Top critical review
Barnes treading water
on January 15, 2001
Julian Barnes is capable of writing great novels. Staring at the Sun; and Flaubert's Parrot are both excellent - the latter particularly representative of the best of Barnes's writing style. This style is similar in some ways to the later novels of Milan Kundera, where plot and character study are secondary to the ideas that are explored in various digressions. (Although at his best Barnes has a sympathy for character - especially female characters - that Kundera either does not achieve or is not interested in). Indeed, in a recent collection of critical essays James Wood suggested that Barnes is more of an essay writer than a novelist, and this can be seen especially in Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the world in 10 1/2 chapters.
Given the high standards of the best of Barnes's fiction his readership have certain expectations that if not met lead to great disappointment. Julian Barnes' last novel, England, England was one such disappointment. A heavy handed satire, toying with notions of nationality and nationhood, it somehow found its way onto the Booker Prize shortlist (perhaps saying more about the paucity of modern British fiction and the quality of the judging panel than the quality of the novel). It is disappointing to note that the novel under review, Love etc, is not a return to form.
Love etc is a belated sequel to Talking it over (1991), and was the name of a French film adapted from Talking it over in 1997. Talking it over itself seemed to stem from the half chapter in a History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters - an essay on the meaning of love. Taliking it over had three principal characters, Stuart - the quiet boring one; Oliver - the flamboyant pretentious one; and Gillian - the sensible one. The three characters were caught in a love triangle. The plot seemed to echo that enjoyed so often by new wave French cinema. The novelty of Barnes approach was that each character took it in turns to address the reader. The novel was an exercise in perspective and unreliable narration (some years after Martin Amis's similar Success).
Love etc. adopts the same approach. There are the three central characters picking up where Talking it Over left of. They are ten years older, little wiser. Stuart is still relatively boring, has somehow managed to make a lot of money in the US, has remarried and separated, and keeps something nasty in his wallet; Oliver is a waster, still pretentious, still in love with Gillian; and Gillian is still relatively sensible. There is a greater role in this novel for Gillian's mother, whose gnostic words of wisdom litter the novel like Confuscian thought. The characters also still directly address the reader.
There are advantages in this approach. When done well the character's approach to the reader is not mediated through an ominscient authorial voice. When done well, the reader is shown how the same event can be viewed in many different ways by different observers. However, where the stylistic device gave Talking it over its novelty, grates here. We've seen it done before and the process feels like an exercise in ventriloquism. The characters all seem like different facets of one character, rther than distinct personae. The characters are too alike, their individuality based on stylistic quirks (Oliver uses big words; Stuart is banal), rather than any particular revelations of character.
Barnes gives the novel a "shock" ending which while handled sensitively seemed like an attempt to give the novel an issue to deal with rather than a necessary action of the characters.
This novel is disappointing, and this review has picked out what for this reviewer were weaknesses. Saying that, what is disappointing for Barnes is still a level above most contemporary English literary fiction.
The novel is very readable. It has a wry wit; and raises interesting observations and questions on the nature of love. However, I think, ultimately, that the novel fails.
This novel can be read without having read Talking it over, but the characters have more depth if Love etc is read after Talking it over.
If you want to try a Barnes novel I suggest Flaubert's Parrot or Staring at the sun. If you enjoy Love etc, try Alain de Botton's Essays in Love, or - in a very different style - Ivan Klima's Love and Garbage.