Julian Barnes (2011) Pulse

I’ve got Flaubert’s Parrot kicking about the house somewhere, god knows where.  My mate Brendan asked me the other day in the pub what I was reading and I couldn’t remember. I looked over at the pool table and the board beside it to see if anything was scrawled up there. Sure enough Julian Barnes’ Pulse was chalked up below Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots. Writing things down is a sure way to forget to remember.  I have enough problems remembering my own name and should really wear a name tag. All people should. And no swapping allowed.  But I do know that Flaubert’s Parrot isn’t really about a parrot. I like short stories because I can always remember where I am.

Pulse is the last story in Book Two of Pulse and the best of both books, (apart from one which I’ll keep you in suspense about because I can’t remember the name of it). I like Pulse because I didn’t know if it was true or not. If between the sheets lurked a youngerish Julian Barnes.  I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the narrator’s mother gets motor neurone disease and dies at the end. Or that the narrator’s father is overly uxorious. A stolid kind of bloke that worked all his life as a family lawyer and owns a particular kind of shirt, which he has a number of faded copies. And he loses his sense of smell. He’s a just-get-on-with it type of chap and doesn’t want to bother the doctor, but he does miss the intimacy of knowing how his wife through smell. That’s a lovely detail. I laughed at “‘hormones’ is a catch-all word for when women don’t want to tell you something,” and later when he has the not having a conversation about Janice with his mother, and she admitting she loves him unconditionally as a son, but loves he future daughter-in-law on the condition that she makes him happy. Lawerly adivce, she does and doesn’t, but that’s the nature of the short.

There are four other stories in Book Two. Carcasonne takes a quote from Ford Maddox Ford as a jumping off point. ‘I just wanted to marry her in the way some people want to go to Carcassone.’ I’ve read The Good Soldier, can vaguely remember the opening being about the saddest man I’d ever known. The rest is a void, as Carcossone itself is. But I’m sure I hitchhiked through it, spent a night in an auberge. A medieval feel to the town? Not sure. Carcasonne has the feel of Flaubert’s Parrot. It jumps from Garibaldi as a romantic hero of European history. How he captured towns and captured heart. Coup de foudre. Garibaldi looks through the telescope on the schooner Itaparica and inspects the Brazilian coastal town of Laguina. What he sees is Anita Riberas, eighteen, dark hair, large breasts “ a virile carriage”.  She speaks no Italian (a difficulty since there is not yet such a place as Italy) and he speaks little more than pigeon Portuguese. When they meet he tells her, “You must be mine”. And she is, but Barnes shows it’s not that simple. It never is. “The expectation of an experience governs and distorts the experience itself…” Barnes tells the reader this after segueing away from Garibaldi to a bookseller conference in Glasgow, where two women discuss the effects of different food types in the taste of a man’s sperm. Obviously if book conference in Glasgow are that interesting I might start attending some myself.

I’ve no idea why Barnes split Pulse into Books One and Two. If pushed I’d say it’s because Book One is shite, with the exception of the first story, East Wind, about a man delving too deep into woman’s territory which I liked very much. There are four stories Phil & Joanna’s something or other about middle-class people talking twaddle. And another few which aren’t quite as bad. Apologies. My memory isn’t what it was. Marriage Lines, which also appears in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written is outstanding. The best short story in Pulse, well that and Pulse, but worth buying for that story alone.

Barnes has the capacity to climb inside other’s heads and I liked this riposte – to among others Oscar Wilde – quoted in The Observer, from the viewpoint of a narrator inside the mind of Shostakovich: ‘Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake; it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defined them?’

Art for the people’s sake.  Meme and match. For the people’s sake we should have artists like Barnes. Science has its place. But Art needs its space, but I guess that’s an outdated idea. No use parroting on.

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