Magazine article The Spectator

The Gentle Touch

Magazine article The Spectator

The Gentle Touch

Article excerpt


Julian Barnes

Cape, £16.99, pp. 228,

ISBN 9780224091084

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 notquite-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, selfconsciously, 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. …

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