Keeping an Eye Open, and Through the Window, by Julian Barnes. Book reports #10 and #11 (2020)

Two non-fiction books by Julian Barnes. Keeping an Eye Open is a collection of essays on art (art history and art criticism) and Through the Window is a collection of essays on literature (more history and criticism). Each book has 17 chapters plus an introduction (with an additional short story in Window), so I read them alternatingly, one chapter from one, then one from the other. I found the books intimidating, partly because most of the material was foreign to me (some of the artists and writers I’d never heard of before) and partly because the art world, where people analyze and dissect and know all about it, seems full of smart and erudite people that I could never understand.

Through the Window was a bit easier to get through, as I think I understand the writing process a bit better than painting. Even with that, I found some of the essays impenetrable. In some, Barnes re-tells the story of the novel he’s reviewing, so it’s like listening to someone tell you scene by scene about a play they saw and didn’t like. In others, the assumption is that you know or have read the novel in question, and so understanding the novelist better will help you to understand and like (or not) it (the novel in question). Mostly though, I found these essays weighty and dull. With one exception – the first essay about a novelist I’d never heard of but will now seek out: Penelope Fitzgerald. This essay reads much differently than most of the others, as it feels like Barnes actually likes her and her work. He also presents Kipling in an interesting light, as well as Orwell.

Keeping an Eye Open was much harder. I learned a great deal about painters and paintings, but I found some of the concepts a bit beyond me, like the differences between the Romantics and the Impressionists and the Neo-Impressionists and the Moderns and the Neo-moderns and the Post-Moderns and…well, you get the picture. That classification system, and the apparent ways that painters often discredited one another within them, seems illogical – why do it? Like trying to pigeon-hole novelists – a detective writer who decides to branch out into historical fiction and is derided for it by the other historical fictionists. Why does it matter what “school” they are from or subscribe to? The essays that were about the artists lives were the most interesting (but I think most artists would prefer to be known for their art, not their lives). The best essay was the Géricault one (but it’s a reprint of the chapter in The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, so not new) but I also enjoyed the essays on Manet, Degas, Cézanne, and Magritte.

I can’t say that I recommend either of these books. To me, they represent examples of why essay collections don’t always work as books: in this case, because the subject matter is dense (almost academic at times) and there is little variation to be found from the writer: even though each is a about a different author or painter, the essayists voice remains the same.

Fate: charity shop (I definitely won’t read these again).

#1 a book with a body part in the title
#9 a collection of essays
#27 a new genre for me (art history)
#9 a collection of essays

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