Monday, January 05, 2009

The New Yorker: "The Limner" by Julian Barnes

Didn’t you think this was a little too predictable? It was a nicely told tale, skillfully using archaic language and syntax, as if Barnes channeled Jonathan Swift or some other writer of a much earlier time, it wasn’t hard to see what was going to happen or why, and I can’t say that I cared much. The limner, or illustrator, is a deaf man nearing his retirement. He is alone in life because he travels constantly to earn his keep but also because he would not want children who might inherit his hearing defect. Never mind that his hearing loss was the result of a childhood illness. The limner is a loner. Except for his horse. In any case, he arrives in a village and acquires a commission from Tuttle, the argumentative customs collector, who wants a portrait that gives him suitable dignity. He isn’t satisfied, and he’s rude about it. (Communication is through a notebook that Wadsworth the limner carries with him.) Furthermore, the limner does a sketch of a houseboy and Tuttle, proving that he’s the bad guy, destroys it. So both of these characters are on the one-dimensional side, it seems to me, and that might be the stories biggest problem. In the end, Tuttle stiffs Wadsworth, but Wadsworth gets revenge. A little too neat.

This one won’t be around when we get to the playoffs in December.

January 5, 2009: “The Limner” by Julian Barnes

5 comments:

biblio baggins said...

I was excited to see a short story by Barnes in The New Yorker, but then I read it. Nice premise, but disappointing in its execution. I expected more.

biblio baggins said...

One additional note: the most recent story, by Joyce Carol Oates, pretty much sucked as well.

Laura Lukács said...

I think Barnes' story is very fine. (I've translated a novel and a few short stories by him, and I admire his writing.) Not only well written but also unpredictable in that it's not the author's intention to avoid being predictable... I don't think a story becomes good just because it succeeds in surprising the reader. I find that there's another message here - nothing to do with the qualities former comments try to account it for... A good tale is, in itself, a great thing, we're so flooded with bad and hollow tales. Before questioning Barnes' merit, I would be very interested to know who did the painting and whether it is just a simple illustration of the story. Also, is James Wadsworth a completely invented deaf portraitist of the 19th century...? Why is he named after a Unionist American general in the Civil War..?

Clifford Garstang said...

Good questions, Laura. Anyone have answers?

Anonymous said...

I also really liked this story, told with such precision and subtlety. I would assume James Wadsworth is invented.