Masaryk University

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

Teaching English Language and Literature for Secondary Schools

Bc. Radek Nikl

The Concept of Memory in Selected Works by Julian Barnes

Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature


I would like to thank my supervisor, Mr Stephen Paul Hardy, PhD. for his patient guidance and to Mr James Edward Thomas for advice in the area of corpora linguistics.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction 5

1.1 Main Secondary Sources 6

  1. Julian Barnes 8

2.1 Biography 8

2.2 Julian Barnes in Literary Criticism 9

2.3 Recurrent Themes 12

  1. History in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters 17

3.1 Analysis 17

3.2 Chapter Summaries with Examples and Commentaries 18

  1. Historiographic Fiction in Arthur & George 36

4.1 Plot Summary 36

4.2 Analysis 37

4.3 Examples with Commentaries 40

  1. Memory in The Sense of an Ending 47

5.1 Plot Summary 47

5.2 Analysis 48

5.3 Examples with Commentaries 50

  1. Lexical Field of Memory/History in Individual Works 63

  2. Conclusion 72

  3. Works Cited and Consulted 75

  4. Résumé 77

  1. Introduction

For my master’s thesis I have decided to research the concept of memory in three selected works by Julian Barnes. Memory has been a prominent motif in Barnes’ novels, be it in the form of a satirical account of the history of the world, as was the case of A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, or through the personal histories of main protagonists, where biographical facts and fiction indiscernibly blend – as was the case of the novel Arthur & George. The third case is a short self-reflective novel with autobiographical elements The Sense of an Ending, dealing mostly with failing memories of an aging main character.

In my thesis I explore the different ways in which Barnes uses the concept of memory in the three selected novels. This will be done through analysis of individual novels drawing from philosophy, contemporary literary criticism and from cognitive psychology. As the selected novels were written over the span of two decades, they will be analysed chronologically and special attention will be given to the way Barnes deals with the concept of memory and how it developed over time. One of my earliest hypotheses is that Barnes has gradually become more subjective, treating memory less in a general, objective way (as history) and has instead started looking at it from the humbler perspective of an individual human being.

Additionally, I will use data extracted from the corpora of the three Barnes’ novels to illustrate the relative distribution of the lexical fields of memory and history and to support my hypothesis with measurable data.

1.1 Main Secondary Sources

The literary analyses presented in the thesis draw mainly from The Fiction of Julian Barnes by Vanessa Guignery’s, Julian Barnes: Contemporary Critical Perspectives by Sebastian Groes and Peter Childs, Understanding Julian Barnes by Merritt Moseley and Julian Barnes (Contemporary British Novelists) by Peter Childs. All these authors are renowned scholars who publish regularly on contemporary literary works.

The third selected book, The Sense of an Ending is relatively new – it was published in 2011 – and as such very little scholarly literary criticism on it is available to date. Since the novel is rather self-reflective and partly owes its existence to the qualities of human memory, it will be analysed predominantly within a psychological framework. Most observations will draw from psychological perspectives as they are presented in Daniel Schacter’s Seven Sins of Memory.

In his book, Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University classified the most frequent errors of human memory into seven categories, analogically to the biblical seven sins. He divided them into two categories, sins of omission (failure to recall) and sins of commission (memory is present, but the fidelity is questionable). The first category comprises transience – general deterioration of memory over time, absent-mindedness – having to do with encoding and attention, blocking – often caused by interference of other memories and also includes the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. The sins of commission include misattribution – correct recollection, but incorrect source, suggestibility – acceptance of a false suggestion made by others, bias – one’s current feelings and opinions distort the past memories, and finally persistence – an undesired and disturbing recollection of memories.

The terms for individual types of memory as they are currently used by psychologists were consulted with a seminal textbook on general psychology by Palacký University in Olomouc professor Alena Plháková, Učebnice obecné psychologie. The majority of issues discussed further deal with long-term memory and particularly the episodic memory, which is the one responsible for storing and recalling information about specific events. Embedded in it is the information about what, when and where. The term semantic memory will also be used, which refers to the type of memory that helps people store facts. Semantic memory issues consist of remembering the fact, but missing the information about when, where and how it was learned.

