Ironies accumulate in the work of Julian Barnes, like – well, perhaps we’d better not attempt to say what they are like, since Love, etc contains several admonitions on the dangers of metaphor, of likening one thing to another, and on the possible outcome of paying too much attention to what is not real. Most of the warnings fall from the mouth of the doggedly pragmatic Stuart, whose rough ride in the world of marriage, love and romance has sent him scurrying towards all that is solid, material, practical. ‘I’ve come to some conclusions in my time,’ he tells us:
For instance, I’m suspicious of people comparing things with other things. In the days when I was more impressed with Oliver, I used to think that this mania of his proved he had not just better powers of description than I had, but also a better understanding of the world. Now I think all these fancy comparisons were a way of not looking at the original object, of not looking at the world. They were just distractions.
Stuart’s brusque rejection of ‘fancy comparisons’ neatly illustrates one Barnesian irony: patient attention to detail and the laborious tracking-down of verifiable facts don’t lead to the unfolding of truth but to a collision of different realities, each one of which may hold a certain emotional, linguistic or even logical validity. Faced with that paradox, why not indulge in a little stylistic flourish? This simple but occasionally unpalatable awareness, with its patina of watered down Post-Modernism, was central to Flaubert’s Parrot. The novel carefully teased out the ironies of Flaubert’s life (listing, at one point, all the things which he compared himself to – a bear, a lizard, a cigar, a piece of seaweed, a pickled gherkin) at the same time as it revealed the investigator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, to be a doctor with an unfaithful wife. An obsessive with an axe to grind, you might assume. But Braithwaite’s passion for Flaubert stemmed precisely from his own confusions; his loving research was not so much a way to make sense of his own life as a chance to embrace the authenticity of doubt.
These obsessives litter Barnes’s fiction, yet he leaves us in no doubt of his commitment to rationality, his proper regard for addressing and observing the world with intelligence and discrimination. There is a highly developed sense of the importance of manners in all of Barnes’s books, a politeness that is more intellectual than social. Despite the casual evidence of erudition, the occasionally rococo vocabulary, the overwhelming sense that the author is in possession of all the facts and will release them however he chooses and as slowly as he likes, Barnes is rarely condescending. More important, he pays his audience the considerable compliment of declining to pretend that things are not as they are.
In Talking It Over (1991), the novel to which Love, etc is a sequel, we met three principal characters. Stuart, Gillian and Oliver spoke to us directly (more about that ‘us’ later), as each of them presented their version of the catastrophic events that now, almost a decade later, lead us back to their doors, to pick up the story in Love, etc. Flamboyant Oliver and shy Stuart, best friends since school, reach their early thirties in Talking It Over without any appreciable disruption to their roles as comic and straight man. Stuart meets Gillian via an introductions service, and falls in love with her. They marry, at which exact point, in ‘those first glistening moments of nuptial bliss’, Oliver also falls in love with her. Oliver presses his suit, Gillian gradually capitulates, Stuart is broken-hearted. Gillian and Stuart divorce, Oliver and Gillian marry. Exeunt omnes, Stuart to a banker’s life in Washington, the second pair of newly-weds to downshifted bliss in rural France.
Except that Talking It Over ends on a more ambiguous note than that. Stuart, who is unable to accept his loss, turns up incognito in France, and takes to observing family life – his stolen future, as he sees it – from a hotel window. Gillian spots him, and engineers a public slanging match with Oliver which she knows Stuart will witness and which, a little illogically we might think, she hopes will disabuse him of any notion that she might be enjoying a blissful conjugal life and cure him for ever of wishful thinking. Stuart’s reaction goes unrecorded, but Oliver raps Gillian smartly across the face with a handful of keys and roars off in his ancient Peugeot, possibly running over a deaf dog on the way, possibly never to return. The final words of the book are given to a Frenchwoman who is party to this sorry scene: ‘Sont fous, les Anglais.’ Indeed.
Wind on ten or so years to the new novel. A cheery ‘Hello!’ from Stuart. More cautious reactions from Oliver (‘I’m Oliver, by the way. Yes, I know you know. I could tell you remembered me’) and Gillian (‘You may or may not remember me. Is there some problem?’). There is a familiar look to the pages – first name emboldened, a paragraph, or a page or two of first-person confession, recollection, theorising – and a gentle recapitulation of what is referred to, to Oliver’s horror, as ‘The Story So Far’.
The intervening decade has – to use the novel’s recurring trope of the market economy – seen credits and debits, booms and busts and gains and losses afflict each of the characters in different ways. Stuart is wealthy, but has a second failed marriage. Oliver and Gillian live in genteel poverty, but their marriage survives and they have two daughters. First appearances suggest that Stuart has ‘Moved On’. Not only has he made a canny foray into organic groceries: he has developed what might be called his self-esteem. Another marital bust-up hasn’t done for him: he has lived in the States, the land of eternal optimists, serial marriers and career opportunists. ‘Transparency, efficiency, virtue, convenience and flexibility’ are his keywords, and though he claims that they pertain to the provenance and sale of free-range pork, wild honey and muddy carrots, they are clearly part of the way he has decided to see himself. Only the insistent undertow of bitterness and self-righteousness alerts us to the fact that transparency is almost the last thing we can expect in this novel, from him or anyone else.
