Home | BAC/Teze | Biblioteca | Jobs | Referate | Horoscop | Muzica | Dex | Games | Barbie





Index | Forum | E-mail


DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


 + Click:  Grupuri | Newsletter | Portal | Referate online | Forum discutii | Premii de excelenta | Europa





  <  Back to index



British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

The Down Syndrome of Emotional Fiction – Julian Barnes (born 1946)


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)

Julian Barnes is part of the larger group of contemporary novelists who illustrate a reaction of the second degree, a reaction against the first reaction directed against experiment in 20th century fiction. The first wave of revolt against the stream of consciousness aimed at returning to the pleasure of the well told narrative, the pleasures of plot and character by all means. The second wave – writers who are now in their fifties – choose to remember the experiment, blend it with spicy bits of tradition (exactly what Virginia Woolf was banning as distortions of life), and exhaust it, carry all kinds of attempts to their furthest consequences. Julian Barnes expresses this tendency by saying that the writer’s job is

‘to explore all the available points of view’,

which is back to square one, back to Henry James and the beginnings of the stream of consciousness. But Julian Barnes no longer accepts affiliation to any movement; like all self-respecting writers of today, whether in fiction or poetry, he is his own trend.

Born in Leicester in 1946, Barnes was educated in London and Oxford. He worked as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary, as a journalist on the New Statesman and the Sunday Times, and as television critic of the Observer, between 1982-1986. His first novel, Metroland, won the 1981 Somerset Maugham Award. In 1982 he wrote Before She Met Me, which Philip Larkin chose among his Books of the Year. In 1984 Flaubert’s Parrot appeared, and with it Barnes became the first Englishman to be awarded the Prix Médicis. In 1986 he published Staring at the Sun, and in 1989 A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Talking It Over appeared in 1991. The author received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986, and was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988. He also writes underground thrillers, under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.

Julian Barnes develops a kind of religion of the novel. He believes that

‘the best art tells the most truth about life,’

although he claims to have become a writer for lesser reasons, such as

‘love of words, fear of death, hope of fame, delight in creation, distaste for office hours.’

He feels that, in spite of the fact that for some time now the death of God and the death of the novel have been intermittently proclaimed, they are both grossly exaggerated, so to say. His religion of the novel is expressed in the following statement:

‘...since God was one of the fictional impulse’s earliest and finest creations, I’ll bet on the novel – in however mutated a version – to outlast even God.’

Mutations of the novel are in fact all that Barnes can think of. The contemporary tendency which leads to a hybridization of literary genres, a mixture of fiction, poetry, essay, literary criticism, drama and all the rest in the same pot, in the same work, is brilliantly illustrated by him. The truth of life, which he so much cherishes, according to his own statement, plays second fiddle to witticisms, brilliant discourse and an unleashed sense of humour. It could be said that, although the writer – in good experimental tradition – is supposed to hide behind the scenes, in Barnes’ works a huge authorial eye peeps at us from behind the curtain. The characters are players banished to the front stage, the curtain is always down, so that only the writer can know what is really going on, and we can share in the mystery if we accept his presence in terms of irony more than sympathy. The novelist wants to be witty before and above all. We may easily state Barnes is a Desperado of witty fiction.

Talking It Over is a recent novel which illustrates its author’s sense for incomplete drama very well. Hybridization leads to experiment here, and the result is a deeper insight into the inner world than any traditional story-teller could have achieved. The result is that individualization of characters is very good, everyone is him or herself, and we see each of them through quite a number of minds, but all testimonies are easily corroborated, so as not to make our head spin.

The heroes chat, confess, brag to the reader, but do not engage into conversation with one another, even though they do admonish one another occasionally. The reader is outside the stage, and consequently can be taken into confidence. They pour all their problems to us, while the writer presumably watches lazily and puts in no appearance. His role is to make the circle complete, to arrange things in such a way, from behind the scenes, that the end may close the story satisfactorily. No promises for Barnes, no room for speculation. His brilliant intelligence comes up front and requires all our attention.

There are three major characters: Stuart Hughes, Gillian Wyatt, Oliver Russell. Stu is a bank clerk and Gill’s first husband. Oliver (ex-Nigel) is his best friend, M.A. in English, teaching English as a foreign language (job which triggers his irony, since English would be much better known if it were not taught as a ‘foreign’ language), and Gill’s second husband. He is the terminator of the novel, so to say, since all the irony in the book is attributed to him. Gill is twenty-eight, restores paintings, and is thoroughly confused by her falling in love with the previous two in turn. Yet, she is practical enough to offer Stu a final liberation from the idea of a stupendous future that was stolen from him by his best friend.

The episodical characters are all memorable. First there is Mrs. Wyatt, Gill’s mother, who is French and is left by her husband when Gill is thirteen years of age. She approves of both husbands. The feeling that the whole book is a comedy, in spite of gloomy Stu, deprives her and others of psychological depth. The fact that they all talk to us, that there is no privacy anywhere, deprives the book of hard-earned, psychological sympathy and compassion.

Then there is Mrs. Dyer, Oliver’s temporary landlady, while he rents a room across Stu’s house, to conquer his wife. She is friendly and well-meaning. The same can be said for Gill’s father, Gordon Wyatt, who appears only once, and lets us know that he did not seduce a pupil, that he found out about his wife’s affairs, fell in love again, has two ‘smashing’ kids and was denied any right of visitation when he left the family. Quite a decent chap, he gives us his side of the story, which coheres perfectly with what we already infer, and which satisfies our curiosity. One thing must be said about this book: our curiosity concerning even the most minute detail is always gratified.

