The 21-year-old narrator of Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland (1980), suggests that ‘everyone has a perfect age to which they aspire, and they’re only truly at ease with themselves when they get there. I suppose with most people it’s between 25 and 35.’ For him, though, he imagines it’s ‘a sprightly 65’. The narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Geoffrey Braithwaite, is a sprightly 65, or thereabouts. He’s a retired, widowed doctor, whose wife, Ellen (note her initials), was serially unfaithful: in other words, he’s a sprightly updating of Charles Bovary, however much he would resist the comparison. In his defence, Braithwaite might point out that ‘Charles n’était pas de ceux qui descendent au fond des choses,’ while he is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of which of two competing museums in Flaubert’s hometown of Croisset houses the stuffed parrot that the novelist borrowed from the Natural History Museum in Rouen to perch on his desk while he wrote ‘Un coeur simple’. The answer is almost certainly neither. ‘Do ironies accrete around the ironist?’ Braithwaite asks. It’s a rhetorical question, with – ironically – more facets than the man who asks it realises. The novel’s title has many, proliferating referents, but not the least of them is its narrator: Braithwaite himself is Flaubert’s parrot, not only because he’s always quoting him but also because he is living vicariously through his obsession with him, having already in his marriage recapitulated a bathetic version of the plot of Flaubert’s most famous book – but he lacks the self-awareness to see any of this.
Barnes, on the other hand, who turned 65 last month, beams self-awareness like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. He knows that he, too, is one of Flaubert’s parrots, like many – Braithwaite would probably say all – novelists of the past 150 years, but at least he acknowledges it. One of the many people Braithwaite takes to task for getting Flaubert wrong is the author of
a well-praised first novel in which the narrator – who is both sexually inexperienced and an amateur of French literature – comically rehearses to himself the best way to kiss a girl without being rebuffed: ‘With a slow, sensual, irresistible strength, draw her gradually towards you while gazing into her eyes as if you had just been given a copy of the first, suppressed edition of Madame Bovary.’
I thought this was quite neatly put, indeed rather amusing. The only trouble is, there’s no such thing as a ‘first, suppressed edition of Madame Bovary’.
You don’t have to have read Metroland to be fairly sure that the ‘well-praised first novel’ in question is Barnes’s own: not only because the quoted sentence sounds suspiciously as though it were written by Braithwaite (and therefore by Barnes) but because it’s an opportunity for intertextual self-correction that few writers – especially one as susceptible to the charms of irony as Barnes is; especially in the mid-1980s – could resist.
This process of open and continuing self-referentiality isn’t one that Barnes has given up on: far from it. In ‘Carcassonne’, the penultimate piece in his new collection Pulse, he uses events from three stories earlier in the book to illustrate the oddness of the business of falling in love, ‘the most violent expression of taste known to us’. The historical event that triggers these reflections is Garibaldi’s spying of his future wife through a telescope from a ship anchored off the coast of Brazil in 1839. ‘How do we know to trust that moment of passionate taste, however camouflaged?’ Barnes asks. For more homely examples, he looks to his own work. ‘What do we trust: the sight of a woman’s feet in walking boots, the novelty of a foreign accent, a loss of blood to the fingertips followed by exasperated self-criticism?’ Each of these is taken from a different story in the collection. In ‘Trespass’, Geoff, a history teacher and keen hillwalker, thinks ‘how incredibly sexy small female feet could look in walking boots’; in ‘East Wind’, Vernon, an estate agent, gazing out the window of a fish-and-chip shop on the Essex coast, ‘caught the accent’ of the waitress and only then ‘looked up at her’; the narrator of ‘Complicity’ goes on a date with a young woman with Raynaud’s syndrome who can’t get her car keys out of her bag because of her numb fingers: ‘As I stood there, watching her struggle, two things happened: I felt what I would describe as tenderness, were it not so ferocious; and my cock gave a sudden spurt of growth.’
