Staring at the Sun
by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 197 pp., $15.95
“You can put anything you like in a novel. So why do people always go on putting in the same thing? Why is the vol-au-vent always chicken?” Thus spake D.H. Lawrence (in his essay, “The Novel,” in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine). Julian Barnes is a writer worth watching because he seems to share Lawrence’s wish to vary the ingredients of our fictional diet. After producing two fairly conventional novels and (under another name) a clutch of crime stories, he made a stir a few years ago with the highly original and idiosyncratic Flaubert’s Parrot.
This book used its ostensible subject, the life and art of Gustave Flaubert, as the focus for a beguiling miscellany of pensées, jokes, anecdotes, and aesthetic speculations by its obsessive and lightly fictionalized narrator. It gave much pleasure, and occasioned much puzzlement over how it should be generically classified. In Britain it was short listed for the Booker fiction prize and in France it was awarded the Prix Medici for the best work of belles-lettres by a foreign writer. Deconstructionists hailed it as an exemplary poststructuralist text. More traditional literary scholars might categorize it as a Menippean satire—a form characterized, according to Mikhail Bakhtin (who knew more about it than most people), by “an extraordinary freedom of plot and philosophical invention,” “sharp contrasts and oxymoronic combinations,” and “a wide use of inserted genres.”
Staring at the Sun has some of the Menippean qualities of Flaubert’s Parrot, but lacks the earlier book’s nonchalant poise. Julian Barnes has revealed in an interview that he started Staring at the Sun before writing Flaubert’s Parrot, and finished it after the latter book was completed. It is perhaps unsporting to use this evidence against the work, but one can’t help tracing its weaknesses to the circumstances of the composition. Flaubert’s Parrot had a quality of effortlessness about it, the grace that descends upon a lucky writer when his imagination is seized by an idea that is both original and viable. Staring at the Sun, charming and effective as it is in parts, is a broken-backed whole, a book that starts out as one thing and ends up as another.
The intial idea seems to have been to portray the life of an ordinary English-woman, called Jean Serjeant, in a delicate web of leitmotifs rather than a densely woven narrative—first against the background of known history, and then projected into the future. Jean Sergeant is unexceptional in every way except her longevity: born in 1922, she outlives the century. The novel actually begins, however, in June 1941, with a prologue describing the experience of a certain Sergeant-Pilot Tommy Prosser as he flew his Hurricane fighter back across the English Channel after a mission over occupied France. At 18,000 feet Prosser watched entranced as the sun, a stately orange globe, rose in the east, and then, swooping down to sea level to investigate the smoke from a passing merchant …