There is also Val, alias Valda, who accuses Ollie of being queer on account of Stu. Both men throw her out in a united effort, rejecting the very idea. Two more characters are placed in France, near Toulouse (Mme Rives and Lagisquet, though the latter does not even speak directly to us). We learn from Mme Rives that ‘Sont fous, les Anglais,’ the English are mad. The whole circle of the book is a bit mad; we, as readers are driven mad by what Virginia Woolf was proclaiming at the beginning of the century, namely that a novel is not supposed to provide tragedy or love interest. Since there is no compassion, everything is funny and dry, we talk politely back to the characters in our mind, and cannot help feeling that, behind each mask, the writer pushes us back from any attempt at falling in a Dostoevskian pit.

The motto of the book is a Russian saying:

‘He lies like an eye-witness.’

Which leads to the conclusion that all witnesses are unreliable, and consequently, rather than using them, Barnes prefers to have his characters tell us directly whatever it is they have to say. The person in question knows best, and we learn a story from each of them. Barnes acquaints us with the facts using a remarkable precision of narrative. We can detect no hesitation, although there is no real plot, in the sense of suspense. Even if you read the book several times in a row, and know exactly what it is all about, something maintains the suspense: it must be the author’s sharp sense of humour, which mingles all opinions without building his book into a Joycean puzzle.

The novel consists of round, closed little scenes, in which no lyricism is wasted, everything is dry and ironical. Stuart falls in love with Gillian in a land of puns. They meet at a reunion of persons who come to a hotel party precisely in order to find a mate. They do it deliberately. They get married on a perfectly commonplace day, go to France for their honeymoon, and come back home to settle into their jobs, not their feelings. The idea of feeling appears with Oliver, who unexpectedly falls in love with the bride on the very day of her wedding. This is the plot of the novel: Oliver’s conquest of fair Gillian, who in the end, after amazement, shame and sheer delight, leaves Stu in a state of prostration and marries his best friend. Oliver’s attack is deliberate and his thoughts, uttered to us in his monologues, reveal the worst of poor commonplace Stuart, his best friend, his best enemy, as it turns out, and also his easiest prey. It is true that Oliver appears brilliant and Stu has only a very practical intelligence, but in the long run Stu makes a lot of money by hard work, while Oliver stays poor and his brilliance itself becomes boring and dull. Gill is caught in between. She falls for Stu’s peace, then is swept off her feet by Oliver’s tricky charm and, in the end, tries to restore Stu’s peace of mind. Because years after her second wedding, Stu is still hurt and goes through hell. Consequently, she stages a scene in which she pesters Oliver with jealousy and is struck by him, with a baby in her arms. Stu sees her from the hotel window of the room wherein he is hiding, and runs in horror, forgetting to mourn the future that he used to think he had been robbed of.

Oliver is apparently the fun of the novel. In fact he is the fierce character, who betrays a friend and steals a wife with stark grimness and cruelty. Humming first his envy, later on his victory, the plot goes on. As Oliver unfurls the dark recesses of his mind, we can easily see how he despises everyone but himself. He could be called a histrionic extrovert. His linguistic bravery is not only unamusing, it is maddening at times; he relishes indecency, gossip and envy. His only aim is to shock by all means, and this is his weapon even in making Gill fall in love with him: he does not win her over, he smashes her into shocked feeling.

The gift of puns, displayed mainly by Oliver, reminds us of Shaw, although it is much more shameless, uncovering every possible nakedness. It would be enhanced if the listener (reader) were not compelled to be dumb. The reader is allowed no cue. The silence on the other end of this telephone, which is the novel, becomes bottomless as events unfurl, and finally it is tragic, it amounts to perfect solitude for all the characters involved. The ‘you’ of the monologues is unfortunately a fake, and the most solitary of them all is the reader in the end, because he has no one to side with, no one to talk it over with, so to say.

Sometimes the characters are right, many times they are damn wrong, but each point of view sticks to its own artfully stated version. The reader is driven out of his mind, either by Stuart’s placidity or by Oliver’s wickedness. The rage is spiced by lavishly used French words (or franglais monsters), which render Oliver’s sense of etymology quite disagreeable. Fact is that all the three major heroes – worse than commonplace beings, if we remember Virginia Woolf – are insecure, rigid, stiff. Their humane side is in the dark. They struggle to be survivors, and this is their main concern. Clumsy Stuart survives his clumsiness, while shocking Oliver loses his edge. Life blunts all sharpness and dulls all pain, and old age creeps, hidden well behind.

Shamelessness is a post-Eliotian feature of contemporary poetry and fiction. Oliver carries it far beyond Eliot’s wildest imaginings. He reigns over indecent words or word-mongrels like an enfant terrible of language. Although it is Gill who is half-French (her mother being French), Oliver is the one to reap the joys of that non-English medium of shamelessness. Yet it is Gillian who brings about the title of the book, by saying the following:

‘That’s the trouble with talking it over like this. It never seems quite right to the person being talked about.
I met Stuart. I fell in love. I married. What’s the story?’

The story is that there is no story but a destruction of the story. Step by step, the first marriage is pulled down, and in doing it Oliver demonstrates a wilful vulgarity of character which makes us feel indignant. Indignation is in fact the major feeling of the reader all along.

Reminding us of Eliot’s cultured poetry or Joyce’s cultured fiction, Oliver plays an irritating game of languages and cultures. He displays erudition. His monologues are mixtures of cultures and languages, but he overdoes the whole thing.

A character like Stuart is a born loser, while one like Oliver destroys everything by envy, gluttony, lack of morality. He is dirty while Stu is decent and Gillian ambivalent. He – with a linguistical invention – ‘Nureyevs’ gracefully and lands everyone among débris. He grudges Stuart his transitory well-being, and his only satisfaction is to bring him back to where he was – alone. In chapter 4, Oliver speaks after Stuart and Gillian, and he closes the chapter – which is one page long – by saying:

‘Oh shit. Oh shit shit shit shit SHIT. I’m in love with Gillie, I’ve only just realised it. I am in love with Gillie. I’m amazed, I’m overawed, I’m poo-scared, I’m mega-fuckstruck. I’m also scared out of my cerebellum. What’s going to happen now?’