When addressing philosophical issues of memory or history, Paul Ricoeur’s comprehensive book Memory, History and Forgetting will be referred to. His hermeneutical analysis of memory explores many issues pertaining to memory and manages to reconcile the unresolvable conflicts or aporias, for instance the one between memory and imagination. He provides many deep insights into the realms of individual, collective and historical memory and discusses a great many thinkers of the past who addressed the issue of memory themselves. These range from the ancient Greek philosophers of Plato and Aristotle, up to the much more contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson. Among other topics, Ricoeur describes the three levels of historical discourse: the documentary level, the level of explanation/understanding and the level of literary representation of the past (Ricoeur 185). One point of special interest for the subject of this thesis will be Ricoeur’s ideas on the contrast between history and fiction.

Finally, in the part illustrating the effort to utilize corpora linguistics as a support method which either proves or disproves the initial hypothesis, lexical terms will be explained using Howard Jackson’s Lexicography: An Introduction. Professor Howard Jackson is a visiting lecturer at Birmingham City University and has written profusely on grammar, vocabulary and lexicography.

  1. Julian Barnes

The aim of this chapter is to introduce the writer Julian Barnes through his biographical data and through an exploration of what contemporary literary critics have to say about him. Before narrowing focus to the concept of memory, a brief consideration of his most utilized literary techniques and the most frequent topics in his books can provide a wider context for Barnes’ ideas.
2.1 Biography

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England on January 19, 1946 to a family of teachers of French. He has an older brother who teaches philosophy in Sorbonne, France. Barnes graduated (with honours) from Magdalen College, Oxford in 1968; he majored in modern languages (French and Russian). For three years after his graduation he worked as

a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement. Then he read for the bar and qualified as a barrister in 1974. However, he never practised law, as writing appealed to him much more. Later he worked as a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesmen and the New Review (1977). Between 1979 and 1986 he worked as a television critic for the New Statesmen and later for the Observer.

Barnes has received several awards for his literary achievements. Apart from many others, he was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times before he finally succeeded with his 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending.

His writing, covering, among other topics, parallels between English and French culture brought him a very rare honour from France - he was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1995 and a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004.

Barnes has written a number of novels (eleven to date), short stories, and essays. Some of his works were published under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanagh (detective stories). Furthermore, he translated a book by the French author Alphonse Daudet and a collection of German cartoons by Volker Kriegel.

2.2 Julian Barnes in Literary Criticism

In 1992, Julian Barnes was nicknamed a ‘chameleon novelist’ in the Books section of the New York Times on the Web by Mira Stout, after he continued to surprise readers with new writing styles and techniques. It was argued that each book lent plenty of room for reviewers’ doubts on whether this time he had written a proper novel or not. Barnes constantly strives to push the borders of the genre of the novel further. In an interview, he provided his reasons for doing so: ‘In order to write, you have to convince yourself that it's a new departure for you and not only a new departure for you but for the entire history of the novel.’ (Childs, 7).

Barnes is also an essayist and short-story writer, both of which have a marked influence on his novels (e.g. the chapter “Shipwreck” of A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters being an essay on art criticism). Many of the elements present in his books could be labelled ‘post-modernist’, which some critics believe is conflation (Groes, Childs 24). One of the key components of Barnes’ work is his effort to challenge established readings of the past and conventional social categories. The canonized history is questioned and subverted, and through multifocalization Barnes offers various accounts of history. Other ‘post-modernist’ components would be: multiple narrators even within a single novel, disrupted chronology, a fragmented storyline related by themes and motifs and self-reflexive writing (all present in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters). No less important is Barnes’ habit of interspersing fiction with historical facts – labelled 'historiographic metafiction' by Linda Hutcheon (Groes, Childs 144) – thus creating an account with blurred borders between fabulation and history.

