A black-and-white photograph of Julian Barnes, on the left, next to a large green arrow towards a flatlay of his book covers
A black-and-white photograph of Julian Barnes, on the left, next to a large green arrow towards a flatlay of his book covers

Julian Barnes’ status as an elder statesman of the literary establishment – he was on the first Granta list of Best Young British Novelists in 1983, along with writers like Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro – means it’s easy to overlook how varied his career has been. He wrote, under a pseudonym, four seedy detective novels featuring a bisexual ex-cop, and coined the term “posh bingo” to describe the Booker Prize – a quarter of a century before he won it.

His latest novel Elizabeth Finch reminds us just what an unpredictable and original writer he is: no English author of his generation has done more to expand our idea of what a novel can be.  So it might be helpful to boil down his output of 14 novels, eight works of non-fiction, three story collections – and one superb translation – into a handy guide of where to start reading him…

Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)

“An extraordinarily artful mix of tomfoolery and high seriousness,” said the TLS on this genre-defying novel that is always operating on two levels at once. It’s the story of Geoffrey Braithwaite, who’s looking for a parrot owned by French novelist Gustave Flaubert, and also the story of Flaubert himself, who “died a little over a hundred years ago, and all that remains of him is paper.” It mixes truth with invention: “When you are writing fiction your task is to reflect the fullest complications of the world,” said Barnes. It is almost 40 years old but feels bolder and fresher than many modern novels.

It’s playful and funny, but also makes serious points about how subjective we all are: it contains, for example, two chronologies of Flaubert’s life, one containing only the positives (“1880: Full of honour, widely loved, and still working hard to the end, Gustave Flaubert dies at Croisset”), and one only the negatives (“1880: Impoverished, lonely and exhausted, Gustave Flaubert dies”). But most of all, Flaubert’s Parrot is both a tribute to the joy of reading, and a great literary creation in itself.

If you liked this, try: A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) – further fact-meeting-fiction, themed around Noah’s ark

Talking it Over (1991)

Even in the 1990s it was a cliché that literary fiction was all about suburban love triangles, so when Julian Barnes decided to write a romantic comedy, he did it differently. In Talking it Over, loosely inspired by Jules et Jim, three people each talk to the reader directly, leaving us to decide who’s telling the truth. There’s safe, dull Stuart (“My name is Stuart, and I remember everything”); clever, annoying Oliver (“Cigarette? No, I didn’t think you would”); and Gillian, the woman stuck between them (“Look, I just don’t particularly think it’s anyone’s business”).

The three players, with their flirtations, fights and… fallings-out, make the reader a character in the story too, appealing to us to believe them, turning against us when we don’t. Stuart and Oliver even set aside their differences and get violent when someone else warns the reader against their accounts. It’s dizzying and dazzling, and like Flaubert’s Parrot it asks us to question where the truth really lies. Unsurprisingly for Francophile Barnes, in the end it’s a French neighbour who sums it up best: “Sont fous, les Anglais.” [They’re mad, the English!]

If you liked this, try: Love, etc (2001) – the sequel to Talking it Over (“In life, every ending is just the start of another story”)

Arthur & George (2005)

Barnes had always enjoyed literary acclaim, but Arthur & George added popular appeal: it was shortlisted for the Booker, adapted for TV, and became a book club favourite. It’s a chunky historical epic based on real-life drama: how Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle helped overturn a miscarriage of justice involving solicitor George Edalji, who was jailed in 1903 for slaughtering livestock.

The novel alternates between Arthur’s and George’s viewpoints, Barnes making the most of the story’s rich stew of outrages from racism to establishment cover-ups. Its scrupulous attention to the facts of the case, combined with emotional understanding of real people, brings to mind Colm Tóibín’s masterpiece The Magician; and its straightforward storytelling brought Barnes, best known for his playful, cerebral fiction, a whole new audience, about which he had typically English mixed feelings. “I sort of feel awkward about that,” he said, “because I liked my old audience.”

If you liked this, try: The Noise of Time (2016) – Soviet subterfuge turns the screws on composer Shostakovich

Keeping an Eye Open (2015)

Barnes has always been adept at juggling fact and fiction, so it makes sense that his non-fiction is just as readable and rewarding as his novels. In fact, this collection of essays on art began with a section in his 1989 novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, about Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa.

Barnes knows that art galleries can make paintings seem “solemn” and take “the excitement out of life”, and he writes to reverse those prejudices. So he offers clarity and accessibility (“chatting”) on “that suave bamboozler Salvador Dali”, or the “gaudy snobs” who dismissed Georges Braque in favour of his friend and rival Picasso. Throughout, his approach is always intelligent – it’s a thrill to see him thinking on the page – but democratic. As he put it when talking about the book: “Don’t be frightened. Don’t think there’s a proper response to this painting which you have to find out first before you can enjoy it.” But you will enjoy it more after reading this book.

If you liked this, try: Through the Window (2012) – essays on books and writers, with a very funny index

Elizabeth Finch (2022)

Barnes’ latest novel takes two of his recurring themes and makes something new. There is his characteristic blend of fiction and real history; and there is death, and the view of life via the rearview mirror that has been a focus of his work since his Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011). It’s about the life and work of an inspirational teacher – Elizabeth Finch, “the most grown-up person I have met in my life” – as recounted by Neil, one of her former students.

EF, as she’s known, believes “history is active, effervescent and at times volcanic” – who could disagree, for example, with the eternal truth that “a politician’s main function is to disappoint”? She is particularly keen on Julian the Apostate, a fourth-century Roman emperor who rejected Christianity. This leads to a timely story about one-sidedness and seeing things in black and white (as the cover suggests) – and also about the loneliness of failing to take a side in our divisive age. In classic Barnes style, the novel also includes reflections on representations of Julian through literary history – including this one, by his namesake.

If you liked this, try: The Man in the Red Coat (2019) – history and gossip, handsomely entwined

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

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