The question is rhetorical, since he has known the answer for quite a while, he has been watching it coming. He is going to set things straight his way. He is going to ruin the other two people’s mood. What is amazing is that he actually succeeds. Why does he? Because he can conjure the thrill of love, which Stuart cannot offer. Oliver is a thrilling, surprising fellow, who loves wrecking other people’s lives for his own emotional food. Selfishness is his major trait.

Besides being cultured, as a reaction against or a memento of modernism, Oliver is also incredibly artificial, which is a consequence of the former, as a matter of fact. He is almost unreal, incredibly evil. He counterbalances Stuart’s dullness with a touch – or more – of the disgusting. The damage he brings about is irreversible. A possible title for this plot – if it had been told in the Victorian tradition – could be Stuart’s Disappointment. The lesson of such a novel would be: we are ultimately alone.

The style of Oliver’s monologues evinces a physiological obsession; his liberated language makes the reader sick at times. It does not produce pleasure, which is probably one reason why Eliot never carried his revolution to the bitter end, because he sensed he could lose the battle and be left without an audience. Yet Barnes does not lose his readers over this – by now – trifling matter of dirty words being used here and there, mostly everywhere. Oliver captures the reader again and again, by using every trick he can think of. This reader becomes a character himself:

‘...I want to keep your sympathy. (Have I got it in the first place? Hard to tell, I’d say. And do I want it? I do, I do!) It’s just that I’m too involved in what’s happening to play games – at least, to play games with you. I’m fated to carry on with what I have to do and hope not to incur your terminal disapproval in the process. Promise not to turn your face away: if you decline to perceive me, then I really shall cease to exist. Don’t kill me off! Spare poor Ollie and he may yet amuse you!’

Under Oliver’s guise, Barnes pleads with us, in English, French, German and even Italian: be impressed with the book, proclaim it an innovation.


Along the same line, innovating at all costs, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) combines the essay with the narrative, fabulation, literary criticism, emotional reactions, even an examination paper. The retired provincial doctor Geoffrey Braithwaite is busy researching into Flaubert’s life, work and real parrot (there is a multitude of stuffed parrots that could have been the real one, used in ‘Un Coeur Simple’). It turns out that his interest is not only literary, but personal as well: he finds himself in the position of Charles Bovary, only the similarity is mentioned superficially and very hastily. We also learn that the doctor himself unplugged the machines that were keeping alive his dying wife. In between, Flaubert’s emotional life, his mistress’s rage and the issue of the unknown colour of Madame Bovary’s eyes dance and mingle.

The motto of the book comes from a letter written by Flaubert in 1872:

‘When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him.’

This may account for the grudging tone of the book. Everyone concerned is spiteful. The atmosphere is oppressive with anger, dissatisfaction, maybe revenge. The author’s revenge against the cosy expectations of some lazy readers, who come to his novel in slippers and robe, waiting to be entertained. This is what Julian Barnes will never do. He refuses to entertain. He may shock us, impress us to tears, irritate us, but never please us. The reader must be dislocated into meaning, just like language had to be dislocated, in Eliot’s time.

The book starts with a tinge of despair:

‘Nothing much else to do with Flaubert has ever lasted. He died little more than a hundred years ago, and all that remains of him is paper. Paper, ideas, phrases, metaphors, structured prose which turns into sound. This, as it happens, is precisely what he would have wanted; it’s only his admirers who sentimentally complain.’

It continues by saying that the writer’s words should be enough. The writer himself could be forgotten. Yet, contrary to most contemporary critical trends, Barnes’ text does not give up consideration of the author; on the contrary, I should say, the text is nothing without the father figure posted behind it. Consequently, the book delves deep into Flaubert’s life, revealing a little of its narrator’s life in the process, too.

Julian Barnes turns literary criticism into a thriller. Flaubert and especially his mistress, Louise Colet, become living characters, while the characters contemporary to us are barely mentioned. There is a feeling that we are becoming more cultivated without any effort, because the book reads easily and overturns all ideas of encoded language for criticism. The thesis Barnes brings forth is that literature – literary criticism included – can never consist of mere emotionless statements. Whatever man writes, using words and ideas, becomes written experience and all experience must be clearly passed on. Probably that is why he chose a modest contemporary Flaubert, the provincial doctor, to conduct the investigation. Towards the end of the book we learn:

‘I’ll start again. She was a much-loved only child. She was a much-loved only wife. She was loved, if that’s the word, by what I suppose I must agree to call her lovers, though I am sure the word over-dignifies some of them. I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn’t love me; we were unhappy; I miss her.’

In short, Ellen, the wife,

‘was born in 1920, married in 1940, gave birth in 1942 and 1946, died in 1975.’

The plot of real life is so meagre, even when very rich. The plot of imagination can be fabulous. Flaubert’s Parrot is a lecture in favour of the hybridization of genres.


A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters was published in 1989. It is a collection of short stories, bits of a puzzle, to be rearranged by the use of some unknown thread. Elliptical, mysterious, entrancing, witty to the extreme, it is unbearably intelligent and outspoken. The hidden eye of the author can only be suspected here and there, in this mass of incidents.

Each chapter has something to do with Noah’s Ark, which in the first part saves woodworms from extinction. Imagination flies from one time in history to another, and the atmosphere built around each chapter, with its enormously funny incidents, is haunting. This is a novel to be remembered, but not by incidents. It is to be remembered by wit, like all the rest of Barnes’ texts.

