Julian Barnes once trained to be a barrister and he’s been asking questions ever since – questions, mostly, about questions. In Before she met me, the hero of the book actually suffered from interrogation-mania: try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself wondering about the details of his wife’s past loveaffairs. In Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator is a biographer – another snoopy type. In his case, even the answers to his questions are really questions-in-disguise. In Barnes’s books, people don’t get worn down by compulsions of the flesh, nor deranged by the pursuit of fame and money: they fall victim to exhaustion of the brain – they become, as Barnes himself might put it, all quizzed out.
But they are not mad. Usually, they know, or think they know, most of the answers. In this sense, Barnes both celebrates and mocks the powers of reason. He shows us Intelligence in overdrive, but he also requires us to wonder if it’s chosen the right road. Asking questions is supposed to be a ‘good thing’, to do with being neither fooled nor squashed. But is it not also an affliction, a disabling distancer-from-life? Wishing to grasp the essence of a genius like Flaubert: doesn’t this also mean we’d like to cut him down to size? Is there not more vanity involved in putting a ‘good question’ than there can ever be in providing a sound answer? And if there is a sound answer, can the question really have been all that good?
These are the circles that Barnes’s people tend to move in, round and round, and never before more nakedly than in this latest book. There are three hundred question-marks in Staring at the Sun – that’s about one-and-a-half of the little worriers per page: ‘... she would occasionally ask questions. The trouble was, how could you know what questions to ask? It seemed to her that you were in a position to ask a really correct question only if you already knew the answer, and what was the point of that?’ The victim here is Jean Serjeant, the book’s biographee, whose life we follow from her childhood in the early Thirties to her very old old age in 2021. She spends a lifetime asking questions and receiving answers both sound and unsound: in her antiquity, however, we find her knowing plenty and yet still relishing the invincibility of certain riddles and metaphors that had stuck – ‘like burrs’ – to her imagination when she was a child.
The book opens brilliantly – that is to say, with an image so powerfully lit that it will haunt us for the book’s duration. At any rate, this is the author’s stratagem, and it’s a bold one. If Barnes’s power-supply had failed, or even faltered, on this opening page, his whole enterprise would have been seriously imperilled:
This is what happened. On a calm, black night in June, 1941, Sergeant-Pilot Thomas Prosser was poaching over Northern France. His Hurricane 11B was black in its camouflage paint. Inside the cockpit, red light from the instrument panel fell softly on Prosser’s hands and face; he glowed like an avenger ...
There was no prey that night. At 3.46 Prosser set course for base. He crossed the French coast at 18,000 feet. Perhaps disappointment had made him delay his return longer than usual, for as he glanced up the Channel to the east he saw the sun begin to rise. The air was empty and serene as the orange sun extracted itself calmly and steadily from the sticky yellow bar of the horizon. Prosser followed its slow exposure. Out of trained instinct, his head jerked on his neck every three seconds, but it seems unlikely he would have spotted a German fighter had there been one. All he could take in was the sun rising from the sea, stately, inexorable, almost comic.
Finally, when the orange globe sat primly on the shelf of distant waves, Prosser looked away. He became aware of danger again; his black aeroplane in the bright morning air was now as conspicuous as some Arctic predator caught in the wrong fur by a change of season. As he banked and turned, banked and turned, he glimpsed below him a long trail of black smoke. A solitary ship, perhaps in trouble. He descended quickly towards the twinkling, miniature waves, until at last he could make out a tubby merchantman heading west. But the black smoke had stopped, and there seemed nothing wrong: probably she had just been stoking up.
At 8,000 feet Prosser flattened out and set fresh course for base. Halfway across the Channel he allowed himself ... to think about hot coffee, and the bacon sandwich he would eat after debriefing. Then something happened. The speed of his descent had driven the sun back below the horizon, and as he looked towards the east he saw it rise again: the same sun coming up from the same place across the same sea. Once more, Prosser put aside caution and just watched: the orange globe, the yellow bar, the horizon’s shelf, the serene air, the smooth, weightless lift of the sun as it rose from the waves for the second time that morning. It was an ordinary miracle he would never forget.
Prosser describes this ‘ordinary miracle’ to the young daughter of the house he lodges in, and Jean Serjeant is at once doomed not to forget it either. She never quite makes up her mind what it is about Prosser’s tale that moves her most. Is it the twice-risen sun, or is it the heroic image of Prosser in his Hurricane, courageously alone: he who ‘put aside caution and just stared’. That life might offer experience which can be ‘just stared’ at rather than fretfully cross-questioned: this is a notion that Jean treasures for some ninety years but never quite knows what to do with. It is in the fallings short that we are meant to discover her pathos and resolve.
In the early chapters of the novel, the argument between metaphor and the mundane has both a context and a story to sustain it, and Julian Barnes seems well in charge of both. There are some excellent pre-war atmospherics, and Jean’s growing up is studied with an intentness and a care for plausibility that somehow fails to hold up later on. She is portrayed as near-retarded, according to any conventional definition of brain-power, and yet sleeplessly inquisitive. In a way, her mind is too lively for most of what it happens to ingest. There is the golf-club slang of her raffish uncle Leslie – banal stuff if you can decode it, but to her exotic and mysterious: what is ‘The Old Green Heaven’, the ‘nineteenth hole’, and why is Leslie for ever nipping off to ‘wash behind his ears’? She is similarly exercised when Leslie gets her to play funny games: the Screaming Game, the Shoelace Game. Why shouldn’t she report these to her mum? And why is Leslie irritated when she wants to know what happened to the sandwiches Lindbergh didn’t eat on his Atlantic flight? ‘They’re probably in a sandwich museum,’ he tells her. ‘A sandwich museum, Jean wondered to herself: were there such things? But she knew not to ask any further.’ Jean is also baffled by her aunt’s collection of animal prints, especially the one that describes the mink as ‘excessively tenacious of life’. Nobody can explain to her why this is so.
