Julian Barnes: “Homage to Hemingway”

07/26/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 4, 2011.

The Maestro, a thin stand-in for the professorial musings of Barnes himself, surveys his writing class and thinks to himself how “They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness.” He offers them loose opinions of their work, knowing that he may not be their best reader, and relies heavily upon “an anecdote, a dream, a memory, a shaggy-dog story. They were very polite, and had heard about the English sense of humor, so anything he said that was at all odd or incoherent was greeted with respectful laughter.” He cites, frequently, one of these anecdotes, about a trip to Greece in which he formed — as authors do — a quick impression of a “chunky fellow with white hair and a short-trimmed beard” who always drove around with a younger woman “with olive skin and black hair dyed an unconvincing blond,” a man who had “clearly been modelling himself on Hemingway.” The story ends, after much ado over the tripartite structure of Hemingway’s “Homage to Switzerland,” with the Maestro writing this very story — which consists of the Maestro’s experiences with three different classes, in three different settings — and results in a perfectly plausible but utterly dull story, one which uses its own structure to justify its own narrative (or lack thereof), and which must ultimately be said to have failed, by dint of its publication. After all, the final line’s slam against the authors of such tedious, so-called “mid-list” work, points out that, after the Maestro had written this very story, “But, still, nobody wanted to publish it.”

I suppose there are elements that work very nicely: the dialogue in the workshops has a crisp, Carver-like feel, and the professor’s interior thoughts could be cribbed from an Ian McEwan novel. And as I said earlier, the story is entirely realistic: writers are certain to appreciate the way it elucidates the fact that workshops are like snowflakes: no two are alike and yet all are fragile. But while Barnes does hint at the Maestro’s concealed life (“Angie had left him because he was a success, and then Lynn had left him because he was a failure”), he doesn’t allow this to drive the Maestro’s lessons or his interactions with students; each piece of this story seems dispassionate and disconnected from the others. It makes points, but it does not score them: imagine dart after dart hitting the bull’s-eye, only to fall out a moment later.

Unfortunately, the story comes down to what doesn’t work, which is Barnes’s insistence, ironically, on making those points. Rather than allowing us to draw conclusions, to relate to these characters, to feel the frustration, he simply teaches us the same lesson three times, in increasingly blatant ways. As I said, the Maestro is a thin-stand in for Barnes — not necessarily because Barnes feels these things himself, but because this character he’s constructed in order to explain the story and its structure is the only thing keeping this work from being an exercise in meta-fiction. It’s the rare short that succeeds at that, and the few that do, do not dare to lecture from on high: they get right down into the muck, as with David Foster Wallace’s apologetic “Octet.” Every time Barnes references Hemingway — and to be fair, the title tells us that it will — he weakens his story by insisting that it fit, without surprises, into this carefully sculpted mold.


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