Brits both flat and round

(Jane Martin/ Globe Staff)
By Troy Jollimore
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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When Julian Barnes was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature this year, it was in some ways an overdue recognition of his large yet quiet presence in the British literary scene. Barnes has never won the Man Booker Prize, though three of his novels have been shortlisted (1984’s “Flaubert’s Parrot,’’ 1998’s “England, England,’’ and 2005’s “Arthur and George’’). He does not deploy the pyrotechnic prose of a Martin Amis or a Salman Rushdie, or the poetically evocative language of a John Banville. Despite the breadth of knowledge on display in his work, there is something intrinsically modest and unassuming about it. Fans of his work see it as erudite and intellectually adventurous; to others it can seem over-cerebral, emotionally detached, and somewhat snarky.

“Arthur and George’’ (the “Arthur’’ being Arthur Conan Doyle) was an impressive and highly entertaining novel: historically detailed, narratively robust, and pleasingly old-fashioned. By comparison, much of Barnes’s new collection of short stories feels insubstantial and, at times, constrained. This is especially true of the stories in the first part of the book. The issue here is not over-intellectualism: Indeed, there is nothing particularly clever, let alone pretentious, about these stories. But their characters are all too often stereotypical Britishers — tight-lipped, emotionally repressed, perpetually disappointed with life, and pleased with themselves for being resigned to disappointment — and neither they, nor the author, seem able to find the key to transcending these limitations.

The pieces in part two are much stronger. Barnes relaxes the authorial grip that chokes the life out of the stories in part one, and stretches out to explore larger canvases and broader themes. Two of these pieces are historical: “The Limner’’ tells of an itinerant portrait painter who struggles with the demand of his boorish employer to be depicted with “more dignity, more dignity,’’ while “Harmony’’ describes the efforts of “M —,’’ a doctor and a man of science, to treat the blindness of a talented pianist, “Maria Theresia von P —.’’

Barnes the postmodern skeptic makes cameos in “Harmony’’ that he does not allow himself elsewhere in “Pulse.’’ The story ends by considering two alternative endings, either of which might be true — a conclusion that recalls an authorial intrusion from several pages back, in which he addresses the now anachronistic practice of suppressing some of the letters of the characters’ names.

Such philosophical commentary is a form of distancing; but Barnes does not seem tempted to regard historical characters with the condescending amusement he too often directs toward the contemporaries he creates. Happily, “too often’’ is not “always,’’ and the remaining pieces in part two, while set in the present day, are richly imagined and fully felt. These pieces are told in the first person, and the identification of the author with his protagonists helps overcome his tendency to remain at arm’s length from his characters.

This is particularly true in the title story, in which the narrator’s aging parents are challenged with health problems, some annoying and intriguing, some extremely serious. This poses a problem for the narrator, an exercise devotee whose way of dealing with his own mortality is, it seems, mostly to deny it, and who has other problems — a difficult romance that eventually becomes an even more difficult marriage — to occupy him.

“When I put [the marriage] off Janice said it was really because I was scared to commit,’’ the narrator writes. “When she put it off it was because she wasn’t sure about marrying someone who was scared to commit. So somehow it was my fault both times.’’ We appreciate the humor in this but we also feel the pain, because Barnes has abandoned his detached, clinical perspective and joined with his narrator. “Pulse’’ does not offer, or try to offer, “a final, harmonious synthesis of truth,’’ but at such moments it becomes a moving and truth-telling work of fiction.

Troy Jollimore is author of “Love’s Vision’’ and “At Lake Scugog: Poems.’’ He can be reached at

PULSE: Stories
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 240 pp., $25