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 life. Engrossed in what is happening, and what the characters are thinking and doing, the reader no longer notices how it is done, and soon takes the art for granted.
With our sort of contemporary fiction that would never do. In a novel by Julian Barnes or Martin Amis the object of the exercise is to dazzle and bemuse the reader throughout with the knowledge and reminder that this is a very clever young person writing a very clever and witty novel. Nothing new about that, it might be said—what other purpose had Sterne, and Sterne was very much the fashion in his day, and famous ever since? And yet the singular thing about Tristam Shandy is that it does cease in the reading to be a joke, and Irish bull, a novel way of talking and of seeing, and become in its own way a story in which the reader as liver cannot help being immersed. We began to care what happens, and to get to know the people involved.
Barnes and Amis, and indeed a whole new generation of acclaimed novelists, are much too sophisticated to show obvious signs of conceit or narcissism, and indeed they are guiltless of either. They are craftsmen, and craftsmen working in plain view, like those absorbed souls you see doing their thing as part of the show when you visit some Olde Worlde woollen mill or whisky distillery. They are genuinely anxious never to take in the reader, or to pretend to be doing anything other than what they are doing. The convention they work in is completely open-plan. One time when Stuart is talking—on page 84 in fact—he describes walking up the Farringdon Road in London, on his way to the bank where he works, and passing a plaque commemorating a Zeppelin raid which took place on September 8, 1915, during the First World War. “I thought that was interesting. Why did they put the plaque so low down I wondered. Or perhaps it’s been moved. You’ll find it at Number 61, by the way, if you want to check up. Next door to the shop that sells telescopes.”
Now in a fiction of this sort the author is not trying to put “reality” into his story. There may indeed be a plaque just where Julian Barnes says it is, or there may not: the point in this context has no importance. In The Old Wives’ Tale Arnold Bennett had his heroine secrete her new husband’s empty wallet (she has stolen the contents) behind a tall old-fashioned cupboard in a French hotel, “where for all I know,” writes the novelist, “it may be to this day.” Bennett’s purpose was to realize his fiction as much as he could, to reinforce the reader’s sense that he is reading the story of a woman who existed, in the same sense that he exists himself. But Barnes is engaged in pure play, and with puppet characters. As with Flaubert’s Parrot, who cares whether it was the real bird or not?—investigation can never arrive at the truth, and nor can fiction. So does it matter what impression we get of Stuart from his courtship behavior, or of Gillian for her response to it?
The third member of the triangle is Oliver, Stuart’s best friend, who falls in love with Gillian after she and Stuart are married, whereupon he persuades her to fall in love with him, divorce Stuart, and marry him. (It is not possible to spoil the story by revealing more or less what “happens,” any more than it would be with Phèdre or Les Liaisons dangereuses.) Oliver is the self-appointed clever one, the word-agile but also rather endearing Lucky Jim who fascinates his friends and also makes them want to look after him. He constantly apologizes to the reader for his cleverness and for being so funny, and for overdoing words like “crepuscular,” whereupon he overdoes them again.
Oh dear, you’re giving me that look again. You don’t have to say it. I know. You think I’m a patronising pudendum, don’t you? It’s not really like that. Perhaps you’re not picking up the tone. I only go on like this because Stuart’s my friend. My oldest friend. I love him, that Stuart. And we go way back—way, way back, back to the time when you could still buy mono records, when kiwi fruit were yet to be devised, when the khaki-clad representative of the Automobile Association would salute the passing motorist, when a packet of Gold Flake cost a groat and a half and you still had change for a flagon of mead. We’re like that, Stuart and me. Old Buddies. But don’t you underestimate my friend, by the way. He comes on a bit slow, sometimes, and the old turbine up top doesn’t always chug away like a Lamborghini, but he gets there, he gets there. And sometimes sooner than I do.
Is the reader picking up the tone? It’s all there for him to do so—or is it? Lucky Jim or Holden Caulfield can now be seen to fit snugly into a fictional convention that goes back both to the novel in letters and the dramatic monologue in poetry. All the readernutritious clutter the letter writer or monologuist pours out is intended on another level to reveal what they are really like, to give them away.
Like most of his peers Barnes is a highly literary novelist. He has a special expertise in the French novel and he is well aware not only of this technique but the need as a new novelist to go one better at it, to use it as a form of double-bluff. Madame de Merteuil or Jane Austen’s Lady Susan or Browning’s Duke of Ferrara have a real fictional nature, so to speak, which it is the task of the writer to reveal and the pleasure of the reader to understand. None of that applies here. There is no “nature,” no “what are they really like?” to be revealed in the characters who do the talking: only the suggestion and the atmosphere. And that too the reader apprehends through the tone in which the character talks to him, as actors in the present-day theater address the audience.