The rules, the convention of the novel are demolished. They are plundered by the essay, drama, satire, anything but a clean, sustained, one and only narrative. The author breaks it every time it menaces to become engrossing. Continuity in fiction is for Julian Barnes a very good reason for hate.

We are addressed directly, fed tasty pieces of wisdom, irony, even sympathy, by a writer who debunks everything he can lay hands on, his own myths included. Julian Barnes does not withdraw from the text; he teaches us to enjoy the hybridization of genres in a sort of fiction which can’t even be summarized. The essence of the novel is challenged, but not destroyed. We can go back to Barnes’ books again and again, constantly pleased and surprised by the intelligent voice that talks.

On the whole, Julian Barnes is a literary Desperado at heart. He is clear in expression, though intricate in intention. He is enjoyable, though impossible to pinpoint, to sum up. He is true, although his novels seem to belong to a fairyland of their own, wherein the reader is allowed on condition that he does not require the novelistic convention to be obeyed. Barnes uses bits of rules in a conventionless text, and demonstrates that freedom can be enjoyed, both in writing and reading. There is only one major condition, though, which he fulfils: first and last rule of Julian Barnes is to be sparkling.


Staring at the Sun (1986) is a metaphor-novel. It brings together the sun and death. While we read the book, we unconsciously stare at the two, welded together, and are gently lifted into the unknown. This novel is not so much a story (chronological though it is, and even obviously traditional in that respect) as a poem. A long epic poem with several refrains, repeated at key moments, to give us a glimpse of ambiguity and confuse us, lull us asleep with the trusting mood of poetry.

This is a novel without real characters, and which arouses very little interest in the plot. Suspense is totally absent. What is it that keeps us going? The dreamy mood, the ostentatious denial of uncanny tricks, the smooth reading, the gentle manipulation of our curiosity? My guess is that the point at which we feel hooked and will not give up reading this novel is the very spot where Barnes the novelist joins hands with Barnes the poet. Which happens right at the beginning of the story. Once we accept this convention, the text can unfurl with our blessing. Because this is exactly what Julian Barnes does here: he simply puts us in a blessing mood.

The main refrain of the novel is the story of Sergeant-Pilot Thomas Prosser, known (during World War II) as Sun-Up Prosser. He is the initiator of this ‘staring at the sun’ motif, which acquires multiple and fascinating meanings, occurring as often as T.S. Eliot’s recurrent images in The Waste Land (mainly). First, before the story actually begins, we witness Sun-Up Prosser diving twice in a row below the horizon, thus witnessing the sun rise twice. He was on a mission over Northern France with his plane, and is crossing the Channel back home. The sun is beginning to rise. He spots a ship surrounded by smoke. He descends quickly, the smoke stops, it is just a merchantman heading west. The speed of his descent drives the sun ‘back below the horizon.’ Coming up again, he sees the sun rise for a second time on the same early morning. The last sentence of this enigmatic introductory scene contains the symbolism of the whole novel, which also ends in an aeroplane, but this time flying into the next millennium. We are offered the key before we can even see the need for a door:

‘Once more, Posser 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 begins as Jean’s story. It is a succession of ‘Incidents,’ starting with Jean as a seven-year-old. Uncle Leslie (her mother’s brother) brings her hyacinths which never bloom. It is the first of a long series of incomplete presents that Uncle Leslie makes, both to Jean and her son, later on. It is a suggestion that life yields little enjoyment, and you have to make the best of what comes your way. Jean is not very good at this game, she is dazzled and confused by Leslie, and constantly postpones understanding. He talks to her but his words do not make sense. She seems a little bit retarded, all through the book, when, in fact she is just abnormally patient. She merely takes her time:

‘She would doubtless understand the other words in time.’

When she is seventeen, World War II begins. Jean keeps as a talisman Leslie’s answer to her earlier question, ‘What will I do when I grow up?’:

‘The sky’s the limit, little Jeanie. The sky’s the limit.’

She lives by these words till she is a hundred, at the end of the book. Written around 1986 (when it was published), the plot actually ends in the second decade of the third millennium (year 2016). But for Jean’s humanizing presence, it might easily have become a dystopia. Julian Barnes flirts with the idea of the all-powerful computer. He comes very close to Orwell, Huxley, Ray Bradbury, and many others, who see the future as the kingdom of pleasurable death.

Prosser comes to live in the Sergeants’ house, and Jean learns his story: ‘I’ve seen the sun rise twice.’ She hears him associate the sun with death:

‘You stare through your fingers at the sun, and you notice that the nearer you get to it, the colder you feel. You ought to worry about this but you don’t. You don’t because you’re happy.’

What actually happens is that the plane has a small oxygen leak. The pilot is almost intoxicated, rises higher and higher, until he loses control. Prosser contemplates doing this when he has ‘had enough;’ it is a kind of suicide above the sea. Much later, Jean’s own son broods on the idea of suicide. These repetitions, very easy to spot, reassure the reader that he is on the right track across this novel which has no intention of being a narrative at all. Hybridization takes over, lyricism finds a new way of attacking fiction: if it cannot destroy the ‘Incidents,’ then destroy the narrative. Which actually happens: we are not waiting for a story to end, but for the mood to be completed.

