Getting to Know You

Talking It Over

by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 275 pp., $21.00

Odd to recall that rather more than fifty years ago fashionable persons rang each other up to gossip about The Grapes of Wrath, or to boast of having just read it. Their successors today might be ringing up to discuss the latest novel by Julian Barnes. In the interval our ideas about fiction have traveled a long way, even quite a way since Salinger’s Holden Caulfield began talking to us in a voice that has never quite gone silent—it can be heard today in the accents of the three characters who between them supply a total monologue in Talking It Over.

The girl, Gillian, has been invited to supper by one of the two young men with whom she will form the external triangle of the novel’s plot. He is Stuart, the earnest, not very bright one; the other being witty, charming Oliver, always good for a wisecrack or to borrow a pound. Stuart has been to a lot of trouble over the dinner, which goes reasonably well, although he has forgotten to peel the modest price tag off the bottle of wine, and tries to keep his thumb over it while he pours. After dessert he goes to the bathroom and Gillian takes the dishes into the kitchen. She sees a bit of paper leaning against the spice rack:

Do you know what it was? It was a timetable….

8:00 Open wine

8:15 Check potatoes browning

8:20 Put on water for peas

8:25 Light candles

8:30 G arrives!!

I hurried back to the table and sat down. I was trembling. I also felt bad about reading it because I’m sure Stuart would have thought I was spying. But it just got to me, each item more than the last. 8:25 Light Candles. It’s all right, Stuart, I thought, I wouldn’t have minded if you’d left that till after I arrived. And then 8:30 G arrives!! Those two exclamation marks really did for me.

He came back from the loo and I had to stop myself telling him what I’d found out and that it didn’t seem silly or neurotic or hopeless or anything, but just very thoughtful and touching. Of course I didn’t say anything, but I must have reacted in some way and it got through to him, because he seemed more relaxed from that point on.

How nice—has Holden Caulfield found a counterpart who reads the Ladies Home Journal? But as one might expect from the author of Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 1/2x Chapters things are not quite that simple. The art of The Catcher in the Rye, and, come to that, of The Grapes of Wrath, works to make the reader forget art: launching him into the excitement of a new novel they retain their spell by making the novel seem a fresh vision of reality, a new angle on …

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