Julian Barnes’s new book of short stories is concerned with old age and death. Barnes – who was born in 1946 – should have a few years to go before he experiences either condition, but his fiction has always been precociously interested in both. He visited the afterlife, in the person of a cartoon suburbanite, in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). In Cross Channel (1996) he imagines himself ‘in his late sixties’. Many of his characters are pensioners, and everyone whose childhood is described in detail – as in England, England (1998) or Staring at the Sun (1986) – is last encountered in serene old age. In Barnesland, the young regard the prospect of not getting any younger with enthusiasm, occasionally even with impatience. ‘I sometimes don’t feel I’m quite the right age,’ says the narrator of his first novel, Metroland (1980). ‘I mean, you may happen to think I’m rather immature’ – he’s in his early twenties – ‘but actually I often don’t feel quite at ease with the age I’ve got. Sometimes, in a funny sort of way, I long to be a sprightly 65.’
Barnes’s fiction seems to value old age in part because it affords great scope for being wry – a quality he appreciates a lot. ‘Wry, if thin-blooded’ is a character’s verdict on one of the narrator’s sallies in Metroland, and similar things have been said about some of Barnes’s books. Certainly his characters have an amazing capacity for wryness: Graham Hendrick, the thoughtful historian who abruptly goes crazy in Before She Met Me (1982), even sends his ex-wife wry maintenance cheques (‘the claim was unanswerable, his cheque wry’). Jean Serjeant, the twinkly protagonist of Staring at the Sun, seems to leap from the cradle to the edge of the grave in order to spend as much time as possible ‘wryly noting’. In the space of four pages, a ‘Jean thought wryly’ is answered by a ‘Jean wryly recalled’: if she really is this prodigiously wry, you start to worry, what’s the point of the adverb?
Still, the opportunities for wryness aren’t the only attraction of age. In Metroland, one of Barnes’s many frighteningly sensible women points out to the narrator, Christopher Lloyd, that the attraction of the idea of fast-forwarding to a sprightly 65 might have something to do with fearing the responsibilities of adult life – a fear that he eventually overcomes. Jean Serjeant, thanks to a loveless postwar marriage, is similarly frightened of sexual relationships: ‘Part of her looked forward to the time when she wouldn’t have to worry about all that.’ But the characters’ fear of adult life is also related to their preoccupation with death. Christopher Lloyd lists in some detail the symptoms of his terror: ‘a surging need to scream, which the house rules forbid (they always do) . . . total wakefulness . . . a sensation of total aloneness . . . a realisation of Time (always capitalised) going on without you for ever and ever; and a persecuted sense of having been trapped into the present situation by a person or persons unknown’. Barnes likes to confront the gloomy facts of existence from time to time. But he doesn’t usually do it this openly: the house rules forbid.
Instead, he proceeds by indirection. Staring at the Sun is, among other things, an extended play on one of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims: ‘Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.’ In fact, Jean says, ‘you can stare at the sun . . . You just have to look at it through parted fingers.’ Barnes invites the reader to work out what the parted fingers are shielding his characters from. In Before She Met Me, the historian’s spiralling obsession with his wife’s imagined infidelities stands in for more abstract worries about the unverifiable past. In Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), on the other hand, the narrator’s misery at his wife’s unfaithfulness can only be expressed through gamesome essays on Flaubert (and the unverifiable past). In Talking It Over (1991) and its sequel Love, Etc (2000), more bathetically, Oliver is an insufferable smartarse because he’s horribly insecure. Barnes isn’t Henry James: the reader is usually pointed pretty firmly in the right direction, and sometimes this seems mechanical. But at his best, as in several stories in The Lemon Table, he’s very good at understated implication.
Straightforward narrative, however artfully done, isn’t what Barnes is chiefly admired for, though. He is known for the essayistic bearing of his fiction – the quizzical stance, the sly address, the worrying away at big ideas. His unembarrassed focus on dowdy, suburban Englishness has won him a famously large international readership: ‘Barnes est délicieux,’ Jérôme Garcin writes in L’Evénement du Jeudi, while Carlos Fuentes salutes, ‘from Mexico, the universal English voice of Julian Barnes’. But in England he’s often still seen as a playful, Frenchified boulevardier whose activities are wonderfully easy to describe in the language of critical theory. You could say, for example, that his use of non-fiction material ‘undermines’, or ‘transgresses’, quite a lot of stuff. You could definitely say that he’s ‘sceptical’ about ‘grand narratives’. You could even say, as Randall Stevenson does in The Last of England?, the final volume of the Oxford English Literary History, that England, England ‘exactly illustrates’ the ideas of Jean Baudrillard – although Barnes is as ironic about Parisian rhetoric as he is about Anglophone phlegm: witness the Franglais patter of the novel’s too slick Baudrillard-figure.
