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English author Julian Barnes (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)
English author Julian Barnes (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)

Review: Short fiction

Love and death - and Julian Barnes Add to ...

This is a love story about love stories - real ones, as well as ones in books and with books (which are real ones as well).

I honestly can't recall whether I fell first in love with writer Julian Barnes or the man who was to become my husband. This happened around the same time just over two decades ago, which is a long and satisfying time to be in love.

Others could have their wedding readings from Khalil Gibran or 1 Corinthians; for us, it would be Barnes. Specifically, from his eyes-wide-open treatise on love in Parenthesis, a.k.a. the "half chapter" in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Barnes's fifth novel, published in 1989, altered forever my ideas of what could constitute fiction, and what a "novel" could be.

A History of the World could have as easily been called 10½ Ways of Looking at the Ark. Here we had a revisionist story about Noah's ark narrated by woodworms; a postmodern exegesis on Géricault's 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa; a short story based on the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro; as well as the aforementioned parenthetical essay on love, among other erudite treats. At turns hilarious, intense, sobering, A History of the World was such an extraordinary book that reading it for the first time often felt like staring into the sun.

Since 1989, Barnes has published five more novels, three story collections and four works of non-fiction, and I have read them all, as well as the four novels published before A History of the World. So you could safely say I love Julian Barnes, the author.

Barnes has written in a stupefying range of subject matters and styles. From his postmodernist masterpiece Flaubert's Parrot to The Porcupine, a slim satirical novel about post-communist Eastern Europe, to Arthur & George, a portrait of Victorian England through the stories of a small-time solicitor and the man who created Sherlock Holmes, to Talking it Over, a witty love triangle delivered in three voices, his novels are never less than tremendous performances.

A three-time Booker Prize nominee, in March, Barnes was presented with the biennial David Cohen Prize for Literature, a lifetime achievement award that has been described as the Britain's Nobel Prize for Literature. Previous recipients include Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, V.S. Naipaul and Seamus Heaney.

His themes are love and death and history, but mostly love - because, as he has written, "the history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love." Barnes's fiction, save his debut novel, is dedicated simply "for Pat" or "to P." as is his latest, Pulse. His wife, Pat Kavanagh, a celebrated London literary agent, died suddenly of a brain tumour in October, 2008, the same year Barnes published his lucid memoir about his fear of death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. What brutal irony.

Some of the stories in Pulse were no doubt written before his wife's death, some of them afterward, but a sense of loss does permeate the book. On the cover, a Victorian gentleman takes his own pulse and looks surprised to still have one - or is that look one of regret?

Barnes's previous collection, The Lemon Table, was largely melancholic as well, concerned as it was with growing old and facing death. "Were you as young as you felt, or as old as you looked?" the collection asked, both literally and figuratively. In Pulse, the death of a loved one chokes the throat: "He had thought grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up. … But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him."

In all three collections, Barnes includes both contemporary and historical stories. In Pulse, most of the contemporary stories are homely, homey stories, concerned with sad, circumscribed lives, and are composed in a lower key than the historical ones. They are satisfying stories, but not sparkling.

But casting back a century or three, Barnes delivers some showstoppers. In The Limner, a deaf mute portrait painter takes an exacting revenge on a Philistine client. Its clarity, depth and moral authority render the story a grand painting itself. Harmony is a deliciously convincing symphonic story set in 1700s Austria, in which a Renaissance man - a philosopher, lawyer, physician, musician - sets out to cure a blind musical prodigy of her affliction.

And in Carcassonne, Garibaldi falls in love at first sight. The contemporary narrator quotes Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier - "I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne" - and then says, "Falling in love is the most violent expression of taste known to us. And yet our language doesn't seem to represent that moment very well. We have no equivalent for 'coup de foudre,' the lightning strike and thunderclap of love."

But we do have Julian Barnes and his ways of making us think deeply about history and mortality, and love.

* * * * *

BARNESOLOGY 101

Of the prolific male triumvirate of British novelists born in the late 1940s who hit their stride in the early 1980s - Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan - Barnes is the most quintessentially British, placing English mores and class under the microscope, despite being an avowed francophile and an acolyte of Gustave Flaubert. Or perhaps it's because of his affinity with the French that he can take the pulse of his country from the other side of the looking glass.

Flaubert's Parrot (1984) A literary detective novel, a postmodern biography, a commentary on the making of fiction, a droll take on British self-analysis, and the story of a man with an obsession, is perhaps the most quintessentially Barnesian of all of Barnes's oeuvre.

Letters from London (1995) Barnes gathers his witty and elegant dispatches to The New Yorker, including essays on Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Glenda Jackson, an international chess championship and Salman Rushdie during the fatwa.

Talking It Over (1991) and Love, Etc. (2000) Nine years after the clever Talking It Over, in which the members of a love triangle directly addressed the reader, Barnes published a sequel, Love, Etc., once again letting Gillian, Stuart and Oliver try to persuade us, and each other, of their versions of the truth.

England, England (1998) Barnes's wicked satirical novel, is about, well, England. Or rather, a gross facsimile of the country recreated as a tourist attraction on the Isle of Wight. Like Brazil, it seems England is a state of mind.

Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008) This brilliant meditation on death, a family memoir, and an argument with God (whom the author doesn't believe in, but misses) lays Barnes bare like no other previous work.

Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner's second short fiction collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, was published last month.

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