While Stuart has (in some sense) flourished and blossomed, Oliver has wilted. Long-term unemployment – his screenplays have remained largely in his head, his scant income derives from low-grade English tuition, flogging tea-towels and stuffing fliers through letterboxes – has not suited his louche personality as well as we might have thought it would. In Talking It Over, we are told by a walk-on part that he’s ‘a bit like Jimmy White’; here, that brand of cheeky, ne’er-do-well charm and rakish recklessness is seen to age badly. Even Oliver’s florid vocab palls these days, now that we’ve all worked out what ‘crepuscular’ and ‘sempiternal’ and ‘steatopygous’ mean. The recklessness is edged with desperation, the drolleries are flat and poignant, the voice is repetitive and beseeching. Oliver, who was once too clever by half, now appears too clever for his own good: his cleverness has made him look like a fool.
One of the sophistications of Barnes’s narrative arrangements – aside from the central conceit that revelation leads to concealment, straightforwardness to complication – is that the characters’ ability to eavesdrop on one another changes continually, as does their knowledge of what is going on. When they reintroduce themselves at the beginning of the novel the effect is almost Beckettian, voices criss-crossing through the darkness; the characters bicker with one another and their complicity deliberately excludes the audience. ‘What’s that companionable warble from the neighbouring wankpit, that snuffle and stamp from the padded loosebox? Could it be my dear, my old – old as in the sense of former – friend Stuart?’ Oliver enquires, before he unpicks Stuart’s first monologue, and before Gillian intercedes to keep their minds – or their conversation – on the matter in hand. ‘What sort of impression do you think you’re giving?’ she cries. ‘If we’re getting into this again, we have to play by the rules. No talking amongst ourselves.’
If the characters are forbidden to talk among themselves, then who are they talking to? That, again, appears to be a rather fluid matter, and at times it seems that the trio, far from simply chatting to an imagined reader, are engaged in something a little more interactive. ‘Show the photograph. Get him to show the photograph,’ urges Terri, Stuart’s second ex-wife, and the snap – of Gillian covered in blood, standing in a French village, captured by Stuart’s zoom lens and kept fast thereafter in his wallet – is duly produced. A chapter suddenly veers off into a digression about contraception. Stuart, Gillian and Oliver are entreated to give one-line definitions of love. A child reacts as if being interrogated by a kindly social worker. Who are all these intrusive questioners, these mysteriously manipulative onlookers?
In some sense, they are all necessary witnesses to the unfolding drama: therapists, journalists, doctors, documentary makers. Barnes makes fun of the confessional genre, the imperative that encourages people to unburden themselves in the belief that if they state and restate their point of view, their account will gain significance and somehow exonerate them. His characters share a religious desire to be viewed entire and absolved, and a very human corollary, the hope that they will only have to provide an edited version of the facts. In the fantasy of heaven that Barnes created in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, the narrator confided one of his abiding concerns:
I wanted to be judged, do you see? It’s what we all want, isn’t it? I wanted, oh, some kind of summing-up, I wanted my life looked at. We don’t get that, not unless we appear in court or are given the once-over by a psychiatrist, neither of which had come my way and I wasn’t exactly disappointed, seeing as I wasn’t a criminal or a nutter. No, I’m a normal person, and I just wanted what a lot of normal people want. I wanted my life looked at. Do you see?
In Love, etc, the only way we can look at the characters’ lives is by examining what they tell us, and by listening to what others tell us about them. In Talking It Over, the incidental voices were more random, more comic than they are here. Love, etc returns frequently to the cool rationalities of Mme Wyatt, Gillian’s French mother, to the sassy, bullshit-detecting judgments of the American, Terri, and to the aggrieved bewilderment of Ellie, Stuart’s English date. By turns impassioned, impatient, bored, exasperated and indignant, this secondary trio alert us to the immense egotism of lovers, seducers and seduced, cuckolds, husbands and wives whose second outing simply promises the same arid variations. Oliver has stolen Gillian. Stuart will steal her back. Gillian will attempt to ‘manage love’. They will all tell us about it. Who do these people think they are?
If the possibilities for plot development and readerly sympathy seem limited, then we have not reckoned with Barnes’s capacity for compassion, and for communicating compassion to his readers, Love, etc begins as a light romantic comedy, replete with partner swaps, deceptions and revenges, but Barnes holds up another, more sinister mirror in which we see what we become when we start to love, and to substitute love for responsibility. Stuart, the wilfully prosaic takeover merchant, belligerently asserts his rights; Gillian, the self-appointed coper, scours the everyday for what will endure, coolly assessing future possibilities; Oliver gabbles his way into depression, then lies with his face to the wall, fearing that what he once appropriated will be taken back.
Barnes’s patsies are disputatious, theoretical, assertive; their weakening grasp on events encourages them to shore up the fragments rather than admit that they are lost. Romantic love – perhaps the cruellest illusion we can inflict on one another – requires the continual sacrifice of doubt and ambivalence to keep itself going. Yet doubt, in the face of another person, is all we can ever hope to have.
And doubt intrudes at the end of the novel, as we are presented with two versions of Stuart and Gillian’s eventual and inevitable coupling. (‘When the writer provides two different endings to his novel ... does the reader seriously imagine he is being “offered a choice” and that the work is reflecting life’s variable outcomes? Such a “choice” is never real, because the reader is obliged to consume both endings.’ So grumbles the zealous narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot, before suggesting a scheme whereby novels contain a number of sealed envelopes at their backs.) Gillian’s plan to ‘set Stuart free’ by demonstrating her own unhappiness at the end of Talking It Over seemed unconvincing. By the end of Love, etc, Gillian is similarly doubtful:
If, instead, he’d seen the truth – that Oliver and I were happy – as we were, then – would that have set him free? Would he have had a completely different life? Might he have never come back? It’s that unanswered, unanswerable question about the lives we could have led and didn’t; the abandoned alternatives, the forgotten choices. What do you think?
We are not characters in a novel and so our thoughts go unrecorded.