PULSE by Julian Barnes

Book Quote:

“I imagine him explaining that he had brought some herbs for her to smell, I imagine him rubbing basil into a roll beneath her nostrils. I imagine him crushing thyme between finger and thumb, then rosemary. I imagine him naming them, and believing she could smell them, and hoping that they would bring her pleasure, would remind her of the world and the delight she had taken in it — perhaps even of some occasion on a foreign hillside or scrubland when their shoes had tramped out a rising scent of wild thyme.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (MAY 6, 2011)

This lovely passage of a husband at the bedside of his paralyzed wife, who has lost everything except the sense of smell and perhaps hearing, is Barnes at his very best. It is even better in context, for the husband has lost his own sense of smell and cannot even share those memories. It comes from the title story, “Pulse,” printed at the very end of the book, a moving account of a happy marriage contrasted with a troubled one, and one of the very few things in this collection that comes even close to Barnes’ previous volume, The Lemon Table. But that was one of the best books of its kind that I have read in a long time. It contained a brilliant mixture of stories set in other times or cultures and sharp and poignant observations of contemporary life, all silvered over with a tender or wry nostalgia. That is the book I should be recommending, rather than the present volume, which is seldom more than echoes and addenda, though of some interest to Barnes fans.

However, there are a few tales here that are almost as fine as the earlier ones. In “Harmony,” one of Barnes’ historical reconstructions, an eighteenth-century doctor attempts to cure a young musical prodigy of her blindness. Although Barnes uses initials rather than names, this is a true story which he presents as a touching emotional drama with rich philosophical overtones; those wanting to learn more should Google “Maria Theresia Paradis” after reading it. In “The Limner,” another story from an earlier century, he shows the wretched life but inner beauty of an itinerant portrait-painter who also happens to be a deaf-mute. The contemporary “Complicity” shows two damaged people slowly coming together: a divorced man and a doctor, whose sense of touch has been compromised by a rare medical condition; loss of one of the senses is a minor thread tying several of these stories together: sight, hearing, touch, and smell. But many of the stories lack internal connections: “Pulse,” for all its strengths, is very loosely constructed, and “Carcassonne,” his third historical reconstruction, about Garibaldi, breaks into a number of paragraphs with very few sinews to hold them together at all.

The five titles I have mentioned so far come in Part Two of the collection, which is far superior. Part One, which is entirely contemporary, also contains five, but these are separated by four curious items entitled “At Phil & Joanna’s.” These appear to be the sound-track of a weekly get-together of a number of friends around the dinner table. Their conversation, about politics, mores, and sex, is witty and often full of brilliant bons mots, but it is all comment and no substance, entirely devoid of narrative force; it is not even easy to distinguish between the various speakers. All right, so you write four of the stories off; you still have ten left. Yet the trouble is that these four show up the weaknesses of many of the others.

For all his variety, Barnes often follows a pattern in his stories: something happens, the narrator reflects on that something, and moves on. But when nothing much happens to begin with, all that’s left of the story is the author’s reflection. The opening story, for instance, “East Wind,” begins with a romance between a divorced realtor and a waitress from somewhere in Eastern Europe; the place is a windy seaside town, as beautifully-realized as Barnes’ settings generally are. However, the crux of the story does not emerge from the relationship between the two characters, but from something he learns afterwards — on the internet, of all things! Time and again, this tendency to pull away from character-based action to reflection weakens the force of the narrative; there is too much telling, too little showing. Though there are still some very poignant moments amid these reflections, for example in “Marriage Lines,” where a recent widower, hoping to achieve some sense of closure, goes back to the Hebridean island where he and his wife had come annually, only to discover that his memories cannot so easily be laid to rest. Alas, our memories of Barnes’ earlier writing cannot be easily forgotten either.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 11 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (May 3, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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May 6, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags:  В· Posted in: Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

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