The new book by Julian Barnes, Riding With the Devil, is unusual as it doesn’t consider itself to be about anything in particular. On the contrary, he has written in the past that he thinks his books are all about “very different sorts of feelings that this or that character I’ve based them on.”

What makes Riding With the Devil especially distinctive is its subject matter. Its “central character” is John Gilbert, a character in the book belonging to the long tradition of the romantic hero, often a man of letters and many wives, who is written up by the press as “he of the rosy cheeks” but who is really a man of appetites.

The author appears to have a particularly explosive appetite for ruining lives. And the book contains some of his darker passages, as when he describes how his hero rapes a woman “who understands nothing, whom the hero of the story nonetheless beats.”

But what seems to have kept the author awake at night most of the night for the last six months was how he imagined the heroine might take the word “he” out of that tale. He writes:

“…she may be John Gilbert in his moments of moments of moments of indiscretion, but, unlike John Gilbert, she is a novelist (on whom a novel of wit and sad toying with history may be written), a novelist of epiphanies and profound truths, who may in the end bring kindness and mercy and grace to the scene. That’s a comparison I didn’t want to make, because a novelist who were confronted with the two men … as villains would have mangled them equally. (For all I know, at some point John Gilbert’s father has invited John Gilbert and Joanna to dinner, and I’ll be wearing a tie, and by then I’ll see what has happened to the final paragraph.)”

And to prevent a screed against publishers, Barnes recalls an experience in which he read comments on a manuscript from its book review in The Guardian and “saw my book being reviewed as if it were a political tract, a book entitled ‘Resisting neoliberalism and neoliberalism’.” He points out, a “It’s actually a fairly literary book.”

Read more on Moby-Dick in December