicitor of Parsee origin, was found guilty in 1903 of a series of brutal attacks on horses in Shropshire, despite a glaring lack of evidence. He was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude, then released without explanation or exoneration after three. Unable to resume legal practice without a pardon, he appealed to the creator of Sherlock Holmes to take up cudgels on his behalf.

It was the only time Conan Doyle responded to such a cry for help, but, a century on, Edalji's story has been forgotten anew. If Arthur rescued George from obloquy, it is Julian who has rescued him from obscurity. Barnes being Barnes, the original seed for Arthur & George was, of course, French.

"I was reading about the Dreyfus case," he says. Specifically, he was reading Douglas Johnson's France and the Dreyfus Affair on the points of similarity between the infamous conviction for espionage of a Jewish officer in the French army and the contemporaneous victimisation of the young Anglo-Indian. Both cases put a nation's attitude to its own minorities on trial.

More than that, says Barnes, "in both cases there is a shocking crime, a miscarriage of justice, key handwriting evidence, a sentence of hard labour, and a famous writer rides to the rescue. Why has one case been forgotten and why is the Dreyfus case resonating throughout France even to this day? Johnson was a very witty man, as well as a great scholar. He said that you might think it was because the Dreyfus case was about high treason and the British case was about animal mutilation. But in fact the British are much more shocked by animal mutilation than high treason."

To begin with, Barnes didn't have "any particular interest in Conan Doyle. I deliberately didn't re-read the canon in order to write this book because I didn't want it to be that sort of book." When his interest was pricked, it was by Conan Doyle's modish espousal of spiritualism, and by his long courtship of Jean Leckie while his invalided first wife was still alive.

"In his autobiography he completely lies about Jean, and early biographers completely cover it up. The spiritualist stuff is also about evidence, proof, knowledge, belief. And you think, this is the point at which it starts to become potentially a novel." He started to fill the gaps between the facts with fiction.

We meet in a pub near Barnes's home in north London, where I order him a beer brewed by Trappists. He's slightly late because he's been watching athletics on the box. Now that he no longer writes as Dan Kavanagh, watching sport is how he stays in regular contact with his macho side (although his slobby sleuth was actually bisexual). Barnes says his wife (and agent) Pat Kavanagh thinks "it's easier to list the sports that I'm not interested in than the ones I am. I'm not terribly interested in swimming and power-boat racing. I think you can get interested in diving if it's late enough at night." We sorrowfully discuss the inability of the nation's heptathletes to chuck a javelin.

It's hard to square this image of a sports nerd with what we know of the writer. But then, what do we know of the writer? It was about halfway through Metroland, which took an unconscionable time to complete, that Barnes says he "learnt how to invent". The self-portrait glimpsed in the first half of the book is like a rare snap of Pynchon or Salinger. Ever since, Barnes has kept himself well out of it. Was that him being retroactively jealous of his wife in Before She Met Me? In Talking It Over and its sequel, Love Etc, his two novels about the trials and triangulations of love, would he be the plodding money-maker Stuart or the mercurial flop Ollie?

"None of those characters is based on anyone," he says. "Even writers say that fiction is the higher autobiography, and I don't buy that at all. I think that what most of us do is more complicated. Everyone thinks, 'I had a difficult childhood, then I grew up, and then I had lots of affairs, and then some resolution happened to my life: that's a novel.' Oh no it isn't. It wouldn't even be a very good autobiography. It sort of vaguely irritates me."

Can we at least assume that The Lemon Table, his recent collection of beautifully elegiac short stories, suggests a personal preoccupation with getting on a bit? (Barnes is now 60.) "No, I'm sorry. I'll swat that one down easily: (a) it took me about 10 years to write those stories, so I was writing them from my mid-forties or so; (b) I always had my eye on the thought that it gets worse, rather than better. It wasn't as if I turned 50 or was approaching 60 and suddenly looked over the brow of the hill and thought, oh, I don't like the look of it there."

From where Barnes sits, even when he's not on one of his frequent walking holidays (latest stop: Liguria), there is still quite a lot to like the look of. It would have been nice if Arthur & George, his third nomination, hadn't been pipped for the Booker last year by John Banville's The Sea. But how many other English-language writers have been made Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres?

And the good news is that the press can even stop bothering him about his spat with Martin Amis, recently spotted at the launch party for the paperback edition of Arthur & George. As usual Barnes keeps his trap politely shut when this comes up, save for a question. "Have you heard about *********'s love-child?" And he names a famous writer knight. Which I take to be Barnesian for "mind your own business".

Not all good news is real news. A few weeks ago, it was reported that Harvey Weinstein had bought the rights to Arthur & George for a seven-figure sum.

"I was in the States for my book tour at the time and I got home and I rang up a friend who said, 'Oh Jules, I heard you're going to be very rich.' I said, 'That's very odd, I haven't heard anything about this.'" It turned out that someone somewhere had confused Arthur & George with a French film called Artur. In which there is a certain piquant irony.

The last time a novel of his was filmed, it was Talking It Over and it was transplanted to France. "I had nothing to do with it. There was a very nice woman director who I met on the last day of principal photography. They shot a scene on a cross-channel ferry. I sailed back with them to Calais, then came back again by myself. And I said to the director, in French, 'I hope you have betrayed me,' and she said, 'But of course.' And we both smiled at one another. I thought, it's got a chance." She obviously didn't betray him enough. Arthur & George, he reveals, is more likely to fetch up on television.

Barnes hasn't finished his Trappist beer, but the cricket highlights beckon. As a parting shot, I ask him how he'd react if someone did to him what he's done to Conan Doyle and Flaubert – if someone wrote a history of Julian Barnes in 10½ chapters? "Oh I'd be very cross," he says. But what about when he's gone? "I don't care what happens after I'm dead. I assume it's even worse than old age."

Not for George Edalji, who died in Welwyn Garden City at the age of 77 in 1953. Among the readers who have written to Barnes is an elderly woman. As a girl she was evacuated to a house in Hertfordshire Edalji shared with his sister Maud, who has a supporting role in the novel.

"At one point Maud took her to the back of the house and opened a door and said, 'This is my brother George.' And there was a man sitting at a desk who looked up and bowed, and then she closed the door." Barnes has opened the door again, and given him an afterlife.


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