London -- "You can't drink wine with crabs?" asks Julian Barnes.
"Really?" says the acclaimed English novelist.
Absolutely. In Baltimore, you order wine with crabs, and waitresses start looking at you like you're from Washington. Crabs. Beer. End of discussion.
Mr. Barnes absorbs the advice with a sigh and a smile as he makes final preparations for his trip to Baltimore, where he will spend the fall semester as an instructor at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. In the next three months, the author with a global reach and reputation will supervise two classes of writers, start on a book set in England, live in a West University Parkway apartment, and sample the pleasures of a brawny city with its own literary niche.
At Hopkins, Mr. Barnes will join a list of august literary figures who have taken part in the Writing Seminars as teachers and readers, including playwright Edward Albee, novelists John Barth, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose and Robert Stone, and poet John Hollander.
"I think the idea of living in a real American city is attractive," says Mr. Barnes, who will arrive in Baltimore tomorrow the day Cal Ripken Jr. is expected to break Lou Gehrig's baseball endurance record.
He hasn't the faintest idea of what the commotion is all about. But he is intrigued.
Mr. Barnes is the Englishman who isn't afraid to admit that he loves a good Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's and seeks out "non-tourist America." But in his books, which hop-scotch across a range of subjects from urban angst to art criticism, he is decidedly European.
"I write in English English," he says.
His works aren't American best sellers but they are considered by many to be classics of the late 20th century. "Flaubert's
Parrot" was his critical breakthrough. "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" brought a measure of commercial success. He became an Anglophile's best friend during five years of filing dispatches for the New Yorker. Fifteen of his most incisive
reports on life and politics in England are collected in the recently published "Letters From London."
Some critics have him tagged as a literary "chameleon," who switches styles but who has yet to find a true, consistent voice in 11 novels, including four mysteries under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. He'll release a collection of his short stories next year, calling it "a 50th birthday present to myself."
Heart and humor are his trademarks.
Catastrophe becomes art
"How do you turn catastrophe into art?" he writes in "History," his fast-paced tour from Noah's Ark to Heaven.
"Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We'll have a play on the London stage within a year. A President is assassinated? You can have the book or the film or the filmed book or the booked film. War? Send in the novelists. A series of gruesome murders? Listen for the tramp of the poets."
Mr. Barnes is a polite man who relishes his privacy and values his time. He has one hour to chat, inviting an interviewer to his North London home, a red-brick Victorian number with preposterously high ceilings, gorgeous wood floors, and a cozy kitchen.
The second-floor snooker room is the literary guy's haven. (Snooker is like pool, only, because the English have turned it into an obsession, it's a lot duller.) Anyway, there's a gigantic snooker table at one end of the room. Stuffed chairs at the other. Hundreds of books line the walls.
This is where Mr. Barnes likes to conduct his interviews. He has brown hair and an angular face. His voice is measured, the accent in its own quiet way screaming Oxford educated.
He hates to talk about himself.
"I'm not a public figure," he says. "Being a novelist, for me, is not putting my personality on view or my private life on display."
"I don't want to write a mid-life crisis book," he says. "I don't think it's an interesting subject. No. I've been in the life crisis, not the mid-life crisis. Life is a state of crisis. That's interesting. The fact that your teeth fall out or your hair falls out or you leave your wife isn't interesting in passing."
Strip away the literary prizes, and at the core you realize that Mr. Barnes is a newspaperman. He honed the free-lance trade after graduating from college and working as an editorial assistant for the Oxford English Dictionary. He was 34 before his first novel, "Metroland" was published in 1982. He has written about sexual jealousy in "Before She Met Me," and a crumbling communist state in "The Porcupine."
"There is no place like a store where you go to find your ideas," he says. "Most of them you pick up. Some of them thrust themselves upon you. The main truth is you very rarely know at the time that you've got an idea. The process whereby that found thing becomes a novel anywhere between six months and 10 years later is mysterious and as far as I'm concerned, must remain so."
Mr. Barnes was lured to Johns Hopkins in November 1994, with an offer to teach one class of undergraduates, and supervise the writing of another dozen graduates. Seminars chairman John T. Irwin says Mr. Barnes was invited because "we just think he's an excellent writer and a prolific writer." Also, he seemed to enjoy his visit to Baltimore last fall when he came to the university to do a reading.
His students are in for quite a sememster.
"I don't go with the expectation that I shall discover the new Updike or Toni Morrison," he says. "But I hope that I can encourage the students to read well, write better and that it will be a valuable experience for all of us, regardless of whether at the end of the day the Great American Novel is written."
The one thing he doesn't want, though, is to produce a class of Barnes clones.
"I'm going to encourage them to write like themselves if they can find what writing like themselves means," he says. "The last thing I want is for them to start turning out 'Flaubert's Parrot' or 'History of the World.' Imitation may be flattering, but it's bad for the imitator."
While Mr. Barnes teaches his students, he'll also embark on a novel about Britain.
"It's not a state-of-Britain novel," he says. "It's to do where Britain is in the longer spread of history. At least, that's what I think it's going to be about."
But who knows? Maybe America, maybe Baltimore, of all places, will change his views about his country.
Understand this: There is a segment of Britain's intellectual class that loathes America and Americans, that sees the country as one giant, greedy, television-crazed killing field populated by yahoos and ruled by a bunch of cowboy politicians. But Mr. Barnes counts himself as one of America's admirers, even if he admits he hasn't quite come to grips with the place.
"Inevitably, the picture you draw of America from newspapers and television accentuates the extremities of the country," he says. "A lot of American life is very normal, very civilized with all the traditional American virtues that some people like to sneer at and I don't. Very warm. Very hospitable. Very liberal. Very generous. And, an occasional whack out on the street corner."
Of Baltimore, which he visited for two days last fall, he admits to knowing very little.
"Inevitably, what you know are Anne Tyler, Robert Parker -- the great wine expert -- John Waters, Barry Levinson, H. L. Mencken," he says. "I'm aware that by the time I'm finished, I've got to factor in a lot more.
"I want to do the basic American stuff like go to the baseball game, go to the basketball game, go to the ice hockey game," he says. "I want to feel what it's like to get the diet of American news every day instead of a couple of weeks when you're on holiday and you look for the English news, and there isn't any."
He is ready for the journey.
That's crabs and beer.
And can anyone get a bemused Englishman a seat to see Cal Ripken Jr. make baseball history? Whatever that is.