Magazine article The Spectator

Asking for More Oliver

Magazine article The Spectator

Asking for More Oliver

Article excerpt


by Julian Barnes

Cape, 15.99, pp. 249

So here they are again, the three loquacious loonies, the three endearing flounderers, the three knowledgeable but oh so unwise monkeys. I didn't think we'd heard the last of them. Well, did you? Did you?

Trouble with Barnes is he gathers you into his gang, gets you talking like they do, writing like he does. Well not altogether like he does because he's rather good at it and he's got this big-screen view of the wankpit, of the unheroic, qvertired, impossible-to-be-happy-in world. Am I right? Am I right? I am right.

Did you though? Did you think you'd seen the last of them in Vol 1, (i.e. Talking it Over?) He never said. Remember. Remember portly Stuart, hiding behind the net curtains in the provincial French village watching ex-wife Gillian sweeping her steps and then sweeping way out into the road, every morning, baby under arm, just like all the other girls? Well, she's half-French isn't she? Her mother's all-French and if you ask me it's Mme Wyatt who's been half the trouble. I don't think Mme Wyatt is grave and wise and resigned and neither does she. Nor does Barnes in the end. She's old and yearning and secret and sad.

So - think of old Stu in France behind the dentelles, immortalising Gill with his box-Brownie, Vol 1. And Oliver, Stu's once best friend and now Gill's second husband; whip-lashed, brilliant, damaged, impossible Oliver, bawling her out in the middle of the street and landing her one on the kisser with the car-keys then screeching off in the knock-kneed Peug. Barnes has to tell it all over again in a few pages at the start of Love etc, (Vol 2). Just as well he's like I said a good writer. Oliver says, `Thought you'd seen the last of me didn't you?'

Oliver's the one we really care about in what he might describe as this poo-scary Vale of Tears. Wonderful life-crazed wicked Oliver. Wants the Nobel Prize but has a long way to go and rather further by the end of Vol 2. But what a portrait! What a dazzler! What a talker! Coleridge, stand down.

Jealous though. Depressed and jealous. Poo-scared. Wants Gillian, gets Gillian but . . ; Gillian in many ways still a mess, but knows Oliver, loves Oliver. Ten years on, (in Love, etc), everyone says how heroic, working away at her picture-restoration, paying at the Sainsburys' check-out, taking the children to music. Not grown up yet though, whatever it looks like. Bit true even - she knew what was behind those curtains and deep down what she wanted. And she fixed Stu with a victim - and then what about letting all that happen with the dishwasher! Almost in the dishwasher. Just after it was all stacked. She's cracking up. Mind you she's had much to bear even if she is half-French.

The French love Barnes. He wrote a book with a title that was half-French called Flaubert's Parrot. Good wheeze. Bagsie, bagsie. They gave him all the big prizes and they'll have to invent an even bigger one for Love, etc which, like Mme Wyatt, tends to get more and more French as time rolls along. The final chapters are going to be a French feast. A chateaubriand et truffes. They are an analysis of the impossibility of human happiness expressed through the media of wit and farce. Sort of cross-Channel Sterne. Well, Sterne was cross-Channel wasn't he, he spent a lot of time over there behind the net curtains. Sort of Sterne-between-the-sheets. …

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