By contrast with all the other stories in the collection, including ‘Trespass’, ‘East Wind’ and ‘Complicity’, the first-person narrator of ‘Carcassonne’ appears to be Barnes himself: he steps outside the framework of the collection to refer to the three earlier stories; such autobiographical details as he lets slip match his own life; and ‘Carcassonne’ has the form of an essay rather than a short story, held together by an argument rather than a plot. The only reasons to think of it as a short story are the usual disclaimer on the copyright page of Pulse that ‘this is a work of fiction’ and the announcement on the dust jacket that the book is a ‘collection of stories’.
There’s an essayistic quality to much of Barnes’s fiction, and many of the pieces that he (or his publisher) categorises as stories, or chapters of novels, or entire novels, might more conventionally be classified as essays. Much of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, for example, not least the half-chapter, entitled ‘Parenthesis’, in which the narrator, ‘Julian Barnes’, points out that we’ve no way of knowing if the opinions he’s expressing are actually those of Julian Barnes the author. The book Braithwaite is writing about Flaubert’s parrot is unwitting autobiography disguised as biographical criticism. Barnes’s book, on the other hand, is a work of biographical criticism disguised as a novel. Flaubert’s Parrot is an essay on Flaubert by a fictional essayist, but that doesn’t make it any less an essay on Flaubert. And perhaps all essays have a fictive quality to them, creating (or trying to create) a line of argument, or at least a coherent point of view, that implies the existence of a character – ‘the essayist’ – who’s fundamentally as fictitious (and unreliable) as the narrator of any novel.
‘My professional days,’ Barnes writes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, his last book before Pulse, part memoir, part meditation on death and his overwhelming fear of it, ‘are spent considering what is narrative and what isn’t.’ This isn’t quite the same thing as distinguishing – or refusing to distinguish – between fiction and non-fiction. One of the arguments of Nothing to Be Frightened Of is that there’s no such thing as a true story:
So if, as we approach death and look back on our lives, we ‘understand our narrative’ and stamp a final meaning upon it, I suspect we are doing little more than confabulating: processing strange, incomprehensible, contradictory input into some kind, any kind, of believable story – but believable mainly to ourselves. I do not object to this atavistic need for narrative – not least since it is how I make my living – but I am suspicious of it.
‘Considering what is narrative and what isn’t’ isn’t something Barnes does before sitting down to write, sorting things out into two piles, narrative on this side, non-narrative on that, and chucking the non-narrative in the compost bin before committing the narrative to paper; ‘considering what is narrative and what isn’t’ is one definition, or at least a description, of what someone does when they write stories.
Something else to bear in mind about storytelling is that there’s no such thing as a definitive version. Barnes’s grandfather read the Daily Express, his grandmother the Daily Worker. They sometimes used to pass an evening by reading out loud their conflicting diary entries from years earlier. His might say: ‘Friday. Worked in garden. Planted potatoes.’ ‘Nonsense,’ she would reply. ‘Rained all day. Too wet to work in garden.’ Barnes doesn’t remember this: he’s been told about it by his brother, a philosopher, who takes a dim view of memory: ‘none is to be trusted unless it has some external support.’
‘This is not, by the way, “my autobiography”,’ Barnes says, in part as a defensive gesture, a reflexive resistance to being pigeonholed, but also to dismiss the unattainable idea of completeness that ‘my autobiography’ implies. All right, Nothing to Be Frightened Of isn’t Barnes’s autobiography, but it’s certainly autobiographical, and the selective stories he tells about his childhood, his brother, his parents, his grandparents are all sharp, vivid, funny, unsparing but not unkind. He’s quite rude about his mother, for example, about how irritating he found her, and no doubt she was annoying, as a mother, and possibly as a wife, though Barnes doesn’t know for sure that his father found her as annoying as he did (it’s not the kind of thing they talked about, when they talked at all), he just seems to hope so. But to a reader she comes across as self-reliant, smart and funny. Just when you’ve had more than enough reflections on why Richard Dawkins is probably, unhelpfully, right, Mrs Barnes steps in with a put-down.