Barnes claims his novels start with life and not with an intellectual grid (Smith qtd. in Moseley 10). This could be observed not only in his novels and other writing, but also in his interviews. In them, he purports his own affinity for making an argument through real-life examples, speaking about personal experiences or citing trustworthy sources. In one of his recent interviews (, he recalls the significant differences between his and his brother’s recollections of how their grandfather used to kill chickens. He explores the nature of memory in that neither account is more veritable than the other, yet both are equally vivid, underlining the acutely subjective and untrustworthy nature of memory. Such anecdotes frequently serve as building blocks or even cornerstones in his novels. They could be autobiographical, as it was in The Sense of an Ending, where one of the key characters, who readers only meet through memories of the main protagonists, is based on a person Julian Barnes had known in his youth ( Or the story is biographical and draws from historical facts to such a degree that it is impossible for non-experts to discern between the fiction and historical events (Arthur & George). The novel revolves around two historical personalities, out of which one is Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, A. C. Doyle’s biographer Andrew Lycett gave an opinion on the book and mentioned some minor flaws in Barnes’ extensive research. The biographer must have been impressed, as he pondered whether it was apropos that the book had entered the Booker Prize contest in the category of fiction (Groes, Childs, 9).

One of the metaphors Barnes uses is that of a fishing net. He likens it to a web of string for catching fish, while it can also be seen as a collection of holes tied together (Barnes 1984: 38 qtd. in Childs, Groes 9). When this concept is applied to Barnes’ writing, the stories shift from being understood as a collection of bits of information, but instead as a string of words. The resulting net connects the information gaps, the untold, omitted, unclear things, perhaps to be revealed or clarified later in the novel.

In terms of literary inspiration, Barnes expressed his idea on literature and a writing process that shares a lot with his favourite French author, Gustave Flaubert (Childs 1):

In an ideal world, a novelist - me, for instance - would write a book, readers would become aware of it by word of mouth, and, after reading it, they would send a small donation to the writer at a secret address, these donations adding up to enough to keep the writer alive. No publishers, no reviewing, no profiles, just the purest contact between reader and book, and the fullest ignorance about the writer... Only the words should count.'
In striving for this immediacy, this unaffected and unobstructed path between the words in his books and the readers, Barnes’ consequently asserts a lack of interest in the theories and criticism surrounding his writing. Yet, what is he trying to achieve? Peter Childs believes Barnes appreciates an objectivity in art as it signals a purity of aesthetic approach, which was also something Flaubert sought. But as Childs points out, Barnes affords himself to be quite subjective in his books at some points and it seems he is not necessarily looking for objectivity, but rather for something close to the truth (Childs 1). He certainly does that in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, in the half chapter called the “Parenthesis”, to be dealt with later.

Barnes’ preference for staying anonymous, not revealing who the author’s personality belongs to might also attest to his wish not to be judged and compared based on his previous works. He has a justified, though unrealistic, wish for his new books to be evaluated as they are. It is the writing, the words that matter, not the author and his oeuvre. There is other evidence supporting the idea of Barnes’ yearning for anonymity and that is his pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Why did Barnes hide under a pseudonym? He wrote four crime novels under this name that were published in the 1980s. At that time he did not know what career he would pursue, be it a literary novelist, crime writer, journalist or an editor. It is nevertheless possible that Barnes wanted to keep his hero, an unorthodox bi-sexual detective Duffy, safe in a separate world, sealed from his higher literary ambitions. It is of course possible readers and critics would look differently on an attempt at ambitious experimental prose made by somebody who had previously written detective stories. However, Peter Childs claims: ‘The Duffy books are well-plotted, quickly written vernacular novels in a popular genre that could have occupied Barnes if he had not had success as a different kind of author.’ (Childs 4) Apart from Duffy, Barnes inhabited another alter ego, that of Basil Seal, Tatler’s restaurant critic.

2.3 Recurrent Themes

Barnes the Francophile

The choice of topics in his writing, his frequent visits to France and his open love for all things French – all these undoubtedly make Barnes a Francophile. The old rivalry between the English and the French has never completely died out, despite the fact that French has had a huge influence on the development of modern English as it is known today, and both cultures have been mutually enriching each other for centuries. It is ironic that the author who is sometimes overlooked in his motherland for being too French is seen as

a quintessentially English author in France (Childs, Groes 6). It comes as no surprise
that a person whose parents were both school teachers of French and who took him on his first trip to France at the age of 13, to be followed by numerous summer holidays spent touring France with his parents (Guignery 2), grew up to become a Francophile. In 1966 Barnes taught English at a catholic school in Rennes, where he became acquainted with Francophone popular cultures.

