Tuesday 22 June 2010

'an ordinary miracle'

Staring At The Sun
by Julian Barnes

I don't know what kept me from reading Julian Barnes for so long. I think I was put off by titles like Flaubert's Parrot which made him seem like a poncey intellectual writer and even by the way he looked, slightly haughty (we have a children's book at home which displays various faces: happy, sad, angry, cheeky - there is one called snooty which isn't a million miles away), an absurd prejudice which isn't so much judging a book by its cover but by its author photograph. Arthur and George changed all that, a brilliant book that combined intelligence, a gripping plot and beautifully detailed characterisation to make the kind of novel that you just don't want to end. Staring At The Sun was published in 1986, two years after his breakthrough novel Flaubert's Parrot, and found its way into my hands after a friend recalled it being a book that made a big impression twenty odd years ago. Would it still retain that impact today? I can't answer for him because he said he'd read it after I had but here are my thoughts.

The book begins with a startling image as Sergeant-Pilot Thomas Prosser flies a 'poaching' mission over Northern France on a 'calm, black night in June 1941'. Having stayed out longer than he intended he is surprised by the rising sun, whose light suddenly reminds him of the danger he is now in and sends him on a swift descent down to 8,000 feet.

Then something happened. The speed of his descent had driven the sun back below the horizon, and as he looked towards the east he saw it rise again: the same sun coming up from the same place across the same sea. Once more, Prosser put aside his caution and just watched: the orange globe, the yellow bar, the horizon's shelf, the serene air, and the smooth, weightless lift of the sun as it rose from the waves for the second time that morning. It was an ordinary miracle he would never forget.

Nor will we. A startling image, as I said, and one that burns itself, as a glance at the sun will do, through the rest of the book. Prosser isn't our main focus however. Barnes places Jean Serjeant at the centre of the novel and we will follow her life from its idyllic beginnings in the country before the outbreak of war, forward to her old age in 2020. Her childhood sees time often spent with her 'favourite uncle' Leslie, where she frequently acts as his caddie during his slow progress around the golf course, a journey punctuated by regular interruptions: the cigarette smoked from beginning to end without letting the ash drop, the screaming sessions in the woods where they scream at the sky until they collapse exhausted, the Shoelace Game which I won't explain, and the endless questions: Which club to use, why did Lindbergh only eat one and a half of his five sandwiches, why is the mink excessively tenacious of life? At the age of 17 comes the outbreak of war, an event that combines with her age to force along her slow maturation, for Jean is certainly naive.

She hadn't had many suitors, but didn't mind. Suitor was such a silly word that the men who were suitors must be silly too. 'He pressed his suit.' She had heard that phrase somewhere, or read it, and it always struck her that this was what was wrong with suitors. Were they called suitors because they were always pressing their suits? She liked men smart but she didn't like them spivvy...the four men she knew still divided up the same way. Suddenly she picture herself kissing Tommy Prosser, and the thought of his moustache made her shudder: she had practised once on a toothbrush, and it had confirmed her vividest fears. Michael was taller than any of them, and had Prospects of Promotion., a phrase to which her mother always awarded capital letters. He was, Jean admitted, a little shabby beneath his engulfing overcoat, but after the war she could smarten him up. That was what women did in marriage, wasn't it? They rescued men from their failings and vices. Yes, she thought, smiling: I shall press his suit.

Prosser has been billeted in her house and their conversations about flying, Courage, Bravery, Fear and the incident that opened the book provide the novel with many of its major themes. Michael is a local policeman and the man who will become her husband. Much of Barnes' surprising humour comes in Jean's swift sexual education, something she approaches with dread, her only experience coming from a manual for young couples passed on by 'one of the brisker, more modern wives of the village.'There is great fun to be had with the confusing jargon that serves only to confuse Jean further.

The word turgid kept appearing, as did crisis; she didn't like the sound of those two. Enlarged and stiffened, she read; lubricated by mucus; turgid again; soft, small and drooping (ugh)...She was astonished by how often the word sex seemed to be married to some other word: sex-attraction, sex-ignorance, sex-tide, sex-life, sex-function. Lots of hyphens everywhere. Sex-hyphens, she thought.

