I have come late to Julian Barnes, to my regret, but I’m glad to have finally arrived. His Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending was my introduction, save for some short stories I’d read here and there in the New Yorker and Granta. Some of the short stories in ‘Pulse’ were published between 2003 and 2011, and Sense of Ending was released in mid 2011. Some of these short stories are echoed in Sense of an Ending.
In “At Phil & Joanna’s 4: One in Five”, a character says “…I remember some intellectual on the radio discussing the start of the second World War, and coming to the conclusion that all you could say for certain was, ‘Something happened'." This was a key launch point for the story in Sense of an Ending, in which Adrian says, “But there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event — even the outbreak of the First World War, — is that ‘something happened’.”
"Something Happened" could be a good title for several Julian Barnes stories (but the title has been well used already by Joseph Heller).
In “Trespass”, first published in 2003 in the New Yorker, Geoff struggles to understand the disintegration of his relationship with Cath. He says to her, “I thought we were going to get married.” And she replies, “That’s why we aren’t,” When he asks her to explain she refuses. Why won’t she explain? “Because that’s the whole point. If you can’t see, if I have to explain — that’s why we’re not getting married.” This is redone again in Sense of an Ending, where Veronica says “You just don’t get it, do you? You never did, and you never will.’, and she refuses to explain further.
These are not sentimental stories yet they are often poignant (Pulse, Marriage Lines), and often funny too. Geoff in “Trespass” is trying to make a go of it with a new girlfriend. He becomes ever more pedantic but just can’t stop himself and it’s killing them. He really just doesn’t get it. He is unrelenting in his unwanted helpfulness. He and his girlfriend are avid hikers, but she is tiring of him. At one point toward the end of their time, he advises her not to walk in the bracken, or downwind of it for that matter, between August and October. — “you’re going to tell me why, aren’t you?” she says. So he proceeds to tell her about spores, which could get into lungs or stomach and become carcinogenic, and Lyme-disease-causing ticks; she would need to wear a face mask. “ ‘A face mask?’ ‘Respro makes one.’ Well, she’d asked, and she was getting the bloody answer."
There are several related “Phil & Joanna” short stories, which recount the witty banter amongst two married couples who get together several times for dinner, and those were fun reads. “Pulse” was especially good; it described simultaneously his perception of his parents’ wonderful marriage and his own failing marriage. Again he plays on the theme of perception vs versions of reality. And he does this again in a different way in “Limner’, the story of an itinerant portrait painter in the 1800s.
His prose is wonderful. He captures the intangibles and then presents them to us, and we feel a jolt of recognition. That is the best kind of writing.