JULIAN BARNES, PULSE, JONATHAN CAPE/AMANDA CRAIG
The black and white cover suggests the waver of heart-beats on a monitor, or the veins in marble – but close inspection reveals its fine, wispy white lines to be those of roots, searching for space and nutrients. Nothing could be more appropriate for Julian Barnes’s third book of short stories, and thirteenth novel, which comes after his non-fiction meditation on death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of.
These are tales of love, death and cigarettes; of the five senses denied; of the pleasures of gossip and the revenges of art. It’s a strange and heady mixture, and for the most part predictably Barnesian. The apparently confessional, intimate conversations with the reader, relieved by his characteristic self-distancing irony – what he called, memorably, in Flaubert’s Parrot, “the snorkel of sanity” – are back. The rich and intriguing Arthur & George – the novel that should have won the 2005 Booker Prize, and was short-listed for it – about Conan Doyle’s real-life sleuthing into the case of a clerk unjustly accused of a terrible crime appears to be an aberration.
Unlike his contemporaries Amis, McEwen, Rushdie, Boyd, Julian Barnes invites intimacy while simultaneously repulsing it. Both his short and his longer fiction suggest someone who is devoted to his wife, an excellent cook, an aesthete and a Francophile – but then irony interposes, and a different biographical pattern, and we are forced to ask whether any of this is actually true. It’s a game that many modernist novelists, from Nabokov to Paul Auster, amuse themselves playing, much to the detriment of the wider existential questions fiction can pose.
The present collection of short stories is never less than interesting, elegantly-written and quirky but all are overlaid with a consciousness of loss and mortality that becomes over-insistent. Pulse begins and ends with stories of failed love affairs which amount to private tragedies. Though the first (East Wind) is in the third person and the last (Pulse) is in the first, the feel of each protagonist and milieu is very similar; so, too, is Trespass, which comes almost half-way through. A respectable middle-class man picks up an attractive, inscrutable woman, enjoys sex with her and then loses her. He asks too many questions, is too much of a control-freak, and she is too secretive or evasive or manipulative. It’s a depressing pattern, so similar in mood and tone to many of Larkin’s poems that one is reminded of the latter’s joke that “deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”. When perfect love is found, it’s doomed, not by sexual jealousy as in Talking it Over, but by disease and death.
Having and raising children is the central life experience that Barnes’s protagonists are cut off from. The only parents who do bring up a child, in Harmony, are so neurotic that their sensitive, artistic daughter becomes blind; her musical gift is utterly dependent on her remaining uncured. Four linked short stories entitled At Phil and Joanna’s, consisting almost entirely of dialogue over a dinner table, circulate airless, affected badinage about cancer, politics, cookery, global warming and sex. As art, they are closer to Frederic Raphael than Evelyn Waugh; as people, hell. The short-story as a form often focuses on imprisonment by mediocrity, yet the best also tend to show how the imagination enables people to transcend it. Here, the way we define ourselves through “essential taste”, caused by physical or temperamental deformity, lies at the heart of these stories – and the result is that almost all are pot-bound. The most heart-rending is Marriage Lines, about a widower returning to the Scottish island where he and his wife had been happy together, and Pulse, in which a man describes his father’s tender, agonised care of his dying wife. Both have the adamantine hardness of observed truth concerning the human need in dying for “something with rules, laws, answers, and an overall solution; something fixable.” There is no way out: the human condition is terminal. It is hard not to ascribe the bleakness of almost all the tales in Pulse to the death of Barnes’s wife and perennial dedicatee, Pat Kavanagh.
The best story in the collection by a long shot comes in the second half, which is stronger, more experimental and more purposeful in depicting each of the five senses in turn. The Limner is historical, something that clearly liberates Barnes’s imagination. Wadsworth is a deaf-mute artist whose closest relationship is with his art, and his horse. Admirably self-sufficient, he keeps a note to proffer to people who try to condescend to him: “Sir, the understanding does not cease to function when the portals of the mind are blocked.” Such subtlety is beyond the pompous, provincial tax collector Tuttle, who commissions a portrait and then complains his depiction needs “more dignity.”
Reduced to an all-seeing eye, Wadsworth observes that “he was the client’s master when his eye discerned what the client would prefer him not to know….When Wadsworth provided his clients with their portraits, it was habitually the first time they had seen themselves as someone else saw them. Sometimes, when the picture was presented, the limner would detect a sudden chill passing over his subject’s skin, as if he were thinking, so this is how I truly am. It was a moment of unaccountable seriousness: this image was how he would be remembered when he was dead.”
The dignity and the freedom of the true artist all come together in a story that is as humane and funny as it is satisfying. Wadsworth sketches Tuttle’s garden boy in charcoal for free, to the boy’s astonishment and gratitude. Their master calmly, deliberately, tears the sketch up and throws it in the fire – but Wadsworth’s retribution is perfectly judged. The story, though complete in itself, has an energy to its writing that is very different to the rest of the collection; it could be part of a new novel. The title story, by contrast, ends with the narrator’s father choosing not to vent his anger, but shaking an insensitive specialist by the hand. It ends with the narrator saying, “I imagine my father there, not getting angry, standing up, shaking hands, turning, leaving. I imagine it.”
Is that imagination going to be used to liberate, or to delineate further frustration? Only time, and work, will answer our question.