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Book Review

On Human Bondage

Julian Barnes
pp 240; Jonathan Cape

Raymond Carver titled a collection of stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; the point was that his characters talked about anything but. In some ways, Pulse is Julian Barnes's very English improvisation of that idea. You don't always think of Barnes as an autobiographical writer, but it is hard to avoid that impulse here. This perfectly weighted collection feels like a companion volume to his erudite and profound meditation on death, Nothing to be Frightened of. Only eight months after that book appeared in March 2008, Barnes's wife of nearly 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, died after a short illness. This book, like all his others since they first met in 1978, is dedicated "for Pat"; it is concerned with aloneness, and its antithesis, love.

The book is divided into two halves. The first nine stories, if they are love stories at all, seem to be all about disconnection. The five that make up the second half are delicately concerned with each of the senses, the curious apparatus of touch and sight and smell and hearing and taste that represent all we have to get close to another person. At the junction of these two halves is a story called "Marriage Lines", in which a recently widowed man returns to the Isle of Mull, where he had enjoyed some of his happiest times with his wife, walking and birdwatching. The narrator's reflex is to use the collective "their luggage" and so on, but even as he does so "he knew he must start getting used to the singular pronoun instead. This was the grammar of his life from now on."

It is an affecting little story of absence, the title referring to the habit of people in the Western Isles to weave their biography into the patterns on a sweater, telling of "fishing and faith, of the sea and the sand". The series of zig-zags on the shoulder, jagged ups and downs, represent the lines of a marriage. In the story, the narrator's metropolitan habits of anxiety and introspection are set against an older, more accepting order of emotions. There is no resolution, only the understanding that "he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him. And in the months and years ahead, he expected grief to teach him many other things as well. This was just the first of them."

The dialogue, "At Phil & Joanna's", broken into four parts and set at a north London dinner party, is an extension of the discursive tone Barnes established in his novels Talking It Over and Love, etc, sharp interrogations of the way we chat and miss each other in the dark. Each part begins with a listing of the subjects under discussion that evening: "We had talked about SAD, the credit crunch, the rise in unemployment and the possibility of increased social tension…" and deftly goes on to several more the waning of Obama, the possibility of happiness, the difference between a simile and a metaphor, the evolution of sexual mores. At various points, someone says: "As I was trying to say, we don't talk about love." There is invariably a long silence of ellipses, before they go on to talk, with practised wit, about bendy buses and bankers' bonuses.

It is these ellipses that Barnes seems at pains to articulate in the second half of the book, in the stories about the senses. They are different in tone and texture, ranging from an account of a deaf-mute portrait painter trying only to connect, to the fatal attraction of Garibaldi, the liberator, who spied his unfaithful wife first through a telescope from the deck of a ship and, fatefully trusting his vision, had his men set him ashore.

Barnes is a master at establishing the intimacies of mortality in this kind of relationship, forever testing the limits to which our faith in human connection might stretch. He demonstrated that ability most memorably in the final half-chapter of his A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, the one devoted to the possibilities of love, which made all the rest worthwhile. He seems to be examining those possibilities again in the second half of this poignant collection, though the implication, the hope, is perhaps more fragile than ever.



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