Monday, September 21, 2009

A.L. Barker

Has anyone read anything by A.L. Barker?

I'd never heard of her before yesterday. I brought Women Writers at Work: the Paris Review Interviews home from the library last Friday so that I could read the one with Rebecca West. West, 89 at the time interviewed, pulled no punches when asked her opinion of various authors: Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Maugham, Forster, all received a thumbs down. She called contemporary novels, on the whole, boring. "Somebody told me I ought to read a wonderful things about how a family of children buried Mum in a cellar under concrete and she began to smell. But that's the sole point of the story. Mum just smells. That's all that happens. It is not enough."

Well, there's also incest, but still: Take that, Ian McEwan!

Iris Murdoch and Ivy Compton-Burnett met with her qualified approval, as did Colette, but the only two West raved on were Doris Lessing ("the only person who absolutely gets the mood of today right, I think. An absolutely wonderful writer") and A.L. Barker.

Calling Barker "the best novelist now writing," she said, "She really tells you what people do, the extraordinary things that people think, how extraordinary circumstances are, and how unexpected the effect of various incidents." She described an incident from The Heavy Feather, the most recent Barker novel at that time, saying it was "so good I can't believe it."

Needless to say, just on the strength of West's endorsement, I ordered used copies of The Heavy Feather and another Barker novel this morning, and ILLed a short story collection in the afternoon. Because, naturally, except for a couple of her books, Barker's out of print.

But then I discovered that Faber is in the process of reissuing Barker's entire oeuvre; print on demand at a very reasonable cost--except for shipping. Perhaps Book Depository will come to my rescue here.

According to Kim D. Heine, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 14:

In 1946, shortly after her stories began to appear in British periodicals, A.L. Barker was offered (but declined) the British Atlantic Award in Literature. The following year, Innocents, her first collection of short stories, won her the first Somerset Maugham Award. Subsequently, Barker has written plays, poetry, several short-story collections, and five full-length novels, and she has contributed to several periodical publications. She wrote the screenplay for Pringle, a play based on one of her stories, and several other stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC. In 1962, Barker received the Cheltenham Festival Award and in 1970 was given the Arts Council Award for her continued contributions to literature. Barker does not reveal herself in her work. Although most of her fiction is firmly set in her familiar English surroundings, her alienated, insular characters, improbable conflicts, and surrealistic episodes seem removed from her personal experience. Barker's tense, unemotional style, while it lends her work precision and control, sets a tone of authorial detachment.

The themes of Barker's work are the isolation of the human personality, the impossibility of communication, and the ambivalence of love. Throughout her fiction, Barker explores the world of social and psychological outcasts: the ill, the poor, the lonely. Her subjects do not represent deviations from the norm as much as intensified examples of the unfortunate or the misunderstood. They are people who have sat out their lives in constant disappointment, who have formed the habit of self-delusion. In Barker's stories the strong protagonists are selfish and cruel, and the weak are self-pitying victims. Yet her ironic detachment renders her work not oppressive but strangely comic. Through caricature and understatement, Barker infuses her work with humor. She has a penchant for horror and the macabre, which ironically lightens the tone by lifting the weight of unrelieved realism.

I searched for Barker's name using the handy dandy Book Blogs Search Engine that I learned about during BBAW, but turned up nothing but that she was among those shortlisted one year for the Booker. I'm assuming someone read her prior to starting their blog; surely West wasn't being serious when she said she was the only one who admired A.L. Barker?


  1. I read 'Day' a while back and thought it very good. I kind of think that, apart from Day, she hasn't published a book in a while. She was a hot shot when I was working at the bookstore, and that's about 15 years ago now. But of course, I could just have failed to notice her publications come out. Yes, she's definitely worth a read.

  2. A.L. Kennedy is who you're thinking of, Litlove. She's someone I ought to read more by--all I've read is Everything You Need. There's another author I get Kennedy confused with, but it's too early in the morning here for me to think of her name. (Must have coffee soon.)

    Even more confusingly, A.L. Barker was known by her friends as Pat--which makes her the other Pat Barker, except that she should come first since she was born in 1918 and started publishing in the 1940s.

  3. Oh, that Rebecca West. She had a tongue as searing as battery acid! I've not heard of A.L. Barker--sounds interesting, but will wait to see what you think.

  4. No, I've never heard of her...looking forward to your reports. Discovering obscure authors is so much fun.

  5. You are so right! Duh! Okay, I join the queue of interested folk waiting to see what you find out. :-)

  6. Hello, googling 'A Heavy Feather' which I'm reading at the moment as I'm supposed to be writing an article on A.L. Barker. How did you like her books in the end?


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