Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending follows the thoughts of an unreliable narrator in his 60s trying to reconstruct events and feelings from his youth. After it won the Man Booker Prize last year, it became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and recently came out in paperback.
Kurt Andersen interviewed Barnes in 2006 for the National Book Foundation's "Eat, Drink & Be Literary" series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Barnes had just published a very different kind of historical exploration, Arthur & George. It’s a fictional account of a meeting between Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and an obscure country lawyer named George Edalji. (Barnes was in the middle of writing The Sense of an Ending then — although the book didn’t have a name yet.)
When Barnes started out as a writer, he says he had a “sort of a plan”: “My first novel was going to be in the first person, my second novel was going to be in the third person, and my third novel was going to be from the point of view of a woman.” He made it to part two of his plan, but was then sidelined by his break-out novel Flaubert’s Parrot. Barnes’ work has ranged from historical fiction to cheap detective novels (under a pseudonym). So he’s reluctant to describe his oeuvre, or even to use the word oeuvre, he tells Kurt. “I can only write one book at a time,” he explains, “and I can only write that book by forgetting all the previous ones that I’ve written. I’m aware, because people keep telling me, that my books are different from one another. I don’t know where I’m going next, except that it’s not where I’ve just been. That’s sort of how I am.”
Bonus Track: Kurt's extended conversation with Julian Barnes