Perhaps it’s best to say that, in his famous novels of the 1980s, Barnes treated fiction and the essay much as Duffy – the hero of his entertaining potboilers written under the pseudonym ‘Dan Kavanagh’ – treated women and men. For Duffy, ‘randy’ after a hard day’s Soho pavement-pounding, ‘the choice between trawling for a man and trawling for a woman . . . was like choosing between bacon and egg and bacon and tomato. Whichever you decided on you had a good time.’ ‘The ironist,’ Barnes once observed, ‘wheels the world onto the stage and offers it slices of quiche.’ Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters come with bacon and egg and bacon and tomato. By and large, you have a good time. Sometimes the flavours aren’t quite balanced: the fictional parts of Flaubert’s Parrot seem vestigial (the grieving yet chatty doctor is a pretext rather than a character), and a few of the stories in A History of the World are underpowered. But the only other major drawback is Barnes’s self-consciously whimsical humour, which might work in his journalism but often seems ingratiating between even soft covers.
He has a particular weakness for jocular circumlocutions, bedecked – because novelists are supposed to be specific? – with zany details. When, as a journalist, he complains about recipes that call for ‘powdered porcupine quills’, or about New Yorker fact-checkers going to work on ‘that dream about hamsters which your grandfather had on the night Hitler invaded Poland’, it’s fine. But when, in a story, he has a character worry that someone he’s just been rude to might feel ‘stirrings from the time when caves were daubed with ruddy bison in stylish freehand’, you almost wish he’d just said ‘atavistic stirrings’. Barnes also tends to sustain his jokes for slightly too long. In Flaubert’s Parrot, a diverting fantasy about a literary trial builds up to this: ‘Put it this way, M’Lud: my client thinks that most of the values of the society in which he lives stink, and he hopes with this book to promote fornication, masturbation, adultery, the stoning of priests and, since we’ve temporarily got your attention, M’Lud, the suspension of corrupt judges by their earlobes.’ By their earlobes! Barnes est délicieux.
In fiction, of course, such remarks can always be put down to the characters who say or imagine them. There are a suspicious number of these characters around. Jack in Before She Met Me and Oliver in the adultery-in-Stoke-Newington books exist largely as outlets for hyper-eloquent humour, and their annoyingness is only partly alleviated by the fact that everyone else in the novels seems to find them pretty annoying, too. But then everyone else is also likely to break into winsome Barnes-speak from time to time – perhaps because, as has often been noted, he finds it hard to create characters who aren’t highly articulate. And while it’s an effective instrument for joshing Belgians or people from Haywards Heath, his good-natured humour is unsuited to satire: the fangs look out of place. When England, England’s dastardly tycoon is unmasked as one of those people who like to dress up as babies and be fondled by buxom ‘nurses’ – while emitting, in this case, ‘a sforzando bellow of "POOOOOOOOOOOOO!”’ – the effect is not effective. Though given to ‘come off it, matey’ colloquialism, the decorum of Barnes’s writing makes it hard for him to get away with this kind of thing: his sex-talk, especially, often sounds weirdly coarse.
When he doesn’t go for big laughs and contents himself with being mildly – or wryly – ironical, however, Barnes is always fun to read and sometimes impressively deadpan. His deficiencies as a flat-out humorist are also compensated by the fact that he can also do serious, melancholy and moving. He can do a Larkinesque reverie in prose (see ‘Evermore’ in Cross Channel). Over the last few years, Barnes has divided the energies that powered his fiction in the 1980s: the essayistic voice has been partly diverted into essays, the smartarse voice into lighter novels, such as Love, Etc. The desire to write scrupulous fiction in the impersonal mode he so admires, on the other hand, has resulted in some impressive shorter books. The Porcupine – which ventriloquises an East European dictator closely based on Todor Zhivkov – was a risky proposition, but Barnes pulled it off. Some of the stories gathered in Cross Channel are equally spare, and at its best The Lemon Table continues to mine this vein.
‘The Story of Mats Israelson’ transposes into the manner of Flaubert or Chekhov a legend recounted more fantastically by E.T.A. Hoffmann in ‘The Mines of Falun’. In Sweden, during the late 1890s, Anders Bodén – the henpecked manager of a sawmill – falls in love with Barbro Lindwall, the irreproachable wife of the town’s new pharmacist. Barbro loves him too, but – the time and place being what they are – nothing happens between them beyond a few strained conversations on a steamboat. Anders points out regional landmarks. He mentions the copper mine at Falun and tries to tell her the story of Mats Israelson, but he’s nervous and she doesn’t seem interested. He falters. Still, ‘I would like to visit Falun,’ Mrs Lindwall says. Years pass. For the rest of his life, as he and Barbro endure their stifling marriages, Anders rehearses the story he tried to tell her. It’s the story of a body found in a mine, untouched by decomposition, in 1719. The body was identified as Mats Israelson’s by a woman who, 49 years earlier, had been his betrothed. Anders never tells Mrs Lindwall this story, but in the end, old and dying of cancer, he summons her to his bedside. There – well, things don’t work out, and the story closes with a jump-cut to the captain of the steamboat, who is awarded Anders’s coveted space in the horse stalls outside the town’s church in recognition of his ‘civic merit’.
