Real Substance?

Leo Barnard’s last book, Love and Selfishness, surprised us all by its brevity. Not only are we used to Barnard producing doorstop-like tomes, but we struggled to see how this subject, of all those he has tackled, managed to inspire so few words. Surely there was cause for several volumes? Instead we got a forty-eight page pamphlet.

Hot on the heels of this comes a controversial second short work entitled Sentiment and Substance. This one makes it all the way to fifty-nine pages. Compare this to Barnard’s earlier works: The Eternal Dilemma (912 pages), The Unworking World (1034 pages) and History Schmystery (701 pages) and you may understand our bewilderment.

Barnard has, it seems,  followed many a writer in eschewing quantity for quality in his old age. I say that: most elderly writers only think they pursue this goal – in reality they drop quantity, only to lose their grip on quality also. But Barnard has always been a cut above. He has, in fact, managed to pull off the near impossible feat of compressing several hundred pages of unalloyed wisdom into fifty or so. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he has got shorter and better; he has merely managed to cut his losses; which is to say that he has got shorter without any discernible drop in quality.

Or, to put it another way, despite the hysterical gulf in the word count, Sentiment and Substance is much the same sort of book that History Schmystery was. These two brief books do not represent the dawning of a new writer. Leo Barnard is just as cantankerous, as casual, and as damnably clever as ever.

There has always been a pinch of the opinionated teenager in Barnard; a dab of the pretentious adolescent; a generous sprinkle of the obnoxious child lording it over his brain-dead parents with a strangely undefeated brand of logic. Sentiment and Substance has all these qualities in spades: it is the literary equivalent of a room of small boys throwing paper balls – essentially harmless, but not without a hint of animal malice. Maybe if I wait awhile a better analogy will spring to mind. Maybe not. And so I move on…

Barnard’s central – and indeed, single – concept is this: poets (and he uses the term loosely) rarely practice what they preach. Not a new idea by any means, but he tackles it nonetheless with unrestrained gusto. Indeed, he tackles it like a gang of hounds tackling a fox. Tread lightly? Pish, says Barnard. He picks up his poets by the scruff of their scrawny necks and shakes them like – and I quote – ‘the fearsome hypocrites they are’.

‘Who are they?’, he asks, ‘these so-called artists of ours? And why do we, why should we trust their emotional response?’ Anger creeps upon him quickly: ‘most of the great poems on love are written by hateful creatures’, he claims at one point, going on: ‘and yet we sup on them eagerly, like piglets sucking blood from a gorilla’s breast’. A simile after my own heart there.

It’s all slightly crazed stuff, but then you can’t say that he doesn’t back his statements up. There’s plenty of evidence stacked up on Barnard’s table, all pointing toward the possibility that the substance behind most sentiments is made of less than solid stuff. Still, the way he rounds on some of his subjects does seem overly cruel. Songwriters, in particular, get a rather rough ride: ‘peddling their coy harmonic tales of stolen kisses and small hands held, whilst sleeping their way through cities of whores’. It’s the age-old question: can you separate what people say from what they do? Barnard’s answer is charmingly abrupt: not in the slightest, he says. It’s all one.

It takes a brave writer to go about the task with as much ferocity as Barnard does – not least because it invites criticism of his own personality. Does Barnard practice what he preaches? Whilst he never claims to be morally incorruptible, for all the flaying he does of other people’s hides, he seems peculiarly comfortable in his own skin. But then, as he writes, ‘I have never pretended to have the last word on life. I speak with the wisdom of one who knows he knows nothing at all’.

All in all, it’s another typical work from Leo Barnard. Infuriating and illuminating, fanciful and fierce, beguiling and blunt. Barnard, for all his faults, never fails to stimulate discussion. And though it seems that he must be wrong, it’s usually very hard to prove him so. This is no less the case than it ever was; at fifty pages only, he is still the master of the wierdly-water-tight argument.

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