Oliver’s Riffs

Charles Nicholl

  • Talking It Over by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 288 pp, £13.99, July 1991, ISBN 0 224 03157 0

Julian Barnes is a writer of rare intelligence. He catches the detail of contemporary life with an uncanny, forensic skill. His style is a model of cool and precision. He is often very funny, and if his humour tends somewhat to jokiness, then at least the jokes are good ones. At his best – in Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters – he uses his skills as a literary entertainer to put across complex, resonant ideas.

One of Barnes’s perennial themes is the intractability of people and events, the difficulty of recapturing, or even really understanding, the past. Flaubert’s Parrot is an inspired toying with this problem. We stand before the dull, heavily-visited museum of a great writer’s reputation, then just as we are about to file in through the portals, Barnes whips us round to some hidden side-door, and reveals a whole new treasure-house of arcane lumber and unexpected serendipities. By the end of the book, we know more than we did about Flaubert, yet also we know how little we can know. ‘We are too impertinent with the past, counting on it in this way for a reliable frisson. Why should it play our game?’

In the History of the World, Barnes elaborates and extends this game, both in his use of the unexpected side-door (as in ‘The Stowaway’, an eye-witness account of Noah’s Ark by a fellow-travelling woodworm) and in his meditations on the artistic representation of history (as in ‘Shipwreck’, which excavates the story behind Géricault’s famous painting, ‘The Raft of the “Medusa” ’.) Salman Rushdie sums up Barnes’s achievement eloquently: ‘what he offers us is the novel as footnote to history, as subversion of the given, as brilliant elaborate doodle around the margins of what we know we think about what we think we know.’

Another view of the History of the World is that it is a rather uneven collection of short stories held together by the cheeky compendiousness of the title. But then one could also say that this too is part of Barnes’s point: that there is no feasible ‘history of the world’, only the vicissitudes of lived experience, which these ‘chapters’ convey as well as any others. The nearest we get to ‘history’ is an eerie kind of recurrence, but in the business of life we are always beginners, and we find its problems no easier to deal with now than we did in the time of the Ark.

Talking it over continues this broad vein of enquiry. It asks the same nagging historical questions. How do we know what really happened? How can anyone, even someone who was there, say what it was really like? In this case, the event itself, the bit of history we are dealing with, is small, private, fictional and trivial. Perhaps this is part of the joke – that the whole thing is a storm in a teacup, an empty balloon of chatter – but sometimes I found those central questions modulating into another: do we care what really happened?

The book is essentially a three-hander. It begins as a kind of spoof yuppie version of Jules et Jim: ‘that French film where they all go bicycling together’. The reference is made in order to laugh at the character who mentions it – ‘how pudgily typical of Stuart to choose Jules et Jim as his cultural reference point’ – but the French-cinema allusion is apt for the book. It is not quite Truffaut, but it is certainly rather Eric Rohmer: another punctilious anatomy of the middle-class heart and its vagaries.

The three characters are drawn with the fine nib we have come to expect from Barnes. There is Stuart, the practical, bovine, smart-casual young banker: ‘all that’s stopping him being welcomed into the great freemasonry of the over-fifties is that he happens to be thirty-two.’ His main interest in life is money: ‘I showed respect to money, and money paid me back, money helped me.’ Then there is Oliver, his best friend but in many ways his opposite: louche, sexy, camp, cultured – Richard E. Grant to Stuart’s Paul McGann. Oliver teaches at an iffy language school off the Edgware Road. He is into opera, food, wine, the imperatives of good taste. He uses the word ‘crepuscular’ a lot, and speaks in a froth of polyglot phrase-spinning: ‘hie me to the vomatorium pronto’. And then, oscillating between them, there is pretty, half-French Gillian, the picture-restorer, whose clear-sighted, cautious, deliberately dull voice sounds like the sanest of the three, but proves, in the book’s tight and unsettling dénouement, to be the most powerful, even the most exploitative. ‘Listen,’ says Oliver, ‘Gill runs the whole goddam market, always has. Women do. Sometimes not in the short term, but always in the long term.’

The actual story of Talking it over could be written on the back of a postage stamp: a triangular story of two best friends and the woman who gives her love first to one and then to the other. The book’s interest lies not in its story but in its treatment. The form Barnes has chosen, the mode of enquiry, is the dramatic monologue. Each of the three characters speaks in turn, giving his or her view of the business, with occasional interpolations from secondary characters: mother-in-law, old girlfriend, landlady etc. One of the funniest interpolations is from a girl who works in a flowershop: ‘I like flowers, but I won’t stay here long. Linzi won’t neither. We can’t stand the people that buy them.’

The monologue is a hard thing to carry off. It can induce a reaction akin to embarrassment: these characters you do not particularly like, standing too close to you, buttonholing you. All fiction takes place as a kind of one-sided conversation somewhere inside your skull, but I feel uneasy when a character pops up at me on page one, introduces himself (‘Hi, I’m Oliver’), and offers me a cigarette. There is also in the monologue an in-built tendency to self-indulgence. Oliver’s laboured metaphor – ‘Life is like invading Russia’ – goes on for ten lines. It is justified, I suppose, as an insight into Oliver’s thought-habits. It is, as he puts it, one of his ‘riffs’. But when do people actually think and talk like this? Only in monologues, really.

What the monologues do provide, and what Barnes always handles so well, is a mass of cross-currents and subtle distortions. Talking it over is a skein of verbal infidelities woven like a cat’s cradle around the central emotional infidelity. This is aptly summed up by the book’s epigraph, an old Russian proverb culled from the memoirs of Shostakovich: ‘He lies like an eye-witness.’ Gillian’s work as a picture-restorer provides another angle: on the one hand, ‘you discover what you didn’t know was there,’ but on the other, you never know when you have got back to the original, ‘real’ picture:

There is no ‘real’ picture under there waiting to be revealed. What I’ve always said about life itself. We may scrape and spit and dab and rub, until the point when we declare that the truth stands plain before us ... Look no fly-shit! But it isn’t so! It’s just my word against everybody else’s.

As in all Barnes’s books, wit and readability carry the day: the magpie pleasures of his bons mots and one-liners. ‘Stuart on a double date is definitely cognate with a breadstick still in its wrapper.’ Two men at adjacent urinals, ‘each staring grimly ahead at some Mexican firing squad’. The jokes themselves modulate and reverse, so that Oliver’s simile for sexual incapacity – ‘like trying to ease an oyster into a parking meter’ – reverses into a trope for feminine froideur: ‘like trying to ease a parking meter into an oyster shell’.

What Barnes also achieves is a cleverly phased intimacy with his three characters. They begin like dummies seated on the novelist’s knee, but they grow into people, and – as people do – they become likeable for the very tics and quirks and affectations that at first put you off. These tics and quirks are central to all Barnes’s books. They are the mainspring of life’s unpredictability, the lessons we never learn.

This is a minor work in the Barnes canon: enjoyable but not very challenging. He is, as always, a superb ironist, a connoisseur of middling, muddling, modern England. He cups his ear to the fingernail-scrape of social awkwardness, to the discrete formulations of snobbery and guilt, to our designer-label judgments on one another. Stuart is ‘the sort of person who knows Mozart’s K467 as the Elvira Madigan concerto’, and Oliver is the sort of person who notices these things. I have a feeling that this book is aimed a little too complacently at the sort of person who buys the latest Julian Barnes to read on holiday.