The Book Club

England’s Lost Argument


Perhaps it’s because your communication arrives at the end of a long day at the Observer, during which I may have already expended my store of critical bile, but I must say I think you’re a bit too hard on both these writers. “Minor works”? I don’t think so! Ian Buruma and Julian Barnes are both, in their respective genres, substantial, even acclaimed, figures who are both, in different ways, creatively trying to push the the envelope. Before you choke on your Olde Breakfaste, and start taking it out on the inhabitants of the “residence Hirschorn” in cruel and unusual ways, let me remind you (and Slate readers, of course) of their respective oeuvres.

Buruma is a terrific journalist (I don’t know his fiction) whose The Wages of Guilt was an absolutely stunning exploration of the violence buried in the recent histories of Japan and Germany. Again, as in Anglomania , Buruma relates personally to his subject. With Anglo-German grandparents and a Japanese wife, he is, perhaps, ideally situated to explore the pre-war tensions in the Reich and in Imperial Japan. Interestingly, as in Anglomania, the mixture of the personal and the historico-theoretical doesn’t really come off, but I give him very high marks for effort. To say that he “runs on charm” is just another way–isn’t it?–of saying that he’s a lucid and elegant writer. Christ! I wish I had even a fraction of his “charm.” Don’t, by the way, go back to the new Spectator: It’s lost most of what it had in Buruma’s day, and now seems to be a haven for the nuttier kind of NATO-phobe and anti-Semite, with as much “charm” as a sackful of snakes.

If I can confess to some special pleading for old Buruma, with Barnes I know I’m on much firmer ground. The man is a giant. For sheer elegance, wit, and brainpower, he leaves most of his contemporaries standing. Believe me, I know whereof I speak: As literary editor of the Observer, it’s my dubious privilege to survey the gamut of contemporary English and American prose. On my reading, then, there are few to touch him. Generally speaking, with most of his books, he’s completed a full circuit of the track while his rivals are still fiddling with their shoelaces. Yes, I completely agree with you that England, England is a “philosophical disquisition” at odds with the form of a conventional novel, but that, to me, is the measure of Barnes’ ambition, an ambition that takes its inspiration, I’d guess, from the great European masters like Kundera and (as you correctly intimate) Nabokov. So, let’s not split hairs. This is a major book–not a wholly successful one, perhaps–but still an important addition to the Barnes collection.

And now let me make good on my promise to supply a few salient texts on the condition of Englishness (as it’s been treated in our literature this century). I should say, en passant, that when it comes to an evaluation of England’s relationship to the wider world (the broad general theme of Buruma-Barnes), the years 1914 to 1945 are the crucial ones. Before that, from (say) 1750, the UK ruled OK, established first one (American), then a second (world), empire, and subsequently (in 1914 and 1940) made the great mistake of going to war to defend it. Preoccupied with two bouts of European war, the English failed to notice that the European idea had come of age. When we woke up to the significance of a Franco-German rapprochement, at some time during the ‘60s, we discovered we were now on the wrong end of the argument. Hence some of our present discontents.

These, of course, have been around for quite a while. As Bernard Shaw (finally, Michael, here’s the smarty-boots literary bit) famously put it in Heartbreak House :

The captain is in his bunk, drinking bottled ditch-water; and the crew is gambling in the forecastle. She will strike and sink and split. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favour of England because you were born in it?

Others have taken up a similar theme. I urge you, and Slate readers, to take a look at George Orwell’s marvelous essay, “England Your England,” in The Lion and the Unicorn , an essay I bet Julian Barnes sneaked a look at while he was preparing to write his novel. Orwell says:

England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted passage, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr. Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. … A family with the wrong members in control.

How about we look, tomorrow, at the idea that, with the loss of the argument, it’s up to writers like Buruma-Barnes to redefine “Englishness,” to separate it from the toast and marmalade, and thus to “take control” of the family papers?