As marriage and her obligations come nearer she finds she can't help but think of his penis 'the thing that would join their bodies together - the sex hyphen.' and she begins to find the whole thing funny, only to be informed on one of many excruciatingly embarrassing trips to the doctor - 'Funny, my girl, is the one thing it is not.' Her marriage to Michael, their honeymoon and early years of marriage are sensitively handled by Barnes providing humour and pathos in equal measure ('When she thought of Michael and sex she imagined an overfilling water tank which occasionally had to be drained; it didn't have to be done too often, it wasn't exactly a nuisance, it was just part of running the house.'), and achieving more for my money in a few pages than McEwan did with the whole of On Chesil Beach.

Back to those themes though. Jean's inquisitive streak gets the most out of Prosser, questioning him about flying and trying to understand what event might have changed him from 'brave Hurricane pilot' to 'grounded, ratty and frightened'. There is no major incident, Prosser only knows what it was the first time after it happened the second time, a slow accumulation of incident and feeling that has left him 'twice burnt' and possibly finished. He knows what it means to be 'windy' and the danger and humiliation that come with it. It isn't too much of a strain to link Jean's own fears about adult life with Prosser's and through the book Barnes examines what bravery means in the pursuit of our own ideals and passions. Having done this subtly at first it gets a bit heavy-handed in the middle, just the sheer repetition of the word brave(ry) begins to feel clumsy after a while; but for a woman like Jean living in the time she does, we know that it will take just that to make a more fulfilling life for herself.

The real shock comes with the third section of the book where we join Jean in the future and find Barnes in surprising speculative-fiction mode. An ageing population, legalised euthanasia, fundrugs, Old People Suicides, The General Purposes Computer. You know you're in the future when the capital letters start to come out. The problem with a lot of this is of course that it feels dated; the GPC for example isn't much more than a search engine, an attempt to collect together the sum of human knowledge in a searchable database. One of its functions, TAT (The Absolute Truth) even feels very close to something that featured in Doctor Who recently. Perhaps it isn't fair to accuse a 25-year-old book of feeling dated but I'm sure no-one would level the same criticism at Blade Runner (1982), or rather Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968). The introduction of suicide as a theme also seems a little odd until Barnes manages to link it together with the other elements of the book. This after all is an examination of a life lived, 'How do you tell a good life from a bad life, a wasted life?', and what can you do when the answers to that and other questions don't go the way you thought they would? It is the bolder elements of this novel that raised my eyebrows when reading but which have kept me thinking after finishing it. Perhaps most importantly it has forced me to reassess an author I had never really given a fair chance previously. Any suggestions for what I might read of his next would be gratefully received.


Max Cairnduff 22 June 2010 at 14:38  

I've certainly enjoyed Julian Barnes' in the past, he can be a very good writer.

Not sure about this one. The SF element puts me off. I'm fine with SF, but I prefer it handled by those with an aptitude for it, I can't see it as something Barnes would have a strength for.

He's a good short story writer by the way. There's a marvellous one about an academic on a ship captured by terrorists who is forced under threat to explain to the other hostages the need to make an example of some of them. It's powerful stuff and challenging too.

William Rycroft 23 June 2010 at 00:05  

Thanks Max for the tip. Any idea what the name of that short story is or what collection it can be found in?

The SF element is the strangest thing about this book and the weakest part too I think. He's on much steadier ground with the comedy of sexual naiveté and the wonder of flight.

Max Cairnduff 13 July 2010 at 14:59  

It's The Visitors, and it's in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

He also wrote some actually rather good crime novels under the name Dan Kavanagh. I rather wish he'd go back to them actually, but perhaps he has nothing more to say on the subject in which case it's probably best he doesn't. Still, they're often unjustly overlooked.

William Rycroft 14 July 2010 at 12:32  

Ah yes, somebody else recommended that one to me, I shall have to search it out.

There's a bit of a debate (again) about whether crime novels, and SF for that matter, should be included in the running for literary prizes like the Booker - on the Booker forum.

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