Barnes is genuinely funny, but even humor must have something behind it—say the solid fictional figures of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves—and the new technique either doesn’t aspire to that kind of reality or prefers to do without it. There are moments in Talking It Over in which Barnes seems almost to parody the kinds of verbal patter which used to be Kingsley Amis’s specialty, and which Amis’s son Martin, a friend of Barnes, has transformed across the generation gap for his own ingenious fictional purposes. The atmosphere of Talking It Over is highly Amis-like, with the desirable and rather practical girl making her own kinds of calculations as she only half listens to the brilliant badinage which betokens rivalry between her two suitors, who are also of course the greatest friends. They need each other, and at one point a cynical girlfriend introduces herself and interrupts the dialogue to tell us that Oliver is in love with Stuart, or so she thinks. “How long will the marriage last once he starts calling her Stuart in bed?” This is not a clue, for clues would point to an ascertainable reality, dispensed with by fiction’s new ambiance.
The atmosphere, and especially the wisecracks, are the logical development less of old styles like the epistolary novel than of homely and more recent product that goes back to Amis, and beyond him to Wodehouse and Waugh. Very English, with the continental trimmings Barnes has added. One clue to the new development is the debate still carried on by Kingsley Amis fans: are his heroes intended to be awful, or are they an extended apologia for their author’s outlook on life? The answer, if it exists, is in Amis’s case psychological rather than merely technical: the hero of Take a Girl Like You, whose jaunty ghost is often visible through the droll dialogues of Talking It Over, is a very recognizable portrait, whatever we make of it. Barnes however is dealing not with people but with feelings and sensations, especially the subliminal kind that call for kidding on the level; and just as dark fears of death and impotence stalk the sunny pages of Lucky Jim or Take a Girl Like You, so obsession is always the hidden agenda of Barnes’s brilliant and engaging versatility. The husband in Before She Met Me becomes wholly absorbed in tracking down everyone his wife once knew, and everything she did. The comedy trio of Talking It Over, whose mode of discourse seems self-referential only, find themselves manipulated like puppets by emotions and needs they are unable to control. At the end of the ballet Petrushka the master exhibits the dead puppet to show he is nothing but sawdust and straw, but the puppet’s ghost then comes to life to prove he is human. Today’s novelists are fond of the reverse tactic: bringing the characters to life in order to dismiss them as puppets. Barnes is exceptionally good at this.
And it provides him with his climax. The men of the triangle have both been voyeurs, and now the obsessed Stuart pursues married Oliver and Gillian to France. Gillian decides to try a trick to get rid of this persistent ex-husband who watches their door from a hotel room across the street. She stages a violent quarrel in the open with her new husband which becomes all too genuine—perhaps terminally so. Real feeling has surfaced at last. But before the reader can take sides or engage himself the show is over, the actors dismissed by the French hôtelier in a scornfully indulgent phrase—“sont fous, les Anglais.” Was Gillian the strong one and the two men her pets and instruments? Or was she their victim? Not the point. If the thriller has given up solutions, so has this type of novel. And nowadays it’s called an aporia.
So skillful is Barnes, nonetheless, that he leaves his readers with a glimpse of very special and personal disquiet, a memorable if “textual” impression. It is connected with the pathos of Stuart’s supper timetable, and the child Gillian at the end is left holding in her arms. Can it be that good old sentimentality, of the sort that seems now so palpable in the pages of The Grapes of Wrath or The Catcher in the Rye, has returned in an ingenious and unexpected guise, and that the brilliant Julian Barnes has been doing what Thomas Hardy said he tried to do in all his fictions—“touch our hearts by revealing his own”? Perhaps all novelists come to it in the end, and by their own route, from Barnes and Steinbeck and Salinger to Fanny Burney, about whose Evelina the Critical Review wrote in 1779 that “its readers will weep, will laugh, and grow wiser.” In the end does fashion in the novel—even the open-plan novel—always, if unknowingly, come to this? Barnes must know it, even if his readers don’t. Essentially modest as he is, his achievement is nonetheless very considerable, more so than that of many bigger or more “powerful” writers. He opens our eyes to the way the new novel works, but he still leaves us thinking about other things than the novel.
December 5, 1991