“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 ship, he saw the sun rise all over again.
Once more, Prosser put aside caution and just watched: the orange globe, the yellow bar, the horizon’s shelf, the serene air, and the smooth, weightless lift of the sun as it rose from the waves for the second time that morning. It was an ordinary miracle he would never forget.
The story proper begins with vignettes of Jean Serjeant’s childhood, especially her relationship with her slightly raffish Uncle Leslie, given to practical jokes and intriguing private rituals. The special, and especially rewarding relationship that children often have with an adult relative outside the nuclear family is very well caught here. Prosser enters the story after not many pages as an airman billeted with Jean’s parents in the war—a tense, jumpy, abstracted young man who, it turns out, has lost his nerve for aerial combat and has been temporarily suspended from flying. He explains the symptoms to the nineteen-year-old Jean:
“You could always tell the signs, when someone was thinking of not coming back. You’d be sitting in the dispersal hut, and you’d notice someone being polite. I mean, really polite, all of a sudden. And you’d realize he’d been like that for a couple of days, always passing the sugar, talking quietly, not putting anyone’s back up. All the time thinking about not coming back. Wants to be remembered as a nice chap. Doesn’t know he’s doing it, of course—hasn’t the foggiest idea.”
In The Great War and Modern Memory Paul Fussell showed how the vocabulary and concepts associated with trench warfare in Flanders entered into the English language and helped to shape our collective consciousness of other experiences, including the Second World War. But the Second World War also left its impression on modern memory, and when Fussell or someone else writes a sequel to his admirable study, there should be chapters about the special mixture of glamour and pathos that attaches to the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain, and another on the way in which British writers too young themselves to remember the war have tended to imagine it through the eyes of women who reached adulthood at that time. Ian McEwan’s screenplay The Imitation Game, David Hare’s Licking Hitler and plenty, and now Barnes’s novel, all take this tack, contemplating, with a consciousness raised by the feminism of the 1970s, the plight of women in the 1940s, caught up in a war generated and managed by men. “War, of course, was men’s business,” Jean reflects. “Men conducted it, and men—tapping out their pipes like headmasters—explained it.”
For many real women, and fictional heroines, the war was at least an opportunity to leave home and see life; but Jean’s lot is dull and inglorious, keeping house while her mother does voluntary war work. Only the conversation of Prosser gives her glimpses of a more intense mode of existence. He tells her about seeing the sun rise twice. He tells her about his fantasy (later realized) of committing suicide by slipping away from the squadron, aiming his Hurricane at the sun, and climbing until, lightheaded from oxygen starvation, he blacks out. These images haunt her memory and, along with the sayings of Uncle Leslie, furnish the metaphors with which she negotiates the ordinary crises of her ordinary life: marriage to a boringly conventional policeman called Michael, the embarrassment, guilt, and disappointment of a bungled initiation into sex, childlessness, the unexpected blessing of a child in middle age, her determination to leave the spirit-crushing Michael. When she later describes this decision to a friend, the private myth of “Sun-up” Prosser colors her speech:
I was sitting in the garden one night. The house was blacked out, like in the war. There wasn’t any cloud, just one of those special moons as bright as the Arctic sun. A bomber’s moon, we used to call it. And I suddenly thought, what’s it for, this marriage? Why stay? Why not slip away into the warm night? And perhaps it was lack of sleep, and I felt a bit light-headed, but the answer seemed obvious.
Staring at the Sun is full of questions, fundamental questions about the meaning of life and death, posed by very ordinary people, of no great intellectual distinction, and answered in very private and personal ways. The enterprise is risky, always hovering on the edge of the sentimental and the banal, but for the first third of the book, at least, it achieves a precarious success. Once Jean Serjeant has left her husband, however, Mr. Barnes doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. He sends her around the world, observing the wonders thereof, and collecting wry little verbal snapshots of her impressions. He makes her the object of a rather improbable lesbian passion on the part of her son Gregory’s girlfriend, the fanatical feminist Rachel (who confesses to punishing a former lover by faking not having orgasms). He introduces Gregory as an alternative point of view in the novel, but unfortunately he is a singularly colorless character, a mere mouthpiece for philosophical speculations that can’t plausibly be attributed to his mother.
The latter part of Staring at the Sun is much more in the Menippean mode than the first part, though it is probably quite fortuitous that Menippus himself figures in a list of classical suicides compiled by the “studious, melancholy, methodical Gregory.” In the imagined future of this part of the novel, all knowledge has been stored in a computer archive for self-access by the citizenry, and Gregory has long sessions putting questions about life and death to a program called The Absolute Truth (TAT for short). Though they are thematically linked to what has gone before, the whimsical-philosophical mode of these dialogues seems to have strayed into the novel from Flaubert’s Parrot, and breaks the fragile spell of Jean Serjeant’s story. You can’t, after all, put anything into a novel (or, for that matter, into a vol-au-vent). But one has to admire Mr. Barnes for trying. Staring at the Sun is an honorable failure, and affords the reader who appreciates good prose many incidental pleasures.
May 7, 1987