Although Barnes then studied French (and Russian) at college, in his Something to Declare he admits he started seeing France on his own, without the academic and the parental influence as late as in his thirties, when his adolescent revolt against his parents’ love for France had died out. Barnes says he originally gave up languages to study philosophy, but realized he was ‘ill-equipped for it, and returned reluctantly to French…’ (Groes, Childs 118). Unlike his brother Jonathan who bought a house in Creuse, Julian never did so, which encouraged him to travel to different parts of France on holiday and explore the country. He became a connoisseur of French wine and foods which surely reflected in his later job as a food critic. The France Barnes loves is not the one of cities, but rather the under-populated and regional countryside. He admits being partial in his fondness of France – he came to know the country mainly through literature, the one year he spent there (teaching) and his frequent visits as a tourist (Groes, Childs 39).

Barnes sees himself as 'an English Francophile' (Groes, Childs 37) as he says: '[France] is my other country. There is something about it – its history, its landscape – that obviously sparks my imagination' (Swanson 1996 qtd. in Groes, Childs 37). We can observe this passion for France, its language and its culture in many of Barnes’ books, especially in Metroland (1980), Flaubert's Parrot (1984), Talking It Over (1991), Cross Channel (1996), Love, etc. (2001), Something to Declare (2002) and Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008). According to Peter Childs, his love for anything French also reflects in his various essays, reviews and notebooks. His work ‘…is teeming with references or allusions to French culture, their presence justified by the topics and contexts of these books, as well as by the personality of their fictional characters.’ (Groes, Childs 37). Such an assessment may beg many questions regarding Barnes’ being so deeply rooted in the French literary (especially the nineteenth century) tradition. The foremost of these questions is whether he has absorbed his French literary models and predecessors and still managed to avoid copying them or writing in their shadow.
The Topic of Love

Another topic prevalent in Barnes’ writing is love. In his book on Barnes, Merritt Moseley claims each of Barnes’ novels

‘is about love in some central if not exclusive way. It is indirect and oblique in Flaubert's Parrot, disturbed and painful in Before She Met Me, evanescent in Staring at the Sun, complicated by ambition and duty in The Porcupine, but it is there always.’ (Moseley 12)
The titles Talking It Over, Love etc. and The Sense of an Ending could be easily added to this group and although it is not a central element in Arthur & George, love and relationships have their place in the book, as well. Barnes’ Before She Met Me (1982), for example, was in Moseley’s words “a short but intense, funny but terrifying study of love and over-mastering jealousy” (Moseley 6). Love is not always depicted as a noble feeling in Barnes’ books. Moseley notices that apart from the interest in marriage, there is the subject of infidelity and adultery, even cuckoldry. It is true that in Barnes’ earlier novels the male protagonists “are often the ‘victims’ of their wives' infidelity” (Moseley 13). Despite the omnipresent humorous tone of his writing, Barnes is well aware of the fact that love often goes wrong, as he has had a bitter experience himself, when his wife temporarily left him in the 1980s for another lover, author Jeanette Winterson (

There is one place in Barnes’ books where he specifically addresses the topic of love, and does it in a contemplative, philosophical and essayistic manner. It is the half-chapter of A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters called “Parenthesis”. The semi-chapter intentionally stands out from the rest of the chapters, as the author adopts not only the subjective voice of the novel’s narrator, but his own – the voice of Julian Barnes. He does so in order to philosophically defend love. Vanessa Guignery mentions an interview with Michael Ignatieff, in which Barnes was asked about the autobiographical nature of “Parenthesis”. He pleaded guilty, admitting it was completely autobiographical (Guignery 59). After several not clearly or visibly related chapters, Barnes sets all the fragments of his story-telling aside for a moment and speaks directly, sharing with readers his thoughts in an intimate moment while lying in bed at night next to his sleeping wife. Guignery believes Barnes’ refers to El Greco’s painting 'Burial of the Count of Orgaz' (1586—88), because he wants to show an analogy between him and the painter (Guignery 59). The painting is famous for the fact that one of the mourners is looking outside the scene, right into the ‘camera’, into the eyes of those who look at the painting. This unconcerned mourner is supposed to be the painter himself. In “Parenthesis”, one can observe how Barnes steps back from telling his story, takes a break, checks on reality and realizes what things in life are important. “Parenthesis” feels like a musical intermezzo, although in opera it is used to lighten up the atmosphere after a serious main part, whereas the earnest and serious tone here gives evidence of the contrary.

