Coming Back to Your Senses
By Anna Aslanyan.
Pulse, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape 2011
“It is accepted we’re losing our senses” – this line from Nick Laird’s ‘The Given’ would make a suitable, if ambiguous, epigraph for Pulse, a recent collection of stories by Julian Barnes. The ambiguity lies not in the quote, but in the nature of the book itself. Like many of Barnes’ admirers, I was looking forward to reading his new volume; like some of them, tempted to abandon it half-way through. Luckily, the second part of Pulse bears as little resemblance to the first as Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes’ previous accomplishment, does to the recent discussion in the Guardian on the decline in the sales of marmalade.
If this analogy seems somewhat far-fetched, glance through the readers’ comments – they will give you a fair idea of At Phil & Joanna’s, a quartet of stories that set the tone for part one. In these, we meet a group of middle-class, middle-aged friends sitting around a dinner table, drinking wine and talking – without having much to say, just to indulge the same “mild social addiction” that keeps making their “hands reach out to snaffle another grape, crumble a landslip from the cliff-face of cheese, or pick a chocolate from the box” even after they have had enough. Their chattering – page after page of depressingly pointless dialogue – cruises between the usual subjects: 2012 Olympics, Obama’s smoking, bendy buses, recycling, social tension, bum cancer… And, of course, marmalade. The exchange of home-making tips could have been taken straight from the Guardian: “I cut mine up in the Magimix”; among the guests there is an American (every decent comment thread has one) who does not get this national obsession; “The marmalade theory of Britishness” coined by someone is a perfect headline for a Life and Style page.
The remaining stories in the first part provide little diversion, failing to lift the book out of the weekend supplement category. The protagonist of Trespass is no pedant in the kitchen – dictator on a hike would be a more apt name; when he finally decides to join the Ramblers you feel relieved for his girlfriend-cum-walking partner. In Gardeners’ World you have to listen to a couple constantly bickering over their garden: most things, from having a vegetable patch to choosing a barbecue set, cause marital arguments. They end up buying “some kind of ethnic oven on special offer from the Guardian“, and you think: either Barnes is sick and tired of that paper, or I am. Or both.
Human condition has always been a major theme for Barnes, but he used to observe it with empathy and amusement, not jaded irony and sad listlessness. The impression these stories leave is that their author is not enjoying the company of his characters, so why should you? With this in mind you turn a page, ready to toss the book aside, and check yourself just in time. For if the beginning numbs you down, what follows promptly brings your feelings back – quite literally, as each of the five stories in the second part centres on one of the main physical senses. These pieces, “more of pulse than of thought”, fully reward you at the end changing your mind about the whole collection.
The Limner tells the story of a deaf painter whose deformity does not prevent him from understanding the subtlest emotions of people around him: “he did not think their meaning would be clearer if he could hear speech or read lips; indeed, perhaps the opposite”. In Complicity we move on to the quiet sensuality of touch. This sense is decomposed into its basic elements through the narrator’s experience: raw knuckles of your childhood are painful, but adult numbness is worse. “What does it feel like when there’s no feeling there – both to her, and to me?” – prompted by frozen fingertips, this question takes on symbolic proportions. Sight and taste inspired the next two pieces, Harmony and Carcassone. The former is the story of Maria Theresia von Paradis, a blind pianist who was treated by the famous 18th century physician Mesmer. The latter offers anecdotes of Garibaldi’s love life as well as wine and sperm tasting notes. This is vintage Barnes – his essay on falling in love, “the most violent expression of taste known to us”, is both insightful and deeply touching.
By the time you reach the title story that closes the collection your initial disappointment is long forgotten, the chattering classes gone back to their marmalade jars. A character suffering from anosmia evokes another line from Laird, “At first they took the gift of smell”. Poetry aside, you learn that this, in fact, is usually the last of the senses to go when you die. The man who can no longer smell fresh herbs brings them to his dying wife “hoping that they would [...] remind her of the world and the delight she had taken in it”. The scene is all the more poignant for the bland emptiness you felt only a hundred pages ago. This is what coming round from an anaesthetic must be like, all your senses returning to you one by one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 31st, 2011.