As an adolescent I once hid a tape recorder under the table during dinner in an attempt to prove that, far from it being the ‘social event’ my mother decreed every meal should be, no one ever said anything remotely interesting and I should therefore be excused conversation and allowed to read a book if I preferred … Annoyingly, my mother was enchanted by the tape, declaring that we all sounded just like a Pinter play (to my mind a mixed compliment, in both directions). And then we continued exactly as before.
Such stories are underpinned by a self-protective irony which acknowledges that finding his mother annoying has as much to do with him as it did with her, and that while he’s entitled to be annoyed by her (or couldn’t help it) his readers aren’t.
The narrative voice in Nothing to BeFrightened Of is less complacent than Metroland’s Christopher Lloyd, less irascible than Geoffrey Braithwaite, but has the same enviable suavity that marks out all Barnes’s writing. And the fear of death isn’t a new thing for him to own up to: in Metroland, Christopher confesses to
a sudden, rising terror which takes you unawares; a surging need to scream, which the house rules forbid (they always do), so that you lie there with your mouth open in a trembling panic; total wakefulness, which takes an hour or so to subside; and all this as background to and symptom of the central image, part-visual, part-intellectual, of non-existence.
In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes describes ‘that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitchforked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting “Oh no Oh No OH NO” in an endless wail, the horror of the moment – the minutes – overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of exhibitionist self-pity’. Christopher observes that ‘there must, I suppose, have been some causal connection between the arrival in my head of the fear of Big D, and the departure of God’; Nothing to Be Frightened Of begins: ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.’ Barnes’s brother says he thinks the sentence is ‘soppy’.
Nothing to Be Frightened Of patiently demolishes the clichés of consolation, religious and secular alike, but has only the clichés of phobia to put forward in their place. And yet even this criticism is one that Barnes repeatedly anticipates. He quotes a friend who, ‘leaving his wife for a younger woman, used to complain: “People tell me it’s a cliché. But it doesn’t feel like a cliché to me.” Yet it was, and is.’ And early on, soon after the announcement that the book isn’t his autobiography, he writes: ‘Perhaps I should warn you (especially if you are a philosopher, theologian or biologist) that some of this book will strike you as amateur, do-it-yourself stuff. But then we are all amateurs in and of our own lives.’
‘We may allow Death, like God, to be an occasional ironist,’ Barnes says. But there is one final, terrible irony to the book, surely unimaginable when Barnes was writing it but which for someone reading it now is impossible to ignore. Nothing to Be Frightened Of was written between 2005 and 2007. It came out in hardback in March 2008, in paperback in March 2009. In October 2008, Barnes’s wife (and literary agent), Pat Kavanagh, died of a brain tumour. She makes a few brief but scene-stealing appearances in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which, like all Barnes’s books after Metroland, is dedicated to her.
Pulse, too, is dedicated to Kavanagh: ‘For Pat’, where its predecessors are variously ‘To Pat’, ‘To P.K.’, ‘To P.’, the change in preposition a discreet sign of her death. But maybe that’s overinterpreting. The anonymous protagonist of ‘Marriage Lines’, recently widowed, goes on holiday to Barra, where he and his wife went every summer for more than two decades, since the year before they were married. The holiday was presumably booked when she was still alive, before she fell ill:
As the van dawdled along the single-track road, and waited politely in the passing bays, he told Calum the story he was already weary with repeating. The sudden tiredness, the dizzy spells, the blood tests, the scans, hospital, more hospital, the hospice. The speed of it all, the process, the merciless tramp of events. He told it without tears, in a neutral voice, as if it might have happened to someone else. It was the only way, so far, that he knew how.
It would be too easy to read this quiet, restrained story, told ‘without tears, in a neutral voice’, in the third person, ‘as if it might have happened to someone else’, as thinly veiled autobiography. Too easy by half: as the acknowledgments reveal, the story was not only written but first published in a magazine in 2007.