To go on with Jean’s story (since there is no other hero with a story in sight), she marries a policeman (Michael Curtis), who makes no difference to her life. Again, from the way she is described, we might infer she is retarded. The truth is, Barnes will not take the trouble of telling us the whole story: he merely sketches the feel of it. And Jean’s life revolves around fear and courage. Prosser is brave when he kills, but overwhelmed with fear, allegedly, when he allows himself to fly into the sun, after which his plane crashes and he dies (supposedly: he is reported missing). Leslie is besieged by fears when Jean visits him, and he knows he is dying from cancer; he is also brave when Gregory (Jean’s son) comes by. Jean herself is afraid of her husband and of living alone, until she gets pregnant (at thirty-eight) and leaves him for good. She seems to have grown out of fear after that, facing every incident bravely, with increasing wisdom. Gregory gives in to his fears when he contemplates suicide, but gets the better of them and lives on bravely, by Jean’s side. Fear is the substance of this dreamy book, and bravery, which equals life, is the way out of it.

During the war, Uncle Leslie goes to New York, fleeing the fight (fear? courage?). Prosser dies. Jean begins a sexless married life that lasts twenty years. The story flows like a deep river, hiding the rough parts. Jean’s rejection of Michael’s indifference, his hitting her because she is ‘abysmally stupid’ and cannot have a child.

‘Did she sometimes want to scream in the middle of the night? Who didn’t?’

Her parents die. She finds herself pregnant at thirty-eight. Her husband does not want the child any more. Her doctor warns her about mongolism. In a way, all the characters in this novel suffer from mongolism. Emotional mongolism. Julian Barnes denies them intelligence, humour, wit. He also refuses to share their emotional life with us.

When she is seven months pregnant, Jean leaves Michael. She works as a waitress, and brings up her son. Uncle Leslie returns from America, but cannot help her. Michael gets news about Jean and Gregory from Leslie, but he does not call his wife back. Actually, he dies of a heart-attack at fifty-five, leaving Jean quite well-off. Once Gregory is old enough, she starts travelling. She is in her middle fifties, and goes to the Pyramids, to Europe, to China. The description of her view of China (limited as it is) is Julian Barnes’ first trip into communism. He is not highly interested, but does notice the iron curtain and the poverty.

Among other things, Jean traces down and visits Prosser’s widow, Olive Redpath. She learns that Prosser died ‘staring at the sun.’ He still visits her thoughts time and again, every time bringing her his courage to overwhelm fear and stare at death, fly into the sun. Jean’s son is very much like her. He gets a job selling life insurance, which is another way of staring at death. He also associates travel with flying and death, adding to the title of the novel a mythical dimension. Prosser, Jean, Leslie and Gregory himself are all one huge modern Icarus:

‘When he thought of travel, he also remembered Cadman the Aviator. In Shrewsbury, at the church of St Mary’s, Gregory had come across a commemorative tablet. The full circumstances of Cadman’s flight were not explained, but it appeared that in 1739 this modern Icarus had built himself a pair of wings, climbed to the top of the church and jumped off. He died, of course.’

Melting into light, drifting into death, Barnes’ characters (who are anything but heroes here) acquire a wisdom of extinction, which makes them unspeakably sad and lyrical.

A faint glimmer of suspense arises when Rachel, Gregory’s girl-friend, tries to seduce Jean, and has us wonder: if normal sex meant nothing to Jean, could she turn out to be a lesbian? When Jean is summoned by Rachel to describe her marriage, she remembers the Chinese ‘Marriage Act,’ particularly Article 12, which read:

‘Husband and wife are in duty bound to practise family planning.’

Rachel is puzzled by the connection, so Jean adds: ‘...we had a Chinese marriage.’ Julian Barnes is very careful with his words here, so he terms Rachel a ‘feminist’ once in a dozen pages or so. He uses ‘lesbians’ once, too. Anyway, the whole thing is a huge joke. Jean never ever sees the point of sex in her whole life. This is what Julian Barnes deliberately builds her into.

The second part of the novel ends with Leslie’s death and Jean’s memories of China. Both are rendered with a humour new to the book, which is past half-way towards its end already. She remembers errors of translation which, paradoxically, are more reactionary and disclose more than the communist speakers are aware of:

‘The temple was repented. We grow ladies. Here is the sobbing centre.’

She feels the rough life of the people imprisoned in communist China, but, the same as before, Barnes avoids probing the subject. He gracefully tiptoes out of another potentially hot topic, pretending he is above all that. The fire and laceration from Talking It Over, the wit in The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the blow surreptitiously dealt to the so-called scientific criticism in Flaubert’s Parrot have vanished. Here is a lazy Julian Barnes, eyes half closed, letting precious pretexts slip by, in favour of gentleness and peace. Instilled in his fiction, lyricism has a soothing effect.

The third and last part of the book takes place in the future (the point of reference is 1986). Jean is on the point of turning one hundred, and Gregory is sixty himself.

‘She had become, she realized, the mother of an old man.’

A poetic line pops up and becomes obviously quotable:

‘Sometimes she felt that a morning mist lay over his life and had never properly risen.’

The mist envelops everyone. Julian Barnes must have had a spell of short sightedness when he created the characters of Staring at the Sun. They are all remote, vague, mysterious, fugitive and reassuringly insufficient. The author seems to strike a bargain with the reader: Do not ask for more than I am willing to give (especially no exhausting sophisticated tricks), and I guarantee your satisfaction. This is a novel to make one feel at ease. Service for life. Meaning that the mood will last a long time, in spite of the apparently uninteresting wrapping.

Once again, the metaphor in the title is enlarged upon. Growing old, Jean is accomplishing a flight of her own towards the sun (end of life):

‘It was as if the oxygen supply had a small leak in it: things were becoming slower, and more general. The difference was that she knew it, and so could not share the ignorant joy of those long-dead fliers who parodied old age as they strained toward the sun.’

Gregory, who used to build planes as a child, is now brooding on suicide. We are in the third millennium. He constantly converses with a GPC (General Purposes Computer), heads for TAT (The Absolute Truth), wants to know everything about after death, learns nothing, realizes that computers are man-programmed machines, and loses interest in them. When Gregory wonders how people die, Julian Barnes attributes a very interesting sentence to his thoughts:

‘Writers died with writerly things on their lips, still wanting to be remembered, still unsure to the very last whether all those words they had written would do the trick.’

