Barnes turns writer's eye to Baltimore

September 05, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun Sun staff writer Arthur Hirsch also contributed to this story.

London -- "You can't drink wine with crabs?" asks Julian Barnes.

No.

"Really?" says the acclaimed English novelist.

Absolutely. In Baltimore, you order wine with crabs, and waitresses start looking at you like you're from Washington. Crabs. Beer. End of discussion.

Mr. Barnes absorbs the advice with a sigh and a smile as he makes final preparations for his trip to Baltimore, where he will spend the fall semester as an instructor at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. In the next three months, the author with a global reach and reputation will supervise two classes of writers, start on a book set in England, live in a West University Parkway apartment, and sample the pleasures of a brawny city with its own literary niche.

At Hopkins, Mr. Barnes will join a list of august literary figures who have taken part in the Writing Seminars as teachers and readers, including playwright Edward Albee, novelists John Barth, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose and Robert Stone, and poet John Hollander.

"I think the idea of living in a real American city is attractive," says Mr. Barnes, who will arrive in Baltimore tomorrow the day Cal Ripken Jr. is expected to break Lou Gehrig's baseball endurance record.

He hasn't the faintest idea of what the commotion is all about. But he is intrigued.

Mr. Barnes is the Englishman who isn't afraid to admit that he loves a good Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's and seeks out "non-tourist America." But in his books, which hop-scotch across a range of subjects from urban angst to art criticism, he is decidedly European.

"I write in English English," he says.

His works aren't American best sellers but they are considered by many to be classics of the late 20th century. "Flaubert's

Parrot" was his critical breakthrough. "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" brought a measure of commercial success. He became an Anglophile's best friend during five years of filing dispatches for the New Yorker. Fifteen of his most incisive

reports on life and politics in England are collected in the recently published "Letters From London."

Some critics have him tagged as a literary "chameleon," who switches styles but who has yet to find a true, consistent voice in 11 novels, including four mysteries under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. He'll release a collection of his short stories next year, calling it "a 50th birthday present to myself."

Heart and humor are his trademarks.

Catastrophe becomes art

"How do you turn catastrophe into art?" he writes in "History," his fast-paced tour from Noah's Ark to Heaven.

"Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We'll have a play on the London stage within a year. A President is assassinated? You can have the book or the film or the filmed book or the booked film. War? Send in the novelists. A series of gruesome murders? Listen for the tramp of the poets."

Mr. Barnes is a polite man who relishes his privacy and values his time. He has one hour to chat, inviting an interviewer to his North London home, a red-brick Victorian number with preposterously high ceilings, gorgeous wood floors, and a cozy kitchen.

The second-floor snooker room is the literary guy's haven. (Snooker is like pool, only, because the English have turned it into an obsession, it's a lot duller.) Anyway, there's a gigantic snooker table at one end of the room. Stuffed chairs at the other. Hundreds of books line the walls.

This is where Mr. Barnes likes to conduct his interviews. He has brown hair and an angular face. His voice is measured, the accent in its own quiet way screaming Oxford educated.

He hates to talk about himself.

"I'm not a public figure," he says. "Being a novelist, for me, is not putting my personality on view or my private life on display."

"I don't want to write a mid-life crisis book," he says. "I don't think it's an interesting subject. No. I've been in the life crisis, not the mid-life crisis. Life is a state of crisis. That's interesting. The fact that your teeth fall out or your hair falls out or you leave your wife isn't interesting in passing."

Strip away the literary prizes, and at the core you realize that Mr. Barnes is a newspaperman. He honed the free-lance trade after graduating from college and working as an editorial assistant for the Oxford English Dictionary. He was 34 before his first novel, "Metroland" was published in 1982. He has written about sexual jealousy in "Before She Met Me," and a crumbling communist state in "The Porcupine."

Finding ideas

"There is no place like a store where you go to find your ideas," he says. "Most of them you pick up. Some of them thrust themselves upon you. The main truth is you very rarely know at the time that you've got an idea. The process whereby that found thing becomes a novel anywhere between six months and 10 years later is mysterious and as far as I'm concerned, must remain so."

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