etc. by Julian Barnes
A. Knopf 2001 224 pp. 24.00
© Steven E. Alford
Julian Barnes, the English author known for a steady production of novels
such as Metroland and Flaubert’s
Parrot, has produced a sequel of sorts to his previous Talking It Over.
The novel is
organized as a set of voices reflecting on three friends: Gillian, the Woman;
Stuart, the Former Husband; and Oliver, the Current Husband.
We piece together, not without contradiction, the story of their
relationships. Appealing in style, and, most of all, intellectual
cleverness, Love, etc. will win some hearts, while others will be left
wondering at the ultimately depressing pointlessness of these friends’ lives.
Stuart Hughes and Oliver Russell were school chums.
Stuart met and married Gillian Wyatt, a half-French picture restorer.
Divorce ensued, and Stuart migrated to America, where he remarried and
divorced, and became a wealthy entrepreneur.
Oliver married Gillian. Stuart
returned to England and, in ways both forthright and disturbingly sneaky,
reacquainted himself with Gillian, Oliver, and their friends, co-workers, and
relatives. At this point, their
stories begin to merge and diverge.
The novel is organized much like a play, where characters’ voices,
labeled clearly, give us their version of events, past and present. Indeed, so play-like is the presentation one wonders about
the structural intent: is this some inventive postmodernism, or a rough draft of
a theater piece?
What most attracts the reader are the witty observations about love, etc.
Particularly appealing is Oliver, possessed of an elaborately baroque
prose style that conceals a sensibility built on the sands of insecurity.
A sometime playwright (he’s written a prequel to The Seventh Seal),
depressive, and fulltime layabout (“All I pump is irony”), he “likes words
rather than things themselves.” He’s
certainly suspicious about the value of self-reflection.
“The story of
our life is never an autobiography, always a novel—that’s the first mistake
people make. Our memories are just another artifice: go on, admit it. And the
second mistake is to assume that a plodding commemoration of previously feted
detail, enlivening though it might be in a taproom, constitutes a narrative
likely to entice the at times necessarily hard-hearted reader.”
Such a comment,
placed amid just such a narrative, is sure to undermine the reader’s
confidence in the coherence and “veracity” of this novel.
More deeply, it could undermine the idea that a precondition of being
able to love is the capacity for self-knowledge.
Not that love is necessarily important for everyone. As Stuart says, “Oliver used to have a theory he called [beginital]
love, etc: [endital] in other words, the world divides into people for whom love
is everything and the rest of life is a mere ‘etc’ , and people who don’t
value love enough and find the most exciting part of life is the ‘etc’ .”
Oliver is always there, however, ready to render Stuart insignificant in
his worldly success and trivial in his moral devotion to things organic: “O
narcoleptic and steatopygous Stuart, he of the crepuscular understanding and the
Weltanschauung built of Lego.”
Oliver is matched
in his disdain by Mme. Wyatt, Gillian’s French mother, who thinks that Stuart
“looks, if it is possible to understand me, like someone who has placed all
his troubles behind him in order to embrace with enthusiasm some new ones.”
Stuart’s wealth has come from The Green Grocer, a line shops for “the modern
organic consumer.” Oliver is not sure of the value of environmentalism.
He wonders about Stuart’s theory about “how biodiversity was going
belly up, how modified genes in black turtleneck sweaters would abseil their way
into the hitherto protected demesne of Fortress Nature, how the timid songbird
would be struck mute and the glossy aubergine lose its sheen, how we would all
sprout humps and turn into village grotesques out of Brueghel.”
And so it goes. As Mme.
Wyatt notes, “Life is a process during which your weakest places are
inevitably discovered. It is also a process during which you are punished for
your earlier actions and desires. Not punished justly; oh no—that is part of
what I mean by not believing in the gods—simply punished like that. Punished
anarchically, if you like.”
Self-delusion, the impossibility of reaching any lasting personal truth,
punishment coming on us for no reason at all: this is the happy lot of Barnes’
characters. Their wit seems to be
all they have going for them, along with a Beckettian conviction that they
simply must go on. If all we have
is diversion, then Barnes’ novel makes for a good one.
If we hope for something more lasting, we might devote ourselves more to
love, than the etc.