Love, etc. by Julian Barnes
Alfred A. Knopf 2001 224 pp. 24.00
© Steven E. Alford
Julian Barnes, the English author known for a steady production of novels such as Metroland and Flaubert’s Parrot, has produced a sequel of sorts to his previous Talking It Over.
The novel is organized as a set of voices reflecting on three friends: Gillian, the Woman; Stuart, the Former Husband; and Oliver, the Current Husband. We piece together, not without contradiction, the story of their relationships. Appealing in style, and, most of all, intellectual cleverness, Love, etc. will win some hearts, while others will be left wondering at the ultimately depressing pointlessness of these friends’ lives.
Stuart Hughes and Oliver Russell were school chums. Stuart met and married Gillian Wyatt, a half-French picture restorer. Divorce ensued, and Stuart migrated to America, where he remarried and divorced, and became a wealthy entrepreneur. Oliver married Gillian. Stuart returned to England and, in ways both forthright and disturbingly sneaky, reacquainted himself with Gillian, Oliver, and their friends, co-workers, and relatives. At this point, their stories begin to merge and diverge.
The novel is organized much like a play, where characters’ voices, labeled clearly, give us their version of events, past and present. Indeed, so play-like is the presentation one wonders about the structural intent: is this some inventive postmodernism, or a rough draft of a theater piece?
What most attracts the reader are the witty observations about love, etc. Particularly appealing is Oliver, possessed of an elaborately baroque prose style that conceals a sensibility built on the sands of insecurity. A sometime playwright (he’s written a prequel to The Seventh Seal), depressive, and fulltime layabout (“All I pump is irony”), he “likes words rather than things themselves.” He’s certainly suspicious about the value of self-reflection.
“The story of our life is never an autobiography, always a novel—that’s the first mistake people make. Our memories are just another artifice: go on, admit it. And the second mistake is to assume that a plodding commemoration of previously feted detail, enlivening though it might be in a taproom, constitutes a narrative likely to entice the at times necessarily hard-hearted reader.”
Such a comment, placed amid just such a narrative, is sure to undermine the reader’s confidence in the coherence and “veracity” of this novel. More deeply, it could undermine the idea that a precondition of being able to love is the capacity for self-knowledge.
Not that love is necessarily important for everyone. As Stuart says, “Oliver used to have a theory he called [beginital] love, etc: [endital] in other words, the world divides into people for whom love is everything and the rest of life is a mere ‘etc’ , and people who don’t value love enough and find the most exciting part of life is the ‘etc’ .”
Oliver is always there, however, ready to render Stuart insignificant in his worldly success and trivial in his moral devotion to things organic: “O narcoleptic and steatopygous Stuart, he of the crepuscular understanding and the Weltanschauung built of Lego.”
Oliver is matched in his disdain by Mme. Wyatt, Gillian’s French mother, who thinks that Stuart “looks, if it is possible to understand me, like someone who has placed all his troubles behind him in order to embrace with enthusiasm some new ones.”
Much of Stuart’s wealth has come from The Green Grocer, a line shops for “the modern organic consumer.” Oliver is not sure of the value of environmentalism.
He wonders about Stuart’s theory about “how biodiversity was going belly up, how modified genes in black turtleneck sweaters would abseil their way into the hitherto protected demesne of Fortress Nature, how the timid songbird would be struck mute and the glossy aubergine lose its sheen, how we would all sprout humps and turn into village grotesques out of Brueghel.”
And so it goes. As Mme. Wyatt notes, “Life is a process during which your weakest places are inevitably discovered. It is also a process during which you are punished for your earlier actions and desires. Not punished justly; oh no—that is part of what I mean by not believing in the gods—simply punished like that. Punished anarchically, if you like.”
Self-delusion, the impossibility of reaching any lasting personal truth, punishment coming on us for no reason at all: this is the happy lot of Barnes’ characters. Their wit seems to be all they have going for them, along with a Beckettian conviction that they simply must go on. If all we have is diversion, then Barnes’ novel makes for a good one. If we hope for something more lasting, we might devote ourselves more to love, than the etc.