Julian Barnes examines mortality and loss in his new collection of finely wrought stories. But most of them lack the richness and energy of his best fictionby Amanda Craig / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Pulse by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)
The black-and-white cover suggests the waver of heartbeats on a monitor, or the veins in marble—but closer inspection reveals its fine, wispy white lines to be those of tiny roots, searching for space and nutrients. Nothing could be more appropriate for Julian Barnes’s third book of short stories, which comes two years after his non-fiction meditation on death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of.
These are tales of love, death and cigarettes; 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 are back, together with the contemporary, middle-class milieu. The rich and intriguing humanism of Barnes’s most recent novel—2005’s Arthur & George—appears initially to be an aberration.
Unlike his contemporaries—Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, William Boyd—Barnes invites intimacy while simultaneously repulsing it. Both his short and longer fiction suggest they are drawn from autobiographical truth, by someone devoted to his wife, an excellent cook, an aesthete and a Francophile. But then irony interposes—what he called, memorably, in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), “the snorkel of sanity”—and we are forced to ask whether any of this is actually true. It’s a game that many modernist novelists, from Vladimir Nabokov to Paul Auster, amuse themselves playing, much to the detriment of the wider existential questions fiction can pose.
Pulse is never less than interesting, elegantly written and quirky. But all of its stories are overlaid with a consciousness of loss and mortality that becomes over-insistent. The collection 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 is similar; so, too, is “Trespass,” which comes almost halfway through.
The pattern goes like this: 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 to put up with him. It’s a depressing pattern, explored with wit and sorrow; one is reminded of Philip Larkin’s joke that “deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” When love is found in Barnesland, it’s always doomed, if not by sexual jealousy—as in Talking it…