These early-planted teasers crop up time and time again throughout the book, and so, too, does the image of Prosser staring at the sun. Also recurrent are one or two key phrases from a sex manual Jean studied when she was about to embark on her bound-to-be-unhappy marriage to the local policeman. And there are also many descriptions of the sky. Uncle Leslie once told Jean: ‘The sky’s the limit.’ At first, these recurrences lend richness to the tale, and we feel genuinely drawn into the girl’s quirky mental world, with its aeroplanes, its sandwiches and its tenacious minks. And the scenes in which she quizzes Prosser about his Hurricane exploits are subtly done, and very touching; it is as if, through him, she graduates from riddle to metaphor, from puzzlement to awe. The climax to this section of the book arrives when Jean goes up to London to have herself fitted for a contraceptive device in preparation for her marriage:
she stopped thinking about her nether regions. Her eyes were tight shut, like blackout curtains closely drawn: but through them came the red glow of life outside. Black and red, the colour of the war: the colour of Tommy Prosser’s war. Tommy Prosser in his black Hurricane out in the black night with the hood back and the red glow from the instrument panel softly lighting up his face and hands. Tommy Prosser in his black Hurricane looking out for the red exhausts of returning bombers. Black and red ...
Prosser stands for metaphor and Michael, Jean’s new husband, stands for the mundane. Michael knows nothing of sandwich museums, of tenacious minks, nor does he want to; and he has never seen the sun rise twice. We follow Jean through twenty years of dreary, childless marriage, but at a rapid pace, so that a mere forty pages later she is on her own again, with only a few botched marital embraces to show for her whole early adult life. She becomes pregnant at forty and leaves Michael: she is finally determined to make for herself ‘a first-rate life’, and she is still dreaming about Prosser’s red and black, still anxious to find out about those minks.
And it is here that the novel changes gear, and Jean turns into someone else, a determined, adventurous type whose only connection with the Jean we’ve studied in Part One is circumstantial. This new Jean still looks at the sky a lot and thinks of Hurricanes; she is still obsessed with sandwiches and minks. In too many other respects, though, she really is liberated from her former self. She has a son called Gregory, whose upbringing is dealt with as briskly as her marriage was, and it is only when he starts building model aeroplanes (not very well) that we are asked to take much interest in him. The focus at this stage is on the altered Jean. Inconclusively she tries to find out what happened to Prosser; failing here, she decides to visit each of the Seven Wonders of the World. Slides are provided of Jean in China (here experiencing the same kind of translation problems that beset her as a child), Jean at the Pyramids, Jean peering into the Grand Canyon. Yes, she even has her own version of the Seven. In these chapters, she is equipped with a ruminative, wily intelligence which, again, is hard to fit with what she was like before. And it is not enough to have her echo old obsessions. Throughout this middle bit of the book, we can’t escape the feeling that, for Mr Barnes, growing up means getting to be a bit like Mr Barnes.
The same kind of niggling rationality afflicts the grown-up Gregory, who suddenly reappears, but as a key figure, about two-thirds of the way through the book. Without any advance warning, he suddenly offloads a witty, worldly, jocularly philosophical treatise on the disadvantages of travelling by air. We pick up the Hurricane connection, to be sure, but then we put it down again. By this stage of the book we are convinced that the novelist has lost interest in the tale he first set out to tell, and that that clever Mr Barnes has begun shoving across at us some assorted sweepings from his study floor. Nice sweepings, in the main, but even so ...
Things pick up in the last third of the book, although the ‘selected essays’ atmosphere still lingers. We are by now set in the future, with Jean more or less back where she started: wizened and enigmatic where before she was fresh-faced and foolable, she is still clinging to the old mysteries, the old sandwiches and mink. Gregory, now in his sixties, unmarried, unsuccessful and quite glad to be so, pits his questing intelligence against the mighty General Purposes Computer that by now is running everybody’s life. He quizzes the machine about God, Death, Heaven, History and finally about Itself:
‘Who runs you?’
‘Who runs you?’
‘How do you work?’
He gets nowhere and has to content himself with going home to write grittily colloquial essays on theology. One day, as a favour to his mother, he asks the machine why ‘the mink is excessively tenacious of life.’ No joy. The machine tells him that this is NOT REAL QUESTION. The excessively tenacious Jean reflects:
But what were real questions ... Real questions were limited to those questions to which the people you asked already knew the answers. If her father or GPC could answer, that made the enquiry a real question; if not, it was dismissed as being falsely based. How very unfair. Because it was these questions, the ones that weren’t real, to which you wanted to know the answers most pressingly. For ninety years, she’d wanted to know about the mink. Her father had failed, so had Michael; and now GPC was ducking it. That was the way it was. Knowledge didn’t really advance, it only seemed to. The serious questions always remained unanswered.
And so it’s back to Prosser, to the red and black and the twice-risen sun: it’s back to miracles, to Art and Nature. For Jean Serjeant, in her hundredth year, it’s forward to ‘postmortal phosphorescence’. We leave her not staring, but smiling, at the sun.
Julian Barnes is one of the most intelligent writers we have and, at his best, he writes with an impressive clarity and edge. The inner debate, done in a fractionally elevated version of real speech, is what he’s best at, and a book like Flaubert’s Parrot provided the almost-perfect vehicle for his non-fiction sort of fiction. In Staring at the Sun, Barnes shows in the early chapters that he is equipped to handle narrative, but it is as if he gets restless with the simple mechanics of tale-telling, and with characters who are less intelligent than he is. No one ought to blame him for this buoyancy, since he is always fun to read: but maybe next time round the Booker Prize will have to change its rules.