Friday 20 January 2012

What (who) I'm reading now

Julian Barnes (Flaubert's Parrot, Talking it Over, Love etc., England England ... and so many more) has been one of my favourite contemporary writers for years. Late last year I read his two most recent books ... 

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Pulse (published in 2011) is a collection of short stories that collectively amount to a reflection on relationships between men and women, as well as on qualities of 'Englishness' ... at least, as far as these apply to middle-class, educated English lives. (Interestingly, Barnes seems to be bi-cultural: English-born to parents who were teachers of French, he's been a life-long Francophile and has won major French literary prizes as well as been made commandeur of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).  

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It's tempting to wonder about the extent to which he draws on personal experience for these stories. Barnes was married to the very successful, South African-born literary agent Pat Kavanagh (below right), whose clients were some of Britain’s best known writers, including Auberon Waugh, Andrew Motion, William Trevor and Martin Amis. (When Amis dumped Kavanagh in favour of a new editor, the longstanding friendship between Barnes and Amis, two of the best living British writers, ended summarily, bitterly and publicly). She famously left Barnes briefly in the 1980s to have an affair with the writer Jeanette Winterson, returning to him for another couple of decades until she died quite recently.

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Not surprisingly perhaps, then, many of the stories in Pulse have themes of loss and bereavement, though I was also struck by the honesty (often uncomfortable) with which he explores men as partners. 

The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker prize - Barnes’s first win after being shortlisted three times previously. Only 150 pages long, it’s a novella rather than a novel, yet has the feel of a substantial story. Unlike the previous year’s Booker winner, Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which I had many reservations about (see here), I found this a really engaging read ...

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It explores the question of what we remember about the key relationships in our lives as we get older. The main character, Tony Webster, is in retirement, nearing the end of a life he considers unremarkable but pretty satisfactory.  In the early stages of the book, he chronicles this life with the rather tidy explanations of key events that most of us tend to rely on in summing up our lives. Tony’s watershed moment comes when he receives an unexpected bequest that includes the personal diary of an old friend who died young many years before. From this point, it becomes apparent to both him and the reader that he is an unreliable narrator. Delving back into events, he is forced to re-interpret his past and question truths he held which now appear to have been built on illusory grounds. Successive ‘understandings’ giving way to newer ones as they are proved inaccurate too. In the process, Tony discovers that “as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or what you have been.

The book’s unsettling message is that we only partially understand our own life stories; as Barnes’s character is confronted with the unreliability of personal memories, he reflects that “the history that happens under our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent”.

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