Photo by Luana Spagnoli
SOUMYA BHATTACHARYA reviews Julian Barnes’s long-awaited third short story collection, PULSE, and finds it beating with the rhythms of life.
In ‘Marriage Lines,’ the most poignant and affecting of the fourteen stories that make up Julian Barnes’s superb new collection, a man returns to a place in which he had spent some of his happiest holidays with his wife, who has only recently died.
After a holiday freighted with emotion and the memories of holidays past, he returns, knowing that he will never come back again. ‘He had thought he could recapture, and begin to say farewell. He had thought that grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up, hurried on its way a little by going back to a place where they had been happy. But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him. And in the months and years ahead, he expected grief to teach him many other things as well. This was just the first of them.’
That passage – characterized by the cool elegance that is Julian Barnes’s trademark – could serve as a coda for Pulse. In story after story, men and women deal with severance of relationships, flounder at connecting with each other, or, having lived very happily with each other, grapple with the trauma of being on one’s own. Like his great hero, Gustave Flaubert, Barnes believes that words, like hair, shine with combing. He is incapable of writing a clunky sentence, but style in these affecting stories is fused with genuine feeling.
In ‘East Wind,’ a rewarding relationship is broken by a single indiscretion and opens up for us a landscape of loss and emotional barrenness; the cycle of stories titled ‘At Phil and Joanna’s’ revolve purely around – in the manner of Barnes’s novels Talking it Over and Love Etc –and is acute and acutely funny; and the title story, ‘Pulse,’ which closes the collection is an affecting tribute to enduring love and old age.
Wry, urbane and moving, this collection is a refined exploration of two of Barnes’s great themes: love and Englishness.