Julian Barnes is fast challenging William Trevor as the modern master of the short story. Barnes’ second collection of short stories, The Lemon, delved into life’s complexities and he dives deeper with this latest collection, Pulse. Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.
Barnes’ range of time and place is impressive, veering from the domestic to the exotic, from the contemporary to the historical – unsurprising given his success with fictionalising history in Arthur and George. In one story, Garibaldi captures the distant figure of his future wife through a telescope as his ship lies at anchor off the azure coast of Brazil; the great man ponders ambition, destiny and desire in all their forms. In another story, ‘East Wind’, a divorced agent falls for a sultry and simple European waitress, but curiosity and the damage of earlier life tempts him to investigate her past.
Elsewhere, Barnes reprises the substance of his earlier novels. He punctuates the stories with vignettes of the chattering classes at play, gabbing about the environment, politics and Englishness over dinner at ‘Phil and Joanna’s’. This is Barnes on suburban home turf in Metroland, his first novel and one that coloured later books, Talking it Over and Love Etc. Barnes is still fascinated and, evidently, so are we.