My main disappointment with this collection of stories was that I had already read six of them, in publications ranging from the New Yorker to the Guardian. This, however, only goes to prove the eagerness with which I seize upon Julian Barnes’ intelligent and subtle writing wherever it may first appear.
Barnes’ two previous collections of short stories were loosely linked by a theme, though this was never overbearing: Cross Channel explored Anglo-French relationships, while The Lemon Table circled bleakly around old age. The stories in Pulse are more tenuously linked — except in so far as this is a collection about the tenuousness of links within human relationships. Indeed, the piece chosen to reprint in the Christmas edition of this magazine, ‘Carcassonne’, comes closest to making this plain; and in a way, it may have been slightly baffling for this not-quite-a-story to have been read in isolation:
What do we trust: the sight of a woman’s feet in walking boots, the novelty of a foreign accent, a loss of blood to the fingertips followed by exasperated self criticism?
All of these examples are references to other stories in the volume — moments when relationships might or do start.
While ‘Carcassonne’ is not typical of the stories in Pulse, it is typical of a strand of Barnes’ writing familiar to those who enjoyed Flaubert’s Parrot. This has been described by Frank Kermode as ‘Menippean satire’ (‘a form of intellectually humorous work characterised by miscellaneous contents, displays of curious erudition, and comical discussions on philosophical topics’). If you enjoy this sort of thing, then you will certainly enjoy Pulse. But if you do not, there is plenty more to like.
The story in Pulse that comes closest to ‘Carcassone’ and Flaubert’s Parrot is ‘Harmony’, since this too reaches out, self-consciously, beyond fiction to history and back again. As in the story of the unnamed composer in The Lemon Table, who is evidently Sibelius, the historical identity of the unnamed 18th-century characters in ‘Harmony’, designated by ‘M—’ and ‘Maria Theresia von P—’ will immediately be obvious to some readers, which could be irritating. Those who do guess will feel unwarranted smugness; those who cannot guess would surely be merely be frustrated. The reason given for this device may seem somewhat spurious:
Such minor suppressions of detail would have been a routine literary mannerism at the time; but they also tactfully admit the partiality of our knowledge.
The original use of such abbreviations was not to indicate the partiality of all knowledge, signalling that ‘no field of understanding was complete’, but, rather, that there was a real objective truth out there, to which we, as ordinary readers, might not be allowed access. Abbreviations were used to refer to real people, who should not have their privacy invaded; it was used as a fictional device, not, as Barnes suggests, to indicate that this is merely ‘story-telling’, but on the contrary to play with the idea that fiction might be true.
Yet, turned on its head (suggesting that what once might have been true now necessarily has the nature of fiction) the device nevertheless works well, allowing Barnes a delicate flexibility in recounting the tale of a certain blind female concert player treated by a possible charlatan.
At the other end of the historical scale, there are the utterly present-day transcripts of (presumably invented) dinner-party conversations. There are four of these, featuring apparently the same guests; all are pitch-perfect. Disconcertingly so, indeed. One is uncertain of the extent to which these exercises are satirical; is one supposed to enjoy the cleverness and banter or mock at these metropolitan types?
Even if one enjoys such uncertainty, these stories work better if read separately. Taking them together is like having four courses of soup in a single meal, however fresh and zingy the ingredients. The voices blend together indistinguishably (apart from lumps left by ‘potty-mouthed’ Dick).
That culinary metaphor might be appropriate for the author of The Pedant in the Kitchen. On every liquidiser there is a button marked ‘Pulse’, allowing short spurts of energy only for as long as the finger presses (the dead-man’s handle on a culinary short story). But most of Barnes’ stories are not a blitz: his touch on the button is the merest whisper, the tiniest surge. He is fascinated by atomising and anatomising the very moment of the start of a relationship: not a decision, but ‘more of a pulse of thought, which goes, Yes perhaps her …Yes, perhaps him.’
The finest stories in this collection explore the minute, mysterious and delicate impulses that cause possibly significant (but also possibly delusive) shifts within relationships. There are several stories that contrast male blindness with female hypersensitivity, though this gives neither sex automatic moral advantage. Men may be said to be ‘missing waymarks’ within emotional landscapes, as the male protagonist of ‘Trespass’ complains: but he is a wonderfully drawn, more than slightly creepy hiker and rambler, reprehensively unmetropolitan, and (a type like Barnes’ pedant in the kitchen) a control freak. Yet Barnes allows women to be control freaks too, as in ‘Gardener’s World’: a superb exploration of a marriage, where it is the woman who always follows recipes in the kitchen — a moral marker for Barnes —and the man who tries to wing it.
‘Gardener’s World’ sums up, rather smartly, a moment of change within a relationship: the moment at which a couple ‘started giving each other useful presents’. Such neat aphoristic knowingness is everywhere in Barnes’ fiction, and is indeed one of its pleasures (‘Old men look boastful when they remember their conquests. Old women come across as brave’). Fortunately, however, Barnes’ stories also recognise the limits of enjoyable knowingness.
The murky notion of unknowable complicity is another theme. In the excellent opening story, the male lover of a stolid East European waitress wonders whether her compliance means she enjoys it; in another, elderly authors who are old friends and a double-act on the bookfair circuit laugh together on a train with a female ‘complicity’ that may either mask or neutralise rivalry — even they do not know which. The story actually called ‘Complicity’ suggests the role of our senses in those first intimations of intimacy, as implicit and implicated as the way in which ‘our fingers must work together’.
Barnes’ stories, at their, best, are always exploring the borderlines of what is knowable.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 8, 2011Tags: Book review, Fiction, Julian barnes, Short stories