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Master of the Downbeat

But when Andrea realizes that he has invaded her life and discovered her unhappy past, she vanishes.

Today, when a writer is feeling especially serious, or perhaps especially cynical, not only do the good end unhappily, but the bad end happily. In Barnes’s “Harmony,” which takes place in the 1770s and is told in an amazingly convincing reproduction of eighteenth-century narrative style, an idealistic young doctor tries to cure a young blind pianist of her affliction through what he calls “magnetism.” Anticipating the theories of Freud and Charcot, he declares that his patient, Maria Theresia, suffers from hysteria. At first his efforts succeed, and she begins to regain her sight. But once Maria Theresia can see the keyboard she loses her musical skill. She wants to continue the treatment, but her parents, whose wealth and prosperity depend on their daughter’s fame, violently refuse to allow it. “The mother instantly began a display of stamping and shouting” and “continued to denounce her daughter’s insolence, stubbornness and ingratitude”; and her father threatens the doctor with a sword. Though the young man resists, in the end the parents win and Maria Theresia relapses into blindness. We are told that she “lived on in darkness, usefully, celebratedly, until her death in 182–.”

The only story in Pulse in which the central character achieves even a qualified triumph also takes place in the past, this time in what appears to be eighteenth-century provincial New England. Its hero is an itinerant deaf-and-dumb painter who has come to understand that as an artist he has a kind of power:

Slowly he realised the truth of his craft: that the client was the master, except when he…was the client’s master. For a start, he was the client’s master when his eye discerned what the client would prefer him not to know…. A wife’s dissatisfaction. A deacon’s hypocrisy. A child’s suffering…. A husband’s eye for the hired girl. Large matters in small kingdoms.

The painter has a new commission, a portrait of a local tax collector. The man is “an oaf and a bully,” mean, self-satisfied, and cruel to his servants; the painter takes a silent revenge by altering the picture so that its subject is clearly a devil, then leaving before dawn—though with only half of his fee. This fine story is told very quietly, in language that again seems to be completely of its time.

Why have things changed since Miss Prism’s time so that readers and judges of literary fiction, as well as writers like Julian Barnes, now seem to prefer, or at least assume, a downbeat ending? It may be that because of TV and the Internet we are all much more aware of tragic and violent events happening everywhere, and generalize from them to imagine a world in which almost everyone we don’t know personally is suffering. Another popular explanation is that most of us no longer believe in a God who will make everything clear to us eventually, or a happy afterlife in which all sorrow will be at an end.

Julian Barnes’s celebrated book-length essay on death, ambiguously titled Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), suggests that lack of faith has made his writing darker and his life harder. His mother was an atheist, his father an agnostic, and except for weddings and funerals, he has never been to a church service. Now, he says, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

Barnes speaks of himself as a thanatophobe, someone who fears death and thinks of it “at least once each waking day,…and then there are the intermittent nocturnal attacks” in which he finds himself “awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting ‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail….” For him, “death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about….” He imagines his own death as extremely unpleasant, first considering several unlikely but terrifying scenarios (drowning in a ferry accident, eaten by a crocodile), but ends up admitting that he expects it to take place in a hospital, at night, “preceded by severe pain, fear, and exasperation at the imprecise or euphemistic use of language around me.”

Nothing to Be Frightened Of is by no means a continuous wail of melancholy and fear. The photograph of the author on the cover of the American edition, suitably, shows a man who is apprehensive, possibly even terrified, but is nevertheless slightly, ironically smiling. His book is full of wry humor, and also of enjoyment of life and, especially, of literature. Barnes goes to the writers he most admires (many of them French) to discover what they thought of death and how they faced it—often by remembering what was most important to them. He also composes an obituary for himself: “He achieved more success than he had expected…. He achieved as much happiness as his nature permitted…. Despite the selfishness of his genes, he failed—or rather, declined—to hand them on…. He loved his wife and feared death.”

Though some of his short stories are very fine, Julian Barnes’s natural form appears to be the extended essay, in which his wit, sense of style, subtle psychological observation, and wide-ranging erudition show to their best advantage. In the book that first made his reputation, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), he investigated the connections and disconnections between life and art. His hero, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is an amateur scholar who goes to France to discover the real Gustave Flaubert, and fails. He also fails in his search for the parrot called Loulou who is a central symbolic figure in A Simple Heart, appearing above her owner’s deathbed as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost. The scholar cannot discover the real truth about Flaubert, nor can he find the real Loulou. He is shown two old stuffed parrots, but both turn out to be fake. Neither the writer nor his work can be totally possessed or understood, Barnes suggests: all we have is different versions, including his own.

The stories in Pulse, some as good as anything being written today, are interrupted by four satirical sketches called “At Phil & Joanna’s.” These pieces, almost entirely in dialogue, appear to be transcriptions of the conversation at a series of contemporary London dinner parties. At Phil and Joanna’s somewhat interchangeable, unnamed people say interchangeable things and discuss topics of the day. Most of Barnes’s readers will remember having heard, or perhaps spoken, many of these lines more than once. About smoking, for instance, someone says:

When I was giving up, it was the disapproval I hated more than anything. You’d ask if anyone minded, and they all said no, but you could sense them turning away and not breathing in. And either pitying you, which was patronising, or even kind of loathing you.

Another remarks, “It always seemed to me that when everyone smoked, nonsmokers were nicer. Now it’s the other way round.” Though these sketches are amusing, and might well be useful to some anthropologist of the future as a record of what middle-class educated people were saying in London in the early years of the twenty-first century, they are apt to make readers feel either contemptuous or ashamed of their own banality.

One problem with “At Phil and Joanna’s” is that here Julian Barnes seems to have forbidden himself to do what he does best: to create characters and speak in his own natural voice; the brilliant, charming, and perceptive narrator of Nothing to Be Frightened Of and Flaubert’s Parrot is silent. In the rest of Pulse, as in The Lemon Table, people are complex, sympathetic, and human, and we feel grief at their fates. It is disheartening to think that today the choices for a gifted writer are often unconsciously limited to satire and tragedy. Not all stories end unhappily or unluckily, and to assume that they must do so is just as false a view of life and fiction as Miss Prism’s.

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