Autobiographical or not (and of course it shouldn’t matter), Pulse shows a preoccupation with the difficulties of negotiating life after marriage. Four of the stories have recently divorced narrators or protagonists (all of them male), and the marriage ruthlessly dissected in ‘Gardeners’ World’ seems unlikely to last. Alternating with these are four stories that depict a series of dinner parties ‘At Phil & Joanna’s’. They are virtuoso compositions of up to eight contrapuntal voices, consisting of nothing but dialogue (or should that be octologue?) arranged between two short narrative paragraphs of scene-setting (‘It was the week Hillary Clinton finally conceded’) and curtain-closing: ‘After he had closed the front door, Phil put on some Madeleine Peyroux, kissed his wife on the apron string round the back of her neck, went upstairs to a darkened bedroom, cautiously approached the window, saw the others standing on the pavement, and watched them until they dispersed.’
The scene-setting is a bluff, giving a false sense both of knowing where you are and of passing time. What’s happening on the news impinges on the characters’ lives only in so far as it determines the direction of some of their conversation, and then only ever the conversation they’ve already had earlier in the evening, never the conversations we eavesdrop on, which always happen towards the end of the meal, when everyone’s had a bit too much to drink, and revolve around such topics as sex, giving up smoking, marmalade, Latin tags and home kits for testing yourself for bowel cancer: ‘We weren’t self-conscious. Now we are. No, we’re worse – worse than self-conscious, worse than navel-gazing. Who was saying what about that proctologist who told him to squat over a mirror? That’s what we’re like now – arse-gazing.’ You almost wonder if Barnes didn’t gather the material for the Phil and Joanna stories from a recording device concealed under his dining-room table. The conversation is nothing like a Pinter play, more like the kind of talk you’d be fascinated but appalled to overhear at another table in a crowded restaurant, or over the garden fence, until you realised that your conversation would probably sound just as appalling, if rather less fascinating, to anyone overhearing it.
Barnes’s mother once told him that she would rather go deaf than blind, because that way she’d still be able to do her nails. Each of the five stories in the second part of Pulse concerns itself with the loss of one of the five senses. Hearing: the protagonist of ‘The Limner’ is a deaf painter in early 19th-century America. Touch: the narrator of ‘Complicity’ falls for a doctor with Raynaud’s syndrome. Sight: in ‘Harmony’, Mesmer (or ‘M—’ as Barnes calls him: ‘such minor suppressions of detail would have been a routine literary mannerism at the time; but they also tactfully admit the partiality of our knowledge’) begins to heal a blind pianist. Taste: in ‘Carcassonne’, Barnes writes that ‘if you are blindfolded, and someone puts a clothes peg on your nose, and hands you a glass of wine, then, even if you are the greatest expert in the world, you will be unable to tell the most basic things about it. Not even whether it is red or white.’ Smell: in ‘Pulse’, the narrator’s father develops anosmia.
Except that they aren’t as schematic as this summary makes them sound. The narrator of ‘Complicity’ is bothered by blindness as much as by numbness. Maria Theresia von P— in ‘Harmony’ (the P stands for Paradis, though Barnes doesn’t say so) is not only blind but has no sense of smell. According to ‘Carcassonne’, winetasting is as much about your eyes and nose as it is about your tongue. The senses are not so easily isolated and distinguished. In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes describes going to visit his mother in hospital after she’d suffered a series of strokes. Looking at her fingernails, he ‘could see how long it was since she had been able to do them; the heavily lacquered and lovingly shaped nails had continued to grow, pushing on to create an eighth of an inch of clear unvarnished whiteness below the cuticle. The nails she had once imagined herself still tending even if sunk in deafness.’ In ‘Pulse’, the narrator’s father’s anosmia turns out to be caused by an otherwise harmless chronic sinus condition. His mother, meanwhile, is diagnosed with motor neurone disease, ‘this thing that was going to crush out her senses one by one’.