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Julian Barnes, The limner

July 23, 2009

I’m probably going to show my ignorance here as I’m no expert in short stories. I do however like them and have read a fair smattering over the years. Julian Barnes’ The limner is interesting because it is historical, that is, unlike most short stories that I have read, it is set in the past rather than contemporaneously with the author’s time. I think, in fact, that I have read more futuristic short stories than I have historical ones, and yet historical fiction is an equally popular genre. Is it in fact so that there are comparatively few short stories that are historically set, or is it simply that I haven’t read them? If the former, why?

Anyhow, it is an ironic story, not the least because it is a story by a writer (of course) about a man (a limner or portraitist) for  whom language means little. The limner, you see, is deaf and mute – and, what’s more, does not feel he misses much by not being able to speak and hear. His view is that “the world’s knowledge of itself, when spoken and written down, did not amount to much”. It is, in fact, a story that looks at what lies beneath the surface, that explores that age-old theme of appearance versus reality.

I have only read two works by Julian Barnes – The history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters (fiction) and The pedant in the kitchen (non-fiction)but these, together with this short story, reinforce my sense that I should read more. I like his way of viewing the world through whimsical and often ironic eyes. Wadsworth, the protagonist of this story, is an outsider: he is “industrious” and “of a companionable nature” but as time has gone on he has become less and less interested in painting his subjects – who are mostly adults, and mostly men. The plot turns on one particular, but apparently fairly typical, commission – the painting of a portrait of a customs collector. This customs collector, Mr Tuttle, is not interested in having his wife or children painted. The story commences, pointedly, with the statement that Tuttle had been argumentative about the fee and size of canvas, while Wadsworth, for his part, had agreed easily to his demands re pose, costume and background. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Mr Tuttle is a vain, pompous, self-important man who, while continually asking for “more dignity” to be represented in his portrait, in fact  exhibits little of that same dignity.

Without giving away the story, I will simply say that Wadsworth makes some decisions that enables him to preserve – though he doesn’t put it quite this way – his own dignity, and those of the lesser mortals in Mr Tuttle’s household. It is a neatly conceived story that makes its points lightly, humorously and, perhaps, a little predictably. While it’s not as challenging to read as some short stories – and I do like a challenge – it is also a little deceptive in its simplicity. It is well worth a read.

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