Barnes goes on to meditate over the qualities of love. Andrew Tate notes how “Parenthesis” depicts ‘a kind of pastiche of St. Paul's trinity of faith, hope and love in 1 Corinthians 13 - and offers a robust defence of love’ (Groes, Childs 61). Barnes has made an analogy of love and faith here, using the words of an early Christian author: 'Tertullian said of Christian belief that it was true because it was impossible. Perhaps love is essential because it's unnecessary' (Barnes 1990: 236). He further claims: ‘If we look at the history of the world, it seems surprising that love is included. It’s an excrescence, a monstrosity, some tardy addition to the agenda.’ Judging from other Barnes’ novels dealing with love, often in the form of a love triangle, love at least complicates matters. Barnes argues that love is people’s chance for transcendence, since without love “the history of the world becomes brutally self-important”. Perhaps what he hints at is also that the needlessness of love manifests a man’s free will. People might be victims of history, but at least they can freely decide whether to love and who to love. Barnes adds: “Of course, we don’t fall in love to help out with the world’s ego problem; yet this is one of love’s surer effects.” (Barnes 1990: 201) Here the author might refer to the very fundamental level of how love operates. When one truly loves somebody or even something, one tends to shift the focal point of one’s being from selfishly considering only one’s own interest to incorporating the needs and wishes of the beloved other. Love is a perfect cure for realizing it is not all about ourselves. Barnes further expounds that since religion gets corrupted and not everybody can do or even perceive art, “religion and art must yield to love” (Barnes 1990: 244). It seems that as personal and form-changing as love might be, it is the most universal force of the trio.

Despite all the credit given to love in “Parenthesis”, the author admits that love will eventually also fail us. People should nevertheless go on believing in it. In Barnes’ claim that love 'represents the closest we may come to truth' one can see how he identifies the ego, after being solved in empathy and sympathy with truth, which may be seen as transcendence. At the same time, Barnes is aware of the uncertainties and does not want to identify with those who use rational thinking to “bolster power or to alienate' (Childs 2009:128 qtd. in Groes, Childs 62). Here an opposition between heart and reason is implicit, as love leads to transcendence, whereas the excess of reason at the expense of empathy leads to egocentrism. Andrew Tate also believes that for Barnes love presents “a necessary mode of resistance to the oppressive forces of history” (Groes, Childs 6).

Barnes is not afraid of writing about topics that have been written on profusely, such as love, carnality and sexuality, but chooses to conceive them newly and often in the context of a humorous investigation (Groes, Childs 4). Furthermore, Barnes’ sources of inspiration are frequently revealed by the protagonists of his novels. In Metroland for instance, one of the characters regularly quotes French eighteenth-century moralist Chamfort, specifically with regards to love. Questions of morality are certainly not unfamiliar concepts to Barnes. In “The Revival”, a story from the collection The Lemon Table (2005), he asks 'whether the heart drags in sex, or sex drags in the heart' (Barnes 2005: 94 qtd. in Groes, Childs 104).

Ultimately it could be said that although Barnes promotes love as a transcendental force fighting against ego and resisting the forces of history, he also explores relationship pitfalls, love’s unpleasant surprises and its inevitable expiration. As he put it in his “Parenthesis” with a pinch of irony so trademark of him, back-referring to the initial chapter called “The Flood”:

Trusting virgins were told that love was the promised land, an ark on which two might escape the Flood. It may be an ark, but one on which anthropophagy is rife; an ark skippered by some crazy greybeard who beats you round the head with his gopher-wood stave, and might pitch you overboard at any moment.

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