In some ways, ‘The Story of Mats Israelson’ is an exercise in high-grade pastiche. The dialogue is slightly stilted, as if from a yellowing Penguin Classics translation, and a lot of research is openly deployed. At one point Barnes lightens the tone by cutely starting each sentence in a paragraph with ‘Gossip noted’, ‘Gossip wondered’, ‘Gossip added’, ‘Gossip suggested’, ‘Gossip counter-suggested’ and so on. The performance is otherwise marvellously sustained. There are eloquent details. One sentence – ‘She was wearing a straw boater with a blue ribbon’ – not only reveals that Anders has just fallen in love with Barbro but neatly sets up a symbol for later use. The parallels between Mats Israelson’s story and the main characters’ fossilised love aren’t hammered home: Anders broods decorously in the language of his trade, while Barbro ruefully inspects her preserves. And the bookish touches are skilfully done. Barbro suffers from a reverse Bovarysme when Anders finally tries to declare his love (she thinks he’s ‘behaving as men did in books’). But the story ends with a faint, mocking echo of Madame Bovary’s closing sentence, in which bourgeois proprieties are triumphantly reasserted by Homais – the arch-dullard, conspicuous for civic merit, who ‘has just received the Legion of Honour’.
Elsewhere, bookishness yields mixed results. ‘The Silence’ is a sequence of fragments from the diaries of an ageing Sibelius-like composer. This gives the collection its title: ‘I join the lemon table at the Kämp. Here it is permissible – indeed, obligatory – to talk about death.’ Beyond this, the story has little to contribute: at times the pastiche tips over into parody, and Barnes has written more effectively about a stalled composer with a long-suffering wife in ‘Interference’, the opening story in Cross Channel. ‘Bark’ is about – or ‘around’, as Barnes would put it – renunciation. So is ‘The Revival’, which meditates gloomily on Turgenev’s last love affair, rebuking the sex-mad present for jeering at the platitudes of old-style courtship: ‘They had foot-kissing, we have toe-sucking. You still prefer our side of the equation?’ Again, there are sharp details (‘Tolstoy wrote in his journal: "Turgenev – can-can. Sad"’) and yet another echo of Flaubert (this time invoking a famous passage in L’Education sentimentale). Here, though, the sudden changes of register seem oddly lubricious and even, at times, hysterical. This is how ‘The Revival’ mind-reads the response of ‘our knowing age’ into Turgenev’s description of a brief railway journey with the woman he loves as a ‘last burst of flame’:
Does that mean he almost got an erection? . . . Love isn’t a bonfire, for God’s sake, it’s a hard cock and a wet cunt, we growl at these swooning, renouncing people. Get on with it! Why on earth didn’t you? Cock-scared, cunt-bolted tribe of people! Hand-kissing! It’s perfectly obvious what you really wanted to kiss. So why not? And on a train too. You’d just have to hold your tongue in place and let the movement of the train do the work for you. Clackety-clack, clackety-clack!
The rest of the book is largely set in the present, where the quality control is much less erratic. ‘Knowing French’ comes closest to what Barnes is famous for. In it, Sylvia Winstanley – an ‘Upper Clarce’ retiree, ‘rising 81’ and self-consigned to an ‘Old Folkery’ – writes rambling letters to ‘Dear Dr Barnes’, whose books she has discovered while working her way through the fiction shelves. She started with ‘all the fiction beginning with A’, and so has ‘read many entertaining descriptions of pubs, and much voyeurism on women’s breasts, so I pass on. You see where I am going?’ We certainly do. Later, and more even-handedly, she perseveres with the ‘As and Bs. One of these days I shall tot up the number of drinks consumed or cigarettes lit, for padding purposes in novels . . . Novelists either go in for padding or else for philosophising . . . Still, the As and Bs remain a cut above the monthly supply from the Red Cross.’
Reviewing Flaubert’s Parrot, John Updike complained that ‘some of the metaphors are foppishly spun out.’ He had a point: in Barnes’s novels, almost every striking detail is sooner or later recapitulated as a simile or metaphor. Flaubert’s Parrot tells an amusing anecdote about Villiers de l’Isle-Adam being rudely discomfited, and seven pages later the narrator too is discomfited and can legitimately announce that he feels ‘like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’. After a while this also seems mechanical. In his short stories, however, Barnes manages the delayed-action effects more subtly. He also uses a more consistent free indirect style. The Lemon Table is very crisply done: there’s pathos, there’s humour – though the wryness and whimsy are largely under control – and, as you’d expect, there’s a lot of fine writing. Only when Barnes inclines his gaze a little lower do you feel like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.