‘Pulse’ by Julian Barnes
I fell in love with Julian Barnes with his ‘The Sense of an Ending.’ Each sentence was a gem, each thought a treasure. Even though I prefer novels to short stories, the name Barnes was enough for me to pick up this collection of his short stories. And what a pick up it was!
With the humungous list of ‘to be read’ books on the shelves – physical and virtual – if the story doesn’t hold my attention after the first few pages, it normally goes on to a forgotten shelf these days. The pile keeps increasing almost in proportion to the ones that wait impatiently to get into my hands. Following that vein, the first story was fine, a real estate agent trying to fall in love with a waitress of East European origin. As always, irrespective of the subject, it is Barnes’ verses that hooks you and then keep you dangling from that hook,
“His professional eye took in the dimensions, furnishings, and probable rental cost; his lover’s eye took in a small dressing table with photos in plastic frames and a picture of the Virgin.”
‘At Phil & Joanna’s’ is a series of conversations rather than short stories. A few couples meeting for dinner at Phil &Joanna’s and the general banter that normally happens around the dinner table. There are four of these ‘stories,’ each more interesting than the other. The easy camaraderie, the instant repartee’s and witty observations, how people who are close to each other move quickly from one topic to another, relate each to the other and then come back to the original topic, in a warm, friendly banter….I just loved the series. It was as if I was sitting at that table and listening to some of my close and like minded friends.
The book is in two parts. I have nothing against the stories in part one, in fact the last one there, ‘Marriage Lines’ is what touched me the most. There I was, seated in a crowded bus, not able to control my laughter reading one of the conversations at the by now familiar table, when the next story caught me by the throat and tears started rolling down my cheeks. The protagonist comes back to an island where he had visited with his wife before they were married, for their honeymoon and for many years after that. This time, he is alone. As he goes through his memories, we see a life as many of us know: one that starts with a fool hardy optimism that ours is going to be the most perfect ever married life, then reality creeping in and finally how you find a rhythm that flows in tandem between the two of you. When vthat special one in your life leaves you alone all of a sudden, you are at a loss as to how to grieve and you go back to places that were familiar to both of you, where you made beautiful memories together.
“He had thought he could recapture, and begin to say farewell. He had thought grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up, hurried on its way a little, by going back to a place where they had been happy. But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him. And in the months and years ahead, he expected grief to teach him many other things as well. This was just the first of them.”
The sheer brilliance of the master story teller comes out in the five stories of part Two. ‘The Limner’ is the poignant story of Wadsworth, the mute Limner who sees, hears and perceives far beyond what his clients think. ‘Complicity’ is about what makes two people get attracted to each other, how do we know what the other person is all about, what do we search for in another, the unrelated thoughts that go through our mind as we assess a potential partner and finally how everything comes to together in a moment and gives us a go ahead signal.
A blind prodigy and an unconventional doctor who tries to cure her are the central characters in ‘Harmony.’ As the doctor probes into the reason behind the girl’s blindness, we come face to face with the different characters that are at loggerheads with each other and oppose each step for their own selfish reasons. Is it that many of us consciously do not want things or people to improve so that the harmony of our lives are not upset? Do we really care about even our near and dear ones or are we more concerned about our own comforts? The girl’s first vision of a starlit sky stays with you,
“she did not want words to interfere with her sense of wonder, and continued to look until her neck hurt. From that evening on, visual phenomena of any distinction were automatically compared to a starry sky – and found wanting.”
‘Carcassone’ is about Garibaldi and his wife Anita Riberas and also about love at first sight and how our language is incapable of representing that ‘lightning strike and thunderclap of love.’ How do we know at that moment that this is ‘the’ person? Do we even need to experience that flashlight of recognition? And then he says in that exquisite manner that is his trademark,
“even the deepest and the longest love relationships rarely start with full recognition, with ‘you must be mine’ pronounced in a foreign tongue. The moment itself may be disguised as something else: admiration, pity, office camaraderie, shared danger, a common sense of justice.”
Isn’t this what has happened and happens to so many of us?
And finally, the title story, ‘Pulse’. What can I write about it? A husband who is losing his sense of smell, a wife who gets clumsier by the day and a son who is unable to form lasting relationships. The son’s affinity and attachment to his parents are total and mostly unequivocal. Is it why he is unable to sustain his attention with anyone? Is it because his ideal is so perfect that he loses his life in his pursuit of a similar life? If so, does children of such parents always have bad marriages? As for the husband and wife, their closeness to each other is so subtle. It is so heartrendingly described in the son’s words as he come to know that his mother doesn’t have too many days to live.
“I kept thinking: Mum’s dying, but Dad’s losing her”
There’s only one word I can use to describe his stories, ‘Brilliant!’ The sheer elegance of his language has to be read by yourself, it can never be described by another.
I have fallen head over heels in love, again!
Verdict – Go, read it! At least the stories in Part Two
4/5 (5/5 for Part Two and ‘Marriage Lines’)