In the case of this novel, there is no trick. Relaxed placidity reigns.

Gregory’s dialogue with the computer vaguely reminds us of many grim dystopias, but his own thoughts are far more exciting, especially his speculations concerning God. Some of the possibilities connected to God’s reality evince Julian Barnes’ indomitable irony. Gregory deliberates, among other ideas, that maybe:

1) God exists but he has abandoned us;
2) God exists as long as we believe in him;
3) God did not create Man and the Universe, but inherited them;
4) he is taking a divine sabbatical;
5) has not existed so far, but will exist in the future;
6) God and Man are one;
7) there are several Gods;
8) our world is just the first, imperfect draft, a ‘botch’ God did not have the heart to destroy;
9) ‘we are all fragments of a God who destroyed himself at the beginning of Time.’

The text sparkles with ideas and definitely reminds the reader of Barnes’ wicked, devilish sense of humour, which can be so tiresome at times.

As a last resort, Gregory is offered a NDE pamphlet (Near Death Experiences), which is supposed to remove his fear of death. It turns out that what he wants to get rid of is death itself. Julian Barnes does his best here not to get serious. He soon switches to Jean’s thoughts, and one of them hints at the title of the book again. She remembers:

‘There was an old Chinese greeting, a courtesy from Asian times, to be used when you met someone unexpectedly. You stopped, bowed, and uttered the ceremonious compliment, ‘The sun has risen twice today.’ ‘

Everything ends by staring at the sun. Jean sums up her life as ordinary, though ‘more solitary than most.’ She seems to have shed her shell of stupidity, she sounds more normal in her old age, but solitude runs in the blood: Gregory’s only friend seems to be the soon despised computer. Quiet and solitary as she is, Jean has not had an empty life. She can think of her ‘seven private wonders,’ which are:

1) being born;
2) being loved (by your parents);
3) being disillusioned (Uncle Leslie’s aborted hyacinths);
4) getting married (not sex);
5) giving birth;
6) getting to be wise;
7) dying.

The end again. Death in the sun.

Giving up on his computer, Gregory comes to his mother with his fretting about death:

‘Is death absolute?’
‘Yes, dear.’ (...)
‘Is religion nonsense?’
‘Yes, dear.’
‘Is suicide permissible?’
‘No, dear.’

Gregory takes her words for granted. The horror is diminished by the sense of humour:

‘God was a motor-cyclist four hundred and fifty miles off the west coast of Ireland, goggles pulled down against the sea-spray, riding gently along as if the waves were sand-dunes. Do you believe that? Yes, thought Gregory, I believe that.’

This had been the delusion of a pilot who had stared at the sun. God parting the sea and walking on it. And the thought does not stop here:

‘God was a trick-cyclist, and Christ his son, when he ascended to Heaven, broke the world altitude record.’

Religion is defied. Language is defied. Mere sentences become vital questions (‘Why is the mink tenacious of life?’), and vital questions are deliberately ignored. The simple truth is that you merely have to stare at the sun. Christ broke the world altitude record when he ascended to Heaven, but doesn’t everybody do that, in their own private planes, at the hour of death?

Jean concludes, at the age of a hundred, that religion means ‘silly, inexperienced people setting off their own guns by mistake and frightening themselves.’ Just like Prosser. A life has ‘just enough light to see that nobody else is there.’ And, very seriously, man or God, ‘the sky is the limit.’ There is nothing after staring at the sun. ‘This is going to be the last Incident of my life,’ Jean thinks. Together with Gregory, on the same plane. Do they die? Do they live forever? The last symbol is open. Life is open. The universe is all open, ready to drip into the void. The only true thing in existence is the ultimate stare at the sun. Goodbye light? Hello light? I think Julian Barnes cannot quite make up his mind whether to be miserable or happy. He floats weightlessly in between.

So does this novel. A miracle of gentleness among races of witty statements and resourceful stories. An island of peace. The peace comes from the taming of whimsical story-telling into the very private, shy pose of poetry. Besieged by lyricism, the novelist loses in sharpness and gains in sensibility. He talks so very much less than elsewhere, yet the heart he makes up beats so fast. Heartless witticisms are counterbalanced here by a heartfelt, despairing tug at life. The novelist drowns in lyrical emotions to the point of neglecting his Desperado mind, determined (in the other books) to make a change, to stay on the top of the next millennium.


Metroland (1980) is Julian Barnes’ first novel. It is a tame narrative in the first person. The author is not up to any trick. It makes you guess he is merely trying to get the feel of fiction. He outlines the experience of an irreverent, francophone adolescence, the process of growing up, a first sex encounter, and – last but not least – marriage, happiness and a child. Life seems repetitive, so we cannot help wondering whether his baby daughter will some day reiterate his hatred of adulthood, and stay away emotionally from her parents, as he cruelly did in his time.

Metroland is an easy going book. Few quotable remarks, even fewer intense, haunting scenes. It leaves behind a guilty well being and a certain sadness of unavoidable, yet much to be desired monotony. Julian Barnes is not a Desperado yet. He recalls, trains his words, is in search of himself. The faint disillusionment we detect in the last words on the last page, almost like a poem left unfinished, suggests that he is still very young to fool around with whirlwinds of surprises, and the more obvious his hesitation and awkwardness, the more endearing.

