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Master of the Downbeat

Pulse

by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 227 pp., $25.00
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ITV Global/Kobal Collection
Michael Redgrave as Jack Worthing and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952

In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) Miss Prism says of her three-volume novel, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” When Miss Prism composed this work—presumably at least twenty-eight years earlier, before she unfortunately left it in a perambulator, and the baby in a handbag at Victoria Station—this rule prevailed. Readers of Dickens, Trollope, and their contemporaries, after suffering through many misfortunes and hardships with heroes and heroines, could usually expect a happy ending.

As time passed, Miss Prism’s Rule began to be challenged. Today only genre fiction usually ends happily, though often after generous helpings of death and violence, or a great deal of jealousy, despair, and damage to female clothing (hence the colloquial term “bodice-ripper”). Best sellers typically have an upbeat conclusion that nevertheless leaves the hero and heroine somewhat tired and regretful as a result of the terrible events they have lived through. As in the Victorian novel, it is often the case that the happier the principal characters are at the beginning, the worse are the things that will occur to them later, though they may be partially rewarded at the end. Even if they do not survive they may be portrayed as looking down benevolently from heaven at the material and emotional contentment of the other good people in the book.

Literary fiction, however, now tends to conform to Tom Stoppard’s addition to Miss Prism’s Rule, first stated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966): “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” The scale of the tragedy, of course, varies widely. When we begin a story by a known and admired writer in a known and admired journal, we do not always expect a major disaster, but we know that something unpleasant is going to happen to the main characters, and/or that they will end up understanding something unpleasant about themselves, their friends or family, or the world in general. (Years ago, a Harvard student called Speed Lamkin described the latter tales to me as “stupid little realization stories.”*)

Julian Barnes’s previous collection of short fiction, The Lemon Table (2004), had a common theme: the discomforts and dissatisfactions of aging. As Diane Johnson perceptively observed in this magazine, all of these stories end more or less sadly; the best the characters can hope for is a wry acceptance of their losses. Actually, this view of life is somewhat skewed. Yes, we will all eventually die, usually with pain, fear, and regret, but before that many other things will happen to us. Even old age often has pleasures and compensations: freedom from routine work, time to enjoy nature and travel and read good writers—Julian Barnes, for instance.

In Barnes’s new collection, Pulse, the characters are younger than those in The Lemon Table, but their lives still mostly follow Stoppard’s Rule. Some undergo major tragedies, in which the author has distributed misfortune with a liberal hand. In the title story, for instance, the narrator’s wife leaves him, his father loses his sense of smell, and his mother dies slowly and painfully of ALS.

Even when the damage is less serious, bad luck is widespread. In the ironically observant “Gardeners’ World,” a couple quarrel about what to plant in their new backyard, which, perhaps a little too symbolically, turns out to contain no real soil, only stones, dust, “dog shit, catcrap, bird droppings, stuff like that.” They are assaulted by “inane music from a neighbour’s house,…wailing car alarm[s],…flight-path thunder,…[and] bloody noisy birds.” Thieves steal the potted bay tree from their front doorstep, and not only is their barbecue party a chilly, bug-plagued disaster, but an animal gets into the yard later that night and smashes the new terra-cotta barbecue oven. The husband, though angry and discouraged, seems to feel a kind of sour satisfaction in how badly everything has turned out. After all, in the past,

it had pleased him to detect vice hidden in the seemingly innocuous, not to say beneficial, occupation of gardening. Envy, greed, resentment, the costive withholding of praise and its false overlavishing, anger, lust, covetousness and various other of the deadly sins he couldn’t quite remember.

When he sees the demolished oven, his reaction is: “Bloody foxes…. Or bloody cats. Or bloody squirrels. Bloody nature anyway.”

As perceptive, original, and sometimes very funny as these stories are, the world they create is, if not tragic, steadily sad. If things can go wrong, they will. In “Sleeping with John Updike,” two well-established but not famous women writers in their sixties appear at first to be best friends, but their long relationship turns out to be full of concealed doubts and resentments. “Each privately liked the other’s work a little less than they said, but then, they also liked everyone else’s work a little less than they said, so hypocrisy didn’t come into it.” Over time they have grown apart. Jane admits awkwardly that she has got religion:

“A little, anyway…. It sort of makes sense of things. Makes it all feel less… hopeless.” Jane stroked her handbag, as if it too needed consolation.

She is still optimistic about her work, saying, “I’ve always believed that writers get more out of things going wrong than things going right. It’s the only profession in which failure can be put to good use.” Jane’s friend Alice sees things more darkly. In her view,

“The point is, even if personal failure can be properly transformed into art, it still leaves you where you were when you started.”
“And where’s that?”
“Not having slept with John Updike.”

