‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’

Thomas Jones

  • Pulse by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 228 pp, £16.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 224 09108 4
  • Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
    Vintage, 250 pp, £8.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 09 952374 1

The 21-year-old narrator of Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland (1980), suggests that ‘everyone has a perfect age to which they aspire, and they’re only truly at ease with themselves when they get there. I suppose with most people it’s between 25 and 35.’ For him, though, he imagines it’s ‘a sprightly 65’. The narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Geoffrey Braithwaite, is a sprightly 65, or thereabouts. He’s a retired, widowed doctor, whose wife, Ellen (note her initials), was serially unfaithful: in other words, he’s a sprightly updating of Charles Bovary, however much he would resist the comparison. In his defence, Braithwaite might point out that ‘Charles n’était pas de ceux qui descendent au fond des choses,’ while he is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of which of two competing museums in Flaubert’s hometown of Croisset houses the stuffed parrot that the novelist borrowed from the Natural History Museum in Rouen to perch on his desk while he wrote ‘Un coeur simple’. The answer is almost certainly neither. ‘Do ironies accrete around the ironist?’ Braithwaite asks. It’s a rhetorical question, with – ironically – more facets than the man who asks it realises. The novel’s title has many, proliferating referents, but not the least of them is its narrator: Braithwaite himself is Flaubert’s parrot, not only because he’s always quoting him but also because he is living vicariously through his obsession with him, having already in his marriage recapitulated a bathetic version of the plot of Flaubert’s most famous book – but he lacks the self-awareness to see any of this.

Barnes, on the other hand, who turned 65 last month, beams self-awareness like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. He knows that he, too, is one of Flaubert’s parrots, like many – Braithwaite would probably say all – novelists of the past 150 years, but at least he acknowledges it. One of the many people Braithwaite takes to task for getting Flaubert wrong is the author of

a well-praised first novel in which the narrator – who is both sexually inexperienced and an amateur of French literature – comically rehearses to himself the best way to kiss a girl without being rebuffed: ‘With a slow, sensual, irresistible strength, draw her gradually towards you while gazing into her eyes as if you had just been given a copy of the first, suppressed edition of Madame Bovary.’

I thought this was quite neatly put, indeed rather amusing. The only trouble is, there’s no such thing as a ‘first, suppressed edition of Madame Bovary’.

You don’t have to have read Metroland to be fairly sure that the ‘well-praised first novel’ in question is Barnes’s own: not only because the quoted sentence sounds suspiciously as though it were written by Braithwaite (and therefore by Barnes) but because it’s an opportunity for intertextual self-correction that few writers – especially one as susceptible to the charms of irony as Barnes is; especially in the mid-1980s – could resist.

This process of open and continuing self-referentiality isn’t one that Barnes has given up on: far from it. In ‘Carcassonne’, the penultimate piece in his new collection Pulse, he uses events from three stories earlier in the book to illustrate the oddness of the business of falling in love, ‘the most violent expression of taste known to us’. The historical event that triggers these reflections is Garibaldi’s spying of his future wife through a telescope from a ship anchored off the coast of Brazil in 1839. ‘How do we know to trust that moment of passionate taste, however camouflaged?’ Barnes asks. For more homely examples, he looks to his own work. ‘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?’ Each of these is taken from a different story in the collection. In ‘Trespass’, Geoff, a history teacher and keen hillwalker, thinks ‘how incredibly sexy small female feet could look in walking boots’; in ‘East Wind’, Vernon, an estate agent, gazing out the window of a fish-and-chip shop on the Essex coast, ‘caught the accent’ of the waitress and only then ‘looked up at her’; the narrator of ‘Complicity’ goes on a date with a young woman with Raynaud’s syndrome who can’t get her car keys out of her bag because of her numb fingers: ‘As I stood there, watching her struggle, two things happened: I felt what I would describe as tenderness, were it not so ferocious; and my cock gave a sudden spurt of growth.’

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