Two sixteen-year-olds, Christopher Lloyd and Toni Barbarowski (suggestive name), display a violence of despise which faintly recalls A Clockwork Orange. Adolescence seems to be a heavy burden to bear. Towards the end of the book, we find out that its words and gestures may change, but the aggressivity remains the same. The plot begins in 1963, and presumably ends fourteen years later, when the two main characters are thirty. Chris narrates everything, and we only get his point of view. Apart from the verbal violence of the four (or more) letter words, there is not much experiment going around. There is a passing mention of T.S. Eliot having worked for a bank, and a mildly Joycean attempt at reversing the ‘franglais’ into a Frenchified English (which does not work). The book is good apprenticeship and relaxed reading.

The mottos of the two teen-agers, who are just opening their eyes to the world, are: ‘écraser l’infâme’ and ‘épater la bourgeoisie’. They even make up English words for them (‘écras’ and ‘épat’). Their childish insecurity is humiliating to themselves and disquieting to watch. Its outlet is French, unlike the criminal drive described by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, or even Doris Lessing in The Fifth Child. At their age, sex is the major mystery. The way Julian Barnes describes these two young boys’ psychology brings nothing new and is not particularly appealing.

Toni is the son of Polish Jewish parents, which gives him ‘a foreign name..., two languages, three cultures.’ On the other hand, Chris is proud of living in Metroland, a suburb of London:

‘As the Metropolitan Railway had pushed westward in the 1880s, a thin corridor of land was opened up with no geographical or ideological unity: you lived there because it was an area easy to get out of. The name Metroland – adopted during the First World War both by estate agents and the railway itself – gave the string of rural suburbs a spurious integrity.’

The boys’ occupation is mainly defiance. They are part of the ‘Anger generation.’ Chris, the narrator, who ends up by living in Metroland, too, remembers with irony:

‘Toni and I spent a hefty amount of time together being bored.’

He also remembers with a pang:

‘How does adolescence come back most vividly to you? What do you remember first? The quality of your parents; a girl; your first sexual tremor; success or failure at school; some still unconfessed humiliation; happiness; unhappiness; or, perhaps, a trivial action which first revealed to you what you might better become? I remember things.’

The memories are detailed, chronological, stuffed with a mass of details which are not much use.

In 1968, Chris goes to Paris for six months. It is the famous time of ‘les événements,’ the student riots, but ‘I didn’t actually see anything.’ He is twenty-one and a virgin. He spends his grant in Paris studying ‘The Importance and Influence of British Styles of Acting in the Paris Theatre 1789-1850,’ although he is aware that ‘no British actor in his right mind would have risked his skin over there while the revolution was on.’ After the first month he meets Annick, who takes care of his virginity. He meets her while she is reading Mountolive (third volume of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet). She works in a photographic library, and Chris soon finds out the limited range of her intellectual abilities. Once he sees through her, the enchantment fades. She has played her part. He meets Marion almost at once, and she is to be his wife later on. The book ends with their image in 1977, living in Metroland, together with Amy, their baby daughter. Chris is ‘content’ at last, ‘to be with my own skin.’ Burgess’ hero, Alec, gives up crime (equating adolescence) precisely at the same moment, when he decides to look for a wife, to have a child. ‘Happiness’ does not sound as boring as Chris used to imagine. The teenager has grown up, though not old. Not yet.

Chris ends up happily married, ironically back in Metroland, working in advertising, then as an editor, waiting for the following age. Toni stays irreverent and defiant. Oliver, in Talking It Over, is probably his logical follower. Chris goes to a reunion with his ex-school fellows, and realizes how much he has changed. He is more tolerant, has lost his edge–unlike Toni. Is that good? Bad? The author has us puzzled here.

‘Everything is orderly, comforting, yet strangely alive.’

This book is more a statement than a story. Teen-agers do grow up. Beware while you are still there, defying parents, teachers, fellows. You will become one of them. So does Chris, in a very smooth way, with no bumps in the road, no suspense, no sparkle to kindle any emotional flame. For a first novel, Metroland is O.K. Compared to Flaubert’s Parrot (its very opposite), it is the mere finger that points at the beginning of the path.


The Porcupine (1992) is Julian Barnes’ attempt at mixing literature and politics. As a novel, after Staring at the Sun it is disappointing. As far as political insight is concerned, it displays all the Western prejudices and commonplaces, but none of the insight we hope to gain when we realize what the book is about. It is a somewhat superficial text, mixing bits of insufficient information, immersed in an unconvincing atmosphere.

Stoyo Petkanov is the ex-president of a country that has just struggled free from communism. The only frighteningly accurate truth that Barnes conveys in his novel is the horror that the old system renews itself, however hard people may try to get rid of it. Some remarks are correct. On the whole, Petkanov’s trial is dull and shows no deep understanding of the real communist hell. The author is lazy, and any well informed reader (to say nothing of those who actually lived under communism) can easily outsmart him. The text is neither politics nor literature. It looks more like a TV and newspaper collage.

Chronology is linear, and there is no Desperado trick all through the text. It looks like very tame fiction, but, then, tricklessness may be a trick in itself. ‘The old man’ (Stoyo Petkanov) is confined on the sixth floor of a building in the ‘capital he had bossed for so long.’ The women march against the lack of food. The surroundings look very much like Bulgaria (mainly from the strong Russian influence). The author talks at one point about unheated apartments and ‘rich foreigners’ staying at Sheraton Hotel and experiencing a ‘brief match-flare of guilt.’ The whole book exhales the same relief, which spells: ‘I have never actually been there, thank God I was born somewhere else.’ Solzhenitsyn built and made us experience the extent of terror and disaster from the inside. Barnes skims at the surface, trying to look knowledgeable. This is the one novel he wrote which would have benefited from the mechanism of censorship, because communist censorship would have forced the author to suggest, rather than state.