For her, all lives are failures: “Art always fell short, and the artist, far from rescuing something from the disaster of life, was thereby condemned to be a double failure.” At the end of the story Jane, in spite of her attempts at optimism, is imagining her own death, and wondering what Alice would do if she were there when it happened:

It suddenly seemed very important to be reassured that Alice wouldn’t abandon her. She looked across at the telephone…. But then she imagined the small, disapproving silence before Alice answered her question, a silence which would somehow imply that her friend was needy, self-dramatising and overweight.

Clearly, Jane and Alice are going to become more and more distant from now on. As a member of their demographic group, however, I have observed that long-standing female friendships, even between writers, tend to endure and even strengthen as time passes.

Often, in Barnes’s fiction, men are naive and even clueless, women mysterious and elusive. In his novels Talking It Over (1991) and its sequel, Love, etc (2000), several first-person narrators speak directly to the reader, telling a story in which a woman named Gillian moves back and forth between two men, marrying first one and then the other. Barnes ventriloquizes these people with skill, allowing them to tell us more about themselves than they think they do. But the novels are weakened by the unlikableness of the two main male characters, one of whom, Stuart, is essentially an uptight wimp and the other, Oliver, an only occasionally charming vulgarian. Most of the time, as Robert Frost put it, the men “dance round in a ring and suppose” while Gillian is “the Secret [that] sits in the middle and knows.” She remains essentially enigmatic, and eventually baffling, while her husbands’ confessions reveal them as less and less admirable and interesting. By the second novel Stuart has become a selfish business magnate who justifies committing a violent rape, while Oliver, once full of energy and ambition, is a deeply depressed failure who lies about the house doing nothing and declares, “Stuart bores me. Gillian bores me. I bore me.” This is of course a kind of tragedy, but not one that many readers may be deeply moved by.

Pulse is also full of enigmatic females. In the title story the hero describes his former wife as “a lively, sexy but complicated girl whom I sometimes couldn’t read.” In “Complicity” the nameless narrator values moments of “unspoken understanding between two people,” but can seldom achieve them. When he talks to an attractive woman at a party he suffers from anxious self-consciousness, reporting, “I was trying to be myself, whatever that might be, and at the same time trying to make that self acceptable, if not actually pleasing.”

In several other stories men make mistakes in romantic relationships, and one of their most common mistakes is to invade the privacy of the women they love. In the sad but also funny “Trespass,” Geoff, an essentially decent and friendly schoolteacher whose hobby is hill-walking, loses two girlfriends because he cannot stop crowding them emotionally and overmanaging their lives. “I thought we were going to get married,” he says to the first one, and she replies, “That’s why we aren’t.” At first, he more or less gives up, and tries to justify his solitude:

That was one of the things about being single again: you saved time. You walked quicker, you got home and drank a beer quicker, you ate your supper quicker. And then the sex you had with yourself, that was quicker too. You gained all this extra time, Geoff thought—extra time in which to be lonely.

Later Geoff tries again, but he has not learned anything from his last experience. He soon suggests to his new girlfriend, Lynn, that they should go on a specific walk seven months later, taking for granted that they will still be together and that she will always follow his lead. He also has the problem that, as a teacher, he is in the habit of lecturing. He insists on serving as a nonstop guidebook to hiking techniques, local sights, and historical traditions, including the struggle of hill-walkers to retain their legal right-of-way over landlords’ property, a continuing issue in Britain. Naturally, Geoff supports this movement; he is a trespasser in both his recreational and emotional life. He is also dense about personal relationships: when Lynn finally complains, “Geoff… You’re on my space,” he merely thinks that he’s made her hike too far. At one point, maddened by the flow of information, she stands in a patch of bracken and screams—simply, as she explains later, “because I felt like it.”

The hero of a more seriously downbeat story, “East Wind,” is so obsessed with knowing more about his attractive new girlfriend, a refugee from Eastern Europe, that he steals and copies her key and lets himself into her apartment when she is at work. He excuses this intrusion to himself:

Gradually, she’d learnt about him, while he hadn’t learnt about her…. If you fall in love, you want to know…. Anyway, Andrea was a nice person, he was certain about that. So what was wrong with finding out about a nice person behind her back?

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.

  1. *

    Mr. Lamkin, author of novels and drama and winner of an O. Henry Award, and later a famous host in his native Monroe, Louisiana, died on May 2. 

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