1 March 2021 Susannah

Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open

Julian Barnes is an interesting and award-winning novelist. In recent years he has fought against the closure of public libraries in Britain – a hugely important campaign. I loved his novels Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur and George. But for all of you who love art, I can highly recommend his 2015 book of essays, Keeping an Eye Open. It gives his personal response to various paintings, from Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, Cézanne’s apples, to works by Magritte and Freud. I loved the way he so often linked artists to literature and was fascinated by his commentary on the paintings. Barnes goes into small details which the average viewer might well miss, shows a deep background knowledge of the lives of the artists and a great love of art.

I did not know until recently that Barnes also writes mystery novels, under the name of Dan Kavanagh. I must give those a try soon.

Have you read Keeping an Eye Open or any of Julian Barnes’ books? Tell me your thoughts in a comment.

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Featured image credit- Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open, By WanderingTrad – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81934251
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Comments (8)

  1. Margaret Debenham

    Susannah, I too thoroughly enjoyed Keeping an Eye Open. I have read quite a lot of Julian Barnes’s fiction (Flaubert’s Parrot is still my favourite)and non-fiction, so I bought this book on the strength of his name and also the cover portrait of Berthe Morisot (love that painting). The essays are so thoughtful and illuminating – I don’t necessarily agree with all his assessments, but the analyses of the artists and the works are always fascinating. I have just read the single-volume edition of Van Gogh’s letters, which Barnes mentions, so I reread his essay on Van Gogh. I totally agree with him that Van Gogh was “the flatsharer from hell”, but his assessment of the man and the work is, I think, very insightful and fair – including his assessment that the reproductions of the paintings are disappointingly flat (but one of the “Sunflowers” will soon be in Canberra, and if we can’t see the originals, the recent “Van Gogh Alive” exhibition, gimmicky though it may have been, brought to life the “urgent impasto” (Barnes’s description), every brushstroke visible and vibrating with life). And, as you say, the links to literature are most interesting – I hadn’t, for example, realised Van Gogh was such an avid, somewhat obsessive, reader, with extraordinarily wide-ranging tastes (how many people would read and re-read Harriet Beecher Stowe?). I also enjoyed Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat, an interesting biography of the subject of a beautiful painting by John Singer Sargent and the world of the Parisian Belle Epoque in which the man in the red coat lived.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so pleased you agree with me about the Barnes book of essays on art. I also found there were moments when I did not agree with him, but he always made me think. I saw the Van Gogh Live exhibition and have booked for the coming Monet one. Yes, gimmicky, but it did make me concentrate on details within the paintings.
      The Man in the Red Coat was also a fabulous book – let’s hope Barnes keeps writing, but I am also in agreement that Flaubert’s Parrot remains my favourite. It was so exciting to go to France and see both the parrot contenders after reading the book!

  2. John Wilson

    Susannah
    Thanks for the recommendation. I have seen and browsed the book in the AGNSW bookshop. You have now tipped me over the edge and I will get it next time I am there at the AGNSW for the Art History lectures (and have been many times for your past lectures). One reason I enjoy the Art History lectures is because of the context provided for the art being discussed, which includes references to literature. The two seem to go together because for one thing they are often about the same subject. I recently enjoyed The Man in the Red Coat which also brilliantly covered art and literature and many other fascinating doings of the Belle Epoque. Look forward very much to the coming exhibition at the National Gallery ‘Botticelli to Van Gogh’. There is always a well thought out selection of books relevant to the exhibition in the Sales section as you leave.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am also really looking forward to the exhibition in Canberra, and always look to see what books they have out. I also loved his The Man in the Red Coat – he write so well! I hope you enjoy the essays on art – I found them thought-provoking and fascinating.

  3. Heather Grant

    I have just collected from our Public Library “Keeping an Open Eye” and have made a start on it and so far very impressed. I also picked up one of his detective novels “Going to the Dogs” for some light reading.

    I have never heard of “Flaubert’s Parrot” so that will be next on the list. In fact, I have a very long list of authors you have recommended – the last one was Elly Griffiths. Good holiday reading.

    Thank you for introducing me to different writers.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I hope you enjoy the Julian Barnes book – I thought it was fabulous. And Elly Griffiths is my comfort read at the moment – I’ve loved her settings and characters.

  4. Pam Allen

    Flaubert’s Parrot remains one of my all-time favourite novels. I also loved Staring at the Sun, and Talking it Over. I didn’t know about his detective novels. What a talented man.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I had not heard of his detective novels before either, but must now give them a try. Like you, I really loved Flaubert’s Parrot – such a clever novel. It made all the difference to a tour I did in France visiting places connected with Flaubert, and I got to see the two competing parrots in the two museums. Fabulous!

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