Saturday 24 February 2018

In praise of the short novel

British author Julian Barnes poses with his book
British author Julian Barnes poses with his book "The Sense of an Ending" after winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction at the Guildhall in London October 18, 2011. English author and bookmakers' favourite Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for fiction on Tuesday, despite once dismissing the coveted award as "posh bingo". REUTERS/Luke MacGregor (BRITAIN - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY)

Edel Coffey

So Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize, deservedly so in my opinion, and silenced those critics who though first-time writers and commercially appealing books had no place on such a respected awards list as the Man Booker.

Barnes's book is utterly readable, but deceptively dense and rich too, despite its brevity (just 150 pages) and its subtle meditations on life, the passing of time and how our actions haunt us very much require repeated readings.

Grasping the complexity and self-deceit of one man's memory of a life lived over the course of such a brief novel is an amazing achievement and one that only someone with Barnes's experience (he has been writing novels for over 20 years) could manage as skillfully as he does here.

On reading Barnes's novel a few months ago, I was struck by how much it said in so few words, more than many longer, more celebrated books managed.

You get the sense that spare phrases and redundant words were methodically lined up in Barnes's crosshairs and blasted out of existence until all that was left was the barest sentences, like a gleaming bone licked clean.

Iwas immediately brought back to some of the classics of the 20th century who seemed to value the craft of words and their meaning over getting it done.

They were the equivalent of film photographers who waited for the right moment as opposed to modern digital photographers who have infinite try-overs to get the right shot.

I'm thinking of the slim volumes that somehow manage to capture the whole of the human experience within their covers. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, William Maxwell, the former New Yorker editor and master of brevity who had created vast expanses of imaginable worlds in the spaces between his well-chosen words and did almost magical things with his craft.

John Steinbeck, E.B. White, George Orwell and more.

Somewhere along the way, quantity became important, 500-page novels, 600 pages, 900 hundred pages even were admired simplly for their length, for the fact that the author managed to keep going for so long but to me the greater achievement has always been to say what you mean with clarity and imagination in the shorterst space.

It seems the art of honing has become a rare and dying talent and one that we have forgotten to credit. Those who still engage in it should be rightly lauded.

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