Book Review: England, England by Julian Barnes


“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”. Those are the apocryphal words someone once spoke on their deathbed. I would up the ante and add that “Satire is harder”.

As a writer, I’ve dabbled with satire, having only dedicated a small number of short stories to being “pure satire” (that is, not dipping in and out of some subplot for sake of levity/irony, but keeping the absurdity afloat throughout). On that note, I must continue to paraphrase others; I remember a late night classical radio announcer who was prompted to list his all-time favourite opera. I cannot recall the specific opera he listed as I’d never heard of it at the time. However, afterwards, he assuredly qualified the choice, saying “[...] Because it’s very. Very. Short.”

Satire in some respects is like opera. The shorter the better (within reason – I’m not lobbying for some new “blitz opera” or anything). The reason for this is that, if one is truly writing a “pure satire” (as I call it, noting that it does not necessarily mean “broad satire”, though I would argue that most “broad” satires are “pure” by necessity), then one has to create an entire environment that is somehow consistently out-of-whack, which also means characters who have to live in said environment. In doing so, there is always a tension between the narrative and the audience as to how long we (that is, the audience) must endure the ruse; that the “comedic absurdity” be taut enough to hold our interest, but not so complex that our suspension of disbelief becomes a claustrophobic mess.

While I wouldn’t call it a “pure satire”, Julian Barnes’ England, England is by-the-book enough to warrant leaning more in that direction than any other. It too, tends to suffer from “long opera” syndrome, ie. taking too much of a good thing and extending it into territories where the lightness (and broadness) of the satire seems incongruous to the author’s need to explore the interior drama of its protagonist.

The setup is inspired: a wealthy, eccentric industrialist – Sir Jack Pitman – conspires to one last show-stopper to top off his (slightly dubious) career. His idea: use the Isle of Wight as a tourist attraction which distills everything that England is (to the imaginations of “Top Dollar” or “Long Yen” clients; those, in the words of Pitman, interested in “Quality Leisure”), under the pretence that England proper is too large and unsightly to provide a satisfactory arena. As Sir Jack muses early in the going, England’s “tits have fallen”.

We are introduced to the protagonist, Martha Cochrane, in a prologue, who later in the book is hired onto Pitman’s planning committee. We are given a glimpse of her childhood, her streak of perfectionism/competitiveness (revealed between a jigsaw puzzle of England and her county’s yearly farm fair), and the hole left by her father’s sudden departure from the family.

The consistent conjecture throughout England, England is whether, after time, there is any substantial difference between the authentic article and the replica. This argument is addressed by several characters, from Pitman to his historical adviser (a part-time television host), to Martha – all of them, to Barnes’ credit, putting their own spin on what often becomes a profound if aesthetically controversial discussion.

In the words of a French intellectual Pitman’s team hires as a consultant: “[...] Once there was only the world, directly lived. now there is the representation – let me fracture that word, the re-presentation – of the world. It is not a substitute for that plain and primitive world, but an enhancement and enrichment, an ironisation and summation of that world. This is where we live today. A monochrome world has become Technicolor, a single croaking speaker has become wraparound sound. Is this our loss? No, it is our conquest, our victory.”

In other words, how is art imitating life any different after time than life itself? Where does its boundaries begin and end? This is ultimately illustrated in a fascinating turn in the plot as, long after the Isle is converted to a exclusive tourist destination complete with WWII fighter pilots, Robin Hood, and an actual royal presence, the actors playing seemingly stereotypical characters begin to accept their roles as real. The farmers begin to farm, Robin’s Merry Men make real demands, to the degree that a new civilization is almost formed in the process.

Yet, while I will not hesitate to point out that the first half of the novel, in particular the planning stages of what is to be called “England, England”, is satiric gold – in Sir Jack, Barnes’ has created a template of outrageous corruption who is not entirely unsympathetic – the rest of the book is a bit of a mess. First, we simply aren’t introduced to Martha Cochrane’s character – events: yes, personality: yes, history: yes – in a way that allows us to (for lack of a better word) give a shit about her anymore than the broadstroked Sir Jack, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if his character were not a duplicitous clown. Martha is given a prologue, an epilogue, and even a love interest. And while there are beautifully characteristic passages relating her inner doubts, it’s written so objectively that it seems the reader is being given access to her by proxy of the author (as opposed to the sort of intimacy one would normally expect). It’s rather like being slipped notes in class when you wish what you were getting were in the lesson itself.

England, England (ISBN: 978-0375705502) is an odd combination of broad (laugh-out-loud) satire and eloquent philosophical musing on the nature of authenticity. As a whole, it simply doesn’t work, but if you can overlook the weaknesses, the satirical side of Barnes’ world is formidable and honestly hilarious. It is available at a good independently-owned bookstore near you, or online from any number of vendors.

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About imagitude

Matt Cahill is a writer. He is currently practising as a psychotherapist after many years working in film and TV. He reads high-falutin’ books, plays soccer, and occasionally plays drums. He lives in Kensington Market, Toronto.

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