The facts of the story are that the Communist Party has changed its name (not its spots) into Socialist, while the opposition never had the time or chance to come to life again. Nothing much has changed. The new generation of leaders is made up of former communists’ offsprings. Such is Peter Solinsky, appointed Prosecutor General in Petkanov’s trial. He is a professor of Law, son of a former communist declared undesirable. He married Maria, daughter of an anti-Fascist fighter, and his file improved. But Maria ends up divorcing him, as a gesture of protest against his defeating Petkanov. She served her purpose, he is not in the least heartbroken.

Barnes talks about a history of Dacians invading the country millennia ago. Now, Dacians lived in Romania (spelt with ‘o,’ not with ‘u,’ as Barnes does), and were never known as invading people. Quite the reverse. And this is not the only misleading bit of information. The country is in perfect chaos and misery, which is called here ‘the changeover from a controlled economy to a market economy.’ We can see no change whatsoever, which is exasperating. Petkanov thinks of ‘Nicolae and Elena,’ who, he feels, were killed by Romanians out of fear. Everything Barnes states sounds false and yet so true at the same time. Misunderstanding can exasperate those who understand too well.

Gorbachev is often accused by this tyrant who is made to defend himself, and is almost allowed to get away with it. The trial often risks becoming a sham. The political dilemma of the country could easily be that of Romania, and proves that Barnes has done his homework reading carefully. But what he adds as a product of his own imagination sounds wrong:

‘The Communist Party voted to suspend its leading role in the nation’s political and economic development, renamed itself the Socialist Party, urged a Front for National Salvation involving all main political organisations, and when this was turned down, called for elections as soon as possible.’

Truth and conjecture clash. When an insider reads this book, he feels deep frustration, may even be offended by his personal hell being turned into a circus. Barnes continues, quite accurately:

‘Which the opposition parties didn’t want, or at least not yet, since their structures were rudimentary and the Socialists (formerly Communists) still controlled state radio and television and most of the publishing houses and printing works, but the opposition was obliged to take its chance and won enough seats to put the Socialists (formerly Communists) on the defensive, although the Socialists (formerly Communists) still had a majority, which western commentators found incomprehensible, and the government was still inviting the opposition parties to join in and save the nation, but the opposition parties kept saying, No, you fucked it up, you sort it out, and if you can’t sort it out, resign, and then things stumbled on with half-reforms...’

I can’t help wondering whether the author actually understands the human agony of the words he uses. The tone is offensive and inappropriate. Half-reforms are a source of tragedy, of sacrificed generations. The same as the unheated apartments, power cuts, lack of running water. ‘What is the number of your Swiss bank account?’ is a question Ceausescu died (in Romania) without answering. Petkanov denies it, and there is no more talk about it. All the details are correctly used, but the picture on the whole fails, irritates, is pitifully empty.

The title is derived from Peter Solinsky’s words before beginning the trial:

‘Of course I shall be careful. Look,’ he said, putting down his briefcase and holding up his hands, ‘I am wearing my porcupine gloves.’

Whatever that means. Treat communism with appropriate gloves? Preserve the nightmare? Barnes alone knows.

The students and other demonstrators shout slogans which may fit Barnes’ idea of a sense of humour, but have nothing to do with the mood of really desperate demonstrations:

Thank you for the price rises.
Thank you for the food shortages.
Give us ideology not bread.
Strengthen the Security Police.
Thank you for the bullets.
Please may we join the Security Forces.
More bullets for the soldiers...

The novelist ignores the urgency of the change from communism to whatever followed. He imagines he is entitled to take it lightly merely because it has come within his range of information. He appropriates a subject that turns into the genius let out of the bottle and crushes him.

At the end of the book, Petkanov is sentenced, though not for his real crimes, and he defies the Prosecutor General, speaking in the name of communism, almost:

‘You can’t get rid of me. Do you see?’

For how long, nobody knows. Barnes ends his novel (if a novel it is) with the image of a grandmother, soaked in the rain, loyal to a photo of Lenin that she is holding. Good ending. Heart-rending implication: the old have to die before the yet unborn can begin to change. Is Julian Barnes aware that this implies the massacre of two generations in cold blood? The book smiles. What is the reader supposed to do?

Between humour (sometimes aborted) and lyricism, it slowly becomes obvious that Julian Barnes’ witticisms feed on well hidden feelings. Since he will not go back to the 18th century sentimental novel, he has to devise his own path. His books are sharp, yet endearing in an unidentifiable way. They hesitate to commiserate. Rather than sympathize, Barnes acts like a real Desperado and outlines in detail the Down syndrome of sensibility.



Vrei sa studiezi limba engleza la facultate? - Intra la www.limbi-straine.ro !  | RAAS - Visit the American Studies Website!

LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


Home | BAC/Teze | Biblioteca | Referate | Games | Horoscop | Muzica | Versuri | Limbi straine | DEX

Modele CV | Wallpaper | Download gratuit | JOB & CARIERA | Harti | Bancuri si perle | Jocuri Barbie

Iluzii optice | Romana | Geografie | Chimie | Biologie | Engleza | Psihologie | Economie | Istorie | Chat


Joburi Studenti JOB-Studenti.ro

Oportunitati si locuri de munca pentru studenti si tineri profesionisti - afla cele mai noi oferte de job!

Online StudentOnlineStudent.ro

Viata in campus: stiri, burse, cazari, cluburi, baluri ale bobocilor - afla totul despre viata in studentie!

Cariere si modele CVStudentCV.ro

Dezvoltare personala pentru tineri - investeste in tine si invata ponturi pentru succesul tau in cariera!


 > Contribuie la proiect - Trimite un articol scris de tine

Gazduit de eXtrem computers | Project Manager: Bogdan Gavrila (C)  


Toate Drepturile Rezervate - ScoalaOnline Romania