So, you are so worried that the KGB will come calling one night that you can't sleep. And because you can't sleep, neither can your wife. So you pack a small suitcase with a change of underwear, pyjamas and some cigarettes. Then you stand on the landing, by the lift, waiting... And thinking.
An involving account of what it might have been like for an artist to live under Soviet rule. Was Shostakovich a coward as he thought? Or just a survivor?
Whatever; this is an involving book. Highly recommended.
Once upon a time, when he was only moderately famous, Julian Barnes wrote a column for The Guardian called The Pedant In The Kitchen. The idea was that a “Late Onset Cook” would slavishly adhere to recipes and run aghast at the idea of improvisation in the kitchen. This book bring together those columns into a single (very) slim volume padded with pictures.
The concept appealed to me – I am an enthusiastic cook and would happily spend a day following recipes of some considerable complication. I do so to the letter; I see cooking as a co-production between myself as the technician and the writer as the conceptualiser. I think there’s a dose of art on both parts, but I know I will never be able to generate my own culinary ideas.
It was therefore reassuring to find Julian Barnes to be a soulmate. He has an obvious care and passion to put out the best food he possibly can. He too will adopts one or two recipes in a book whilst leaving many untested for no obvious reason. And he shares my frustration at imprecise wording or processes that are logistically impossible (such as the instruction to cook pork chops and halved endives face down in the same pan at the same time). It was even more heartening to find it all written with a delightful, self-deprecating humour. Julian Barnes’s recipe books are very much of his generation – Sophie Grigson and Elizabeth David rather than the names that fill my shelves – and he spends rather longer talking about soufflés than he might. What even is a soufflé? .
However, the columns run out of steam. After the initial rantings against specific recipes and specific writers, we depart into name dropping where Barnes discusses recipes with the various celebrity chefs, even eats at their homes. Then, in a futile attempt to breathe life into the series, Barnes falls back on cookery as discussed in literature. The series ends with a sort of whimper as Barnes tells us he’d rather be in his kitchen, trying out something new. By this point, so too are his readers.
The Pedant In The Kitchen is worth reading, is funny and is very human. The home cook will see himself or herself in at least some of the descriptions. The work will not take long to read, may not leave a deep impression, but will offer reassurance that what we try in the kitchen is OK. It’s OK to muff things up. It’s OK to buy stuff in. The only way to fail would be to stop trying.
Levels of Life is an unusual thing. It is not a novel; not a biography and not a memoir. The closest it probably comes to classification is a long essay, bound in its own hardback cover.
The subject matter: grief. Julian Barnes's grief.
We start out with a couple of rather dull stories about ballooning. The central conceit is that sometimes, when two things come together the world is changed. The first story is a mini-history of ballooning, ending when ballooning and photography come together to create something new.
The second story is a sort of love story between the French actress Sara Bernhardt and an English balloonist, Frederick Burnaby. It doesn't quite work out.
The third, longest section, is Barnes's outpouring of grief about the death of his wife. He expresses the intensity of loss, and also the undiminishing nature of the loss. He appears to take a swipe at others who experience grief in a lesser form - perhaps they simply did not love their lost ones as much as Barnes loved his wife. As he keeps reminding us, he is uxorious. Similarly, he swipes at those who grieve publicly in outpourings of tears - perhaps they are less dignified than Barnes.
Julian Barnes does convey his grief and despair in a most effective way. However, by opening a window onto his soul, one inevitably passes judgement on the soul. The result is not favourable. Barnes criticises the reactions of his friends as though they are unfeeling. They might avoid mentioning his wife's death at all, or perhaps use the wrong words, or perhaps seek to console. Nothing is quite good enough for Barnes. This may be his point, that there simply are no words that could work. But it makes him look churlish and miserable. And it's not as though his past works suggest he was a laughing boy before his wife died - The Lemon Table was a lengthy whinge about the injustice of ageing.
This reader, at least, was left wondering why Julian Barnes felt that the world had to know the extent of his grief. Were we supposed to think he was a man of unusual delicacy? Were we supposed to be impressed by the extent of his love and the length of his devotion? Were we meant to feel pity? Were we meant to wonder how he had managed to write something as impressive as Sense Of An Ending in such terrible circumstances? And on that subject, Barnes mentions a friend of his who was given a Damehood long after her partner had died - with the result that she felt she wasn't fully a dame because her partner didn't know about it. By extension, we are presumably to infer that Barnes does not feel himself to be fully a Booker Prize winner...
The sadness is that this reader was left rather cold, rather uninterested (see, Julian, I used the right word!). A man who appeared petty and humourless was unhappy. Big deal. Remind me precisely why I should have paid $15 to discover that.
As an essay goes, there are occasional attempts to cross-refer between the ballooning and the death of his wife, but they feel rather stretched. The first sections feel like padding to justify the sale of what would otherwise have been a 50 page vanity piece.
Others may get something from this, and fair play to them. There is good writing in the text and there is no doubt that Julian Barnes suffered for its creation. But it didn't feel like enough to justify the claim on readers' time.
Like Anthony Webster, the narrator of The Sense Of An Ending, I "just don't get it".
This short novel starts well enough, if unremarkably, with an account of friendships in the last days of school and early days of university. There is a sense of loss when childhood friendships drift apart as new, adult lives begin. The tone is fairly melancholy, as is Julian Barnes's wont and [whisper it quietly] can be quite dull, as is also his wont. But no matter, Anthony is supposed to be boring so it's simply being narrated in character.
But it is the second half of the novel which doesn't work - at least for this reader. The ghosts of those earlier days come back to haunt Anthony and offer loose ends that he cannot resist pulling at. This leads to a growing sense of unease at where it is all leading. The trouble is, the final reveal doesn't make sense. The earlier actions just don't lead to the conclusion and seem pretty inexplicable.
For my money, pages 144-150 unravel all the promising good work of earlier pages. If the novel had been left at that point, the reader could have drawn his or her own conclusions about what had really happened; on how reliable the narrator was. There was an alternative ending which would have been much more cataclysmic; which might have justified the accusation that Anthony "just didn't get it"; which might have explained events rather better. But the last six pages seem to offer a certainty that the novel could well have lived without.
Most of all, though, there's a sense that Julian Barnes has been here before. The Lemon Table, his lamentable 2004 collection, featured a series of stories about aging, death, loss and regret. It was quite stifling with its relentless misery. The Sense Of An Ending feels like the one that got away - the story that belongs in that collection but was just too long to squeeze in. Moreover, melancholy, loss and regret have been done this year with rather more élan by Graham Swift in Wish You Were Here.
So, ironic as it sounds, this short, 150 page novel feels a bit too long and a bit too contrived.
I know bgo prefers people to post reviews rather than link to blogs but am not sure what policy is regards articles elsewhere that are copyrighted so that it's not possible to copy and paste the review here. I will post a link to my review in The Independent on Sunday of Julian Barnes's new collection of short stories, Pulse, and if it's against bgo rules someone can let me know and I'll remove it.