A report by Catherine Paula Han on the fourth BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 7 March 2016: Meet the Authors—Gaynor Arnold and John Harding.
A report by Catherine Han on the third BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 11 Feb 2016: a discussion of Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011).
Like so many of Barnes’s narrators, Tony Webster is resigned to his ordinariness; even satisfied with it, in a bloody-minded way. In one light, his life has been a success: a career followed by comfortable retirement, an amiable marriage followed by amicable divorce, a child seen safely into her own domestic security. On harsher inspection, ‘I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded—and how pitiful that was.’ Barnes is brutally incisive on the diminishments of age: now that the sense of his own ending is coming into focus, Tony apprehends that ‘the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss’, that he has already experienced the first death: that of the possibility of change … Barnes excels at colouring everyday reality with his narrator’s unique subjectivity, without sacrificing any of its vivid precision: only he could invest a discussion about hand-cut chips in a gastropub with so much wry poignancy.
The way in which we construct our histories, our fictions, is the subject of the novel, which shares its title with Frank Kermode’s critical study of 1967. Poised between a straightforward story and a novel of ideas, Barnes has it both ways, just as he often contrives to be so English and so French at once. He succeeds in this partly because he is too clever to let his cleverness get in the way: the ideas are filtered through a mind less agile than his own, so that theory is always bound by character.—2011 review in the Times Literary Supplement
Barnes never starts with characters. ‘I start with a situation, a moral error, and then I ask who it happens to.’ He described books as animals, with a structural exoskeleton—‘You have the idea of head, body, tail’—and mushier insides that the author must fill in. For ‘The Sense of an Ending,’ he’d originally envisioned a book with a long body and short head—‘a 3:1 ratio of set-up to pay-off’—but, in the course of writing, the body had shortened and the head had lengthened.
The germ of the book was a series of e-mails he exchanged with his brother, Jonathan Barnes, a professor of ancient Greek philosophy. Julian had written to Jonathan in an attempt to excavate details of their shared history such as how their grandfather killed chickens. Jonathan had replied, ‘I don’t think much of memory as a guide to the past.’ Over several years, Julian considered his brother’s point-of-view, and ending up writing a book about time and the tendency of humans, as time accumulates, to narrate our lives into shapes that the primary sources, were we ever to consult them, might belie.—2011 interview in The New Yorker
It seems that the only people who were not fans of the book were Hosseini’s Afghan compatriots in America. On the internet he was called ‘another Salman Rushdie’, and the Afghan community in northern California attacked him in the press and on the radio. ‘It was quite scathing,’ he says, eating sweetmeats and drinking tea in the back garden of his home in San Jose, where he has lived for the past 27 years.—From The Telegraph‘s 2007 interview with Khaled Hosseini.
I remembered the day on the hill I had pelted Hassan with pomegranates and tried to provoke him. He’d just stood there, doing nothing, red juice soaking through his shirt like blood. Then he’d taken the pomegranate from my hand, crushed it against his forehead. Are you satisfied now? he’d hissed. Do you feel better? I hadn’t been happy and I hadn’t felt better, not at all. But I did now. My body was broken—just how badly I wouldn’t find out until later—but I felt healed. Healed at last. I laughed.—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003), ch. 22
In Afghanistan, you don’t understand yourself solely as an individual,” he says. “You understand yourself as a son, a brother, a cousin to somebody, an uncle to somebody. You are part of something bigger than yourself. The things that happen within families … I’m so fascinated by how people destroy each other and love each other.—Khaled Hosseini in a 2013 Guardian interview.
His blue eyes flicked to Hassan. “Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns. It always has been, always will be. We are the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not this Flat-Nose here. His people pollute our homeland, our watan. They dirty our blood.” He made a sweeping, grandiose gesture with his hands. “Afghanistan for Pashtuns, I say. That’s my vision.”Assef shifted his gaze to me again. He looked like someone coming out of a good dream. “Too late for Hitler,” he said. “But not for us.”—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003), ch. 5
The Kite Runner has sold an astonishing 1.25 million copies in paperback, driven by word-of-mouth at a moment when sales of fiction are reportedly at a low. Scores of municipalities selected it for their Community Reads programs, citing its “universal” themes. Laura Bush called it “really great.” As the months have passed, America has only grown more passionate about its merits. So here’s the mystery: Why have Americans, who traditionally avoid foreign literature like the plague, made The Kite Runner into a cultural touchstone? What version of life abroad is it that seems so palatable and approachable to us? Why The Kite Runner and not any of the other books about Afghanistan that have recently hit the shelves?