The temperament of memory: Award-winning author Julian Barnes visits Birkbeck

Winner of the 2011 Booker prize, author Julian Barnes spoke to students and staff at Birkbeck about his novel ‘The Sense of an Ending’ at the annual Man Booker event.

L-R onstage: Professor Russell Celyn Jones, author Julian Barnes and Hilary Fraser, Dean of the School of Arts

Hundreds of Birkbeck students, staff and alumni provided a rapt audience for acclaimed author Julian Barnes last night, who delved into his Man Booker prize-winning novel of love and loss, The Sense of an Ending.

An introduction from Hilary Fraser, Dean of the School of Arts, commended the collaboration between the College and the Booker Prize Foundation: “What better way to demonstrate the power and value of reading the best in contemporary fiction, and the work literature and universities do for the public good?”

She described Julian Barnes as “among the most brilliantly creative novelists writing today”; the writer has produced 12 novels, three of which were shortlisted for a Man Booker prize prior to The Sense of an Ending’s victory in 2011.

Speaking to Professor Russell Celyn Jones from the Department of English and Humanities, a former Man Booker prize judge, Barnes discussed the origins of his story, the psychology behind the characters and the “narrative usefulness of a withheld secret”.

He said: “[The narrator] is someone who wants to negotiate life with as little trouble as possible. It’s his key characteristic – he doesn’t want to cause too much trouble or have trouble come to him, so he’s cowardly in a way – or emotionally practical, depending on how you look at it. 

“So of course I, as the sadistic novelist, have held back for him a terrible and punitive surprise by the end of the book. He realises that being careful in your life does not protect you.”

The Man Booker is awarded each year for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK. The novel, about a man coming to terms with his unsettled past, was adapted for the big screen this year starring Oscar nominees Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling.

The celebrated author agreed with Professor Jones that the novel focused on the temperament of history: “The book highlights the parallels between history and how a certainty is put together from unreliable materials, whether they are documents or memories, and how the individual life is turned into an individual history – it’s not necessarily an accurate reflection.”

The audience, which saw students from across all Birkbeck schools attend, asked him about his work, covering topics ranging from the passage of time and character development to the process of adapting his novel for film.

Barnes said: “I went to see the film and after about 45 minutes, I thought it was interesting and enjoyed it but there hadn’t been a single line from my book!

“But I’m certainly not one of those writers who likes to sit in on the scriptwriters or directors, as it’s a completely different process and art form. The cinema deeply believes in redemption, while the novel doesn’t because there isn’t much redemption in life.”

This was the seventh Man Booker at Birkbeck event, held in the award’s 50th anniversary year. Previous events have featured Sarah Walters, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst and Ali Smith.

For a more in-depth read of the conversation on the night, read the BBK Events blog report.

Further Information