Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 23, 1995

Giving Teaching A Go

Leslie Rice
Homewood News and Information

     When the Writing Seminars landed Julian Barnes as a visiting
professor for the current academic year, they had staged a
marvelous coup. For years, university after university had tried
to woo the famous British fiction writer with no success. For
Hopkins, all it took to convince Barnes to visit was a simple
phone call.

     "I've been interested in teaching and interested in spending
a few months in the States," says Barnes. "Over the last few
years, I've received a number of rather formal letters from
universities. But I suppose I rather liked Johns Hopkins'
approach the best. Last year, [Writing Seminars professor] Jean
McGarry simply rang me up, we started chatting, and she asked me
to come to Baltimore. I liked the informality of it."

     Barnes, one of England's most distinguished living
novelists, is settled now in an airy West University Parkway
apartment on loan from history professor Richard Goldthwaite, who
is spending the year in Florence. And twice this week, Baltimore
will get a chance to meet the author of Flaubert's Parrot, Before
She Met Me and most recently, Letters From London. On Tuesday,
Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. Barnes will give a reading in Mudd Hall
Auditorium at Homewood sponsored by the Writing Seminars. On
Thursday, Oct. 26, at 5:30 p.m., he will present the 1995 George
B. Udvarhelyi Lecture in the Turner Auditorium on the East
Baltimore campus.

     For the Udvarhelyi lecture, "Cigarettes, Syphilis and
Genius," Barnes plans to debunk the popular notion that all truly
great artists are at least a little bit deranged.

     "In this century, I think there has been a false approach to
artistic pathology where neurosis is used as an explanation of
genius," he says. "My view is that if in fact a sick or neurotic
person succeeds, they succeed despite their neurosis rather than
because of it."

     Barnes says he's attempting to soak in Baltimore culture. 
He has eaten crab cakes, traveled to the Chesapeake Bay and has
even been to Camden Yards, twice. On one occasion, this very
British citizen brought along Writing Seminars professor Mark
Strand, who although having lived in Baltimore for more than a
year, had never been to the ball park. 

     Although enjoying the Baltimore scene, Barnes says he has no
plans to set his next novel here. In fact, his current
work-in-progress is set in England.

     "If anything the distance has given me a deeper perspective
of my own country," Barnes says. "But I never start with setting,
I never say 'I'm going to write the North Dakota novel.' "

     Location is, however, the common thread of his latest work,
a collection of short stories, Cross Channel, which is scheduled
to be published in England in January and in the United States in
April.  In the collection, all the stories are somehow related to
France. In one, an 18th-century soldier of fortune finds himself
in France, another is about a winegrower, another about a railway

     This fascination with France is not at all uncommon in
Barnes' works. In fact, in his seven novels nearly all his main
characters visit France.

     "France is the country of my heart," he explains. "England
is the country of my birth."

     Although Writing Seminars chairman John Irwin says his
department would love Barnes to stay on longer than a year,
Barnes has no such plans.  

     "Next year I turn 50, and I've decided to spend the entire
year doing only the things I love doing, which is writing, of
course, and traveling," he says. "I'm rather stretching the
normal birthday celebration into a yearlong affair. Of course I
rather tentatively told a friend about the plan recently, and she
wanted to know how exactly it would be different from any other

     In the not-quite two months since Barnes began teaching at
Homewood, his easy charm and intelligent criticism have made him
a favorite among students. 

     "That has been a delightful surprise," says Irwin. "We knew
that Julian Barnes is one of the best writers around. His writing
is funny, smart and elegant. But we didn't know what he'd be like
with students. The fact is, he couldn't be a nicer person, and
the students like him very much. They tell me he's a wonderful

     Hopkins senior Mrinalini Kamath has been reading Barnes'
books since she was introduced to Flaubert's Parrot in a freshman
writing class. When she learned Barnes was coming to Hopkins, she
was among the many Writing Seminars students who clamored to get
in his class. 

     "I really admire his writing," Kamath says. "I really think
I could learn a lot from him. His criticism is very good. Also,
he has a very witty and dry sense of humor which makes class

     In Barnes' class, one student's work is critiqued and
analyzed for an entire period. That student is not allowed to say
a word until the end of class. 

     "It helps students learn how easy it is to misread your
work, how one word can throw an entire paragraph," says Barnes.
"And it forces you to attempt to understand why five out of 10
people believe your egg cup is a symbol when in fact it's just an
egg cup.

     "On the first day of class, I told my students that when
criticizing, be precise, sympathetic and humane," he added. "So
far, no blood has been shed. But then it's still early on in the

     Literarily speaking, it's turning out to be a great year for

     Writing Seminars professor Stephen Dixon learned last week
that his novel Interstate is one of five finalists in the fiction
category of the National Book Awards, often called the "Oscars"
of the literary world. 

     The novel tells of one man's struggle to fathom and deal
with the loss of his young daughter who is killed in a senseless
drive-by shooting. Dixon's previous book, Frog, was a National
Book Award finalist in 1991.

     Madison Smartt Bell, who left the department just last year
after six years as a visiting professor, was also nominated in
the fiction category for All Souls' Rising, a historical novel
set in Haiti.

     And yet another writer with a close Hopkins connection
received an NBA nomination--86-year-old poet Josephine Jacobson
for her latest collection, In the Crevice of Time: New and
Collected Poems. Jacobson was a close friend of Writing Seminars
founder Elliott Coleman and was awarded an honorary degree from
Hopkins in 1993.

     "It's very rare to have three people with such close links
to one university nominated for National Book Awards," said
Writing Seminars chair John Irwin. "But when you think about how
many extremely talented individuals are part of the Writing
Seminars, I